Book review: Leaving the military for “The Corner Office”

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Today’s review was suggested by our daughter, who’s discovered an unusual book about civilian leadership. Stick with me for another 1500 words before I explain how it also applies to the military. It’s a great morale-enhancing read when you’re in uniform, not just out of it.

This year she’s deep into college leadership & ethics classes in both NROTC and her civil-engineering major. “The Corner Office” is one of their texts, written by the author of the New York Times “Corner Office” column.  It was published in April 2011 so it’s still making its way into public libraries, but the NYT’s interviews give you a feel for the text.

Adam Bryant interviewed over 70 CEOs on how they run their companies. I’m cynical about executive entitlement, so at first I thought I’d count how many of them have been fired since he went to press. However I was pleasantly surprised by their advice– both successful and “not so much”. I learned what drives a leader (it’s not the money or the power), how to find the new ones (they might seek you out), and how to become one (both on active duty and as a veteran). Bryant’s not really interested in writing about their company’s stock price or how they’re executing on their competitors. Instead he asks the CEOs what they’ve learned and how they lead. He wants to know how they handle common tasks like managing their time, running meetings, and exchanging feedback. He consulted another famous business author for open-ended questions that would intrigue his subjects and keep them babbling talking.

Bryant breaks the book down into three sections for the headers below:

Succeeding

Interestingly, climbing to the corner office doesn’t develop the skills to keep you there. However it gives an insight into the type of person who’s likely to make the climb: intensely curious, bright with a good memory, and able to work well with a team. They’re also confident and almost fearless at trying new ideas– perhaps even when they shouldn’t. However their experiences taught them to “fail quickly”, extract the lessons, and turn their problems into successes. They become known for bringing order (and new opportunities) out of chaos.

CEOs are expected to project a public impression of calm confidence and authority. In private they’re anything but that– they’re enthusiastic about their business but they’re also passionately curious about every aspect of them. They’re not the smartest people in the meeting, but they’re the best students: able to quickly grasp the important aspects of a topic, relentlessly question the assumptions and conclusions, and integrate the task at hand with the big picture. They’re constantly alert, engaged, and trying to make sense of their world. They’ve learned to make failure part of the process of succeeding.

CEO personalities can be extremely annoying to their co-workers and their executive staffs… unless the CEOs have surrounded themselves with staff who are also passionately curious. People who are only there for a paycheck will soon find somewhere else to work– either in another part of the company or out of it. The next generation of executive candidates want more: they’re also passionately curious about their work, and they’re looking for bosses who can help them do what they love. This environment feeds the leadership into a cycle of success and becomes a breeding ground for new leaders.

I don’t know about you guys, but for the first 14 years of my military career I was consumed with passionate curiosity and looking for role models.

Managing

Once they’ve arrived, though, new CEOs find themselves having to change the way they like to work. For many of them, the biggest surprise was their new responsibility– and accountability. The decisions were all theirs, under very public scrutiny, and they missed the comforting “backup” that they had enjoyed at their lower ranks. As CEOs, even their smallest expressions or behaviors were parsed by the rest of the company (and the media) to figure out how business was going or what was next. CEOs found it very distracting (and somewhat unpleasant) at first, but soon adapted and grew into the new role. They had to adapt or they wouldn’t be CEO for very long, let alone interviewed by NYT authors.

That led these CEOs to a new issue: doubt. Now that they were at the top, they were expected to be confident and inspiring while serenely leading their troops through the fray without stumbling. Of course their personal reality was completely different: a lack of confidence, perpetual self-questioning, wondering whether they really had what it would take. They felt tremendous stress over the responsibility of taking care of all the people who depended on the company for their jobs and even their lives. Worst of all, they didn’t feel as if they had anyone to share that stress with. Instead they had to find a new mentor or coach (perhaps a former boss or a spouse) who could help them turn their new problems into a crucible for developing their new skills. The best CEOs never stopped questioning their own confidence, staying humble while trying to keep alert for signs of hubris.

Their next challenge was time management. They couldn’t dive as deeply into projects as they used to, and sometimes they couldn’t even dive into them at all– that was their staff’s job now. Instead the CEOs had to learn how to focus on the “critical tasks”of getting to know the company, finding out what’s really going on outside of their executive HQ, running meetings, coaching their employees, and finding new leaders. They also had to figure out not just “what” decisions to make, but “when”: whether they knew enough to take action, or had time to learn more, or had the necessary resources. Many quickly learned to stay out of the office, handle meetings efficiently with just three or four major items, seek feedback, and encourage dissenting opinions. Unfortunately they also learned to be very productive in airports and on airplanes.

Again, I don’t know about you guys, but I really enjoyed being a watch officer with my hands on the periscope. When I had to turn that periscope over to a bunch of other guys to have all the fun while I was managing a bigger team, my own “fun” began to dwindle…

Leading

The hardest CEO task is explaining the message. Everybody should know how to do their jobs, but how will they apply their skills? That’s your communications challenge. Are you trying to take the war to the enemy with aggressive patrols, are you sitting back and exploiting the enemy’s mistakes, or are you just trying to protect the local population while their own leaders deal with the problem?

CEOs say over and over that they have to stick to a simple message, repeat it endlessly, and be patient when people don’t get it (or don’t believe it). Even worse, the CEO is always “on”: everyone is parsing their facial expressions, their body language, and their appearance. Do they have their “mad face” on today? Do they seem worn out? How are they reacting to the layoff rumors? Sell! No wait, buy!!

CEOs tend to be “Type A” people– driven taskmasters who don’t need much sleep. Yet when they reached the corner office they’d discover that they had to lighten up, back off a little, and let their people do their work without the boss hovering over their shoulder. A few ill-timed queries from the CEO would have everyone rushing about to implement the “new guidance from above”, when all the boss really wanted to do was immerse themselves in a fascinating subject.

Another CEO issue: not only do they not get to do favorite job anymore, but being a “leader” means that they have to let junior guys make their own stupid mistakes. The CEO has to let their young whippersnappers find their own way– and maybe even come up with a better idea. One thoughtless comment from a CEO can derail an entire proposal. They have to learn to keep their mouths shut while others are talking, and let the rest of the group work through the ideas without their advice. But then they can ask open-ended questions that encourage investigation and experimentation.

CEOs learned that leadership frequently meant just clearing a path for their troops. Once they pointed out the big picture and provided the resources, they had to step back and let someone else have all the fun of doing the actual work. They might not even be able to step in with “helpful suggestions” for fear of blunting initiative & morale.

It was no fun giving up the watch-officer jobs and the periscope, but it was tremendously rewarding to watch my shipmates work through their own challenges and go on to bigger things. Decades later I’m still vicariously enjoying their successes.

How does “The Corner Office” apply to servicemembers and veterans?

Next month marks my 10th anniversary of hanging up my uniform. During the 24 years before that I was constantly reminded that I’d never had a “real” job, and that I’d better be ready to start all over again if I wanted to succeed in the civilian world.

Yet reading “The Corner Office” (especially from the perspective of over three decades without a real job of leadership experience) is a pleasant reminder of how clearly these highly successful CEOs are depending on the same skills that we military found in our first leadership training class.

Whenever we leave the military, whether it’s after four years or 30, we don’t have to “start all over again”. We can take our leadership skills, our military experience, and our personal discipline with us. Just as we did at all of our previous commands, we’ll use those tools again while we get our bearings at our new “duty station”. Whether it leads to the corner office or not, most veterans soon discover that they had far more responsibility in the military at a far younger age than their civilian counterparts. It’s a small step from there to start scampering up the corporate ladder.

By the way, if you’re financially independent when you leave the military then you have the luxury of creating your own “duty station”. Today, my personal corner office has a 270-degree view with a fourteen-foot ceiling… and a longboard rack. Before you start your own career climb, make sure you’re building a solid financial foundation.

So what did my daughter glean from the book? Here are her words:

I learned that the best of the best didn’t become so on their own. They asked others for help, and helped others in return; both scenarios taught them more about their business and their work. Together, the scenarios are called “teamwork”; I value teamwork and an office environment that revolves around it. I hate separating cubicle walls, and would rather have a large, open floor filled with all of our desks and drawing boards; a space where we can design and research projects together, bounce ideas off each other, and check each other’s work and help each other improve. While aboard cramped and isolating submarines I worked in a fun environment because I trained and worked right next to my sailors. Rarely did I have to work by myself; when I did I was least efficient and too unoriginal. I value all input; often a group comes up with better ideas than an individual.

I think she’s going to enjoy her own passionate curiosity as long as she can, whether or not it leads to a corner office.

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

7 Comments
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  5. Reply
    Deserat January 24, 2012 at 6:06 AM

    Reminds me of being a commander – you are the only fish in the fishbowl and everyone (I mean *everyone*) is watching and listening. And, your peers or those who have been there become your mentors and confidants. It really changes all of the dynamics.

    I remember a meeting with a 4 star – he knew that one word would end up having his staff scurrying around – he was smart enough to say “I am thinking out loud so don’t go task anyone right now based on what you hear.” Great presence of mind and also a great leader.

    You are right – the same skills are needed – just a different environment for their application.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman January 24, 2012 at 8:56 AM

      Thanks, Jay, see you Friday!

      Deserat, I wish I’d had four-stars like that. I usually got the other kinds of “what if” taskings…

  6. Reply
    Jay January 24, 2012 at 12:28 AM

    Great review! I will see if I can take with me some of the lessons outlined to a Planning Meeting on Friday, especially about listening and letting the group work through ideas.

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