What can the army teach small business?

Jeff Haden
Business Journalist

Jeff Haden is a bestselling ghostwriter, speaker, Inc. Magazine contributing editor, and LinkedIn Influencer

Jeff Haden
Business Journalist

Jeff Haden is a bestselling ghostwriter, speaker, Inc. Magazine contributing editor, and LinkedIn Influencer

Every small business owner says they want innovative, creative, collaborative, team-oriented employees willing to embrace and pursue a larger purpose.

silhouette of man kitted out in army attire against sky backdrop

Then they say they can’t find those employees.

Maybe they’re looking in the wrong places – and fostering the wrong culture.

Take veterans of the armed forces. I’ve worked with many people who assumed ex-military personnel were “fine if you need someone to blindly follow orders… but otherwise, forget it.” They assume veterans are too regimented, overly concerned with detail and process, decidedly lacking in creativity, and totally unwilling to think outside the box.

That impression is based on a total misunderstanding of how the military operates. While recruit training is designed to indoctrinate and assimilate new soldiers, the ultimate goal of military training is to create leaders at all levels. While you might think your organisation promotes from within, you have nothing on the military: every promotion is from within.

The same is true for graduates of military schools like Royal Military College. Cadets rise through the leadership ranks based on merit, bearing tremendous responsibility for the conduct and performance of their classmates.

And while some of the training in military schools – and the military itself – is skills-based, much of their exercises focus on developing problem-solving expertise, creativity, risk assessment, moral character... all skills and traits in great demand in the business world.

In reality, military personnel:

  • Live and breathe the importance and value of teamwork
  • Embrace the chain of command – but also excel at taking personal responsibility for performance and results
  • Instantly adapt to shifting priorities, changes in focus or direction, and general conditions
  • Have strong analytical and reasoning skills… and know how to make and take responsibility for their decisions

Sound like the culture you want to create for your business?

Here are some traits you can encourage – and benefit from – instilling in your employees and your business:

Foster ownership, not just accountability

Accountability is assigned or given. You can assign accountability. You can instruct an employee to perform a task or even accomplish a goal, but in effect you still own that task or goal: you tell the employee what you want, you tell them how you want it done, and you create metrics to measure success.

That’s accountability – the employee takes responsibility for doing what you want them to do.

Ownership isn’t assigned or given; ownership is taken. You can’t assign ownership; ownership happens when an employee says, “I will make this happen. Here’s what I will do, here’s what I will accomplish, and here’s how I will measure progress.”

The difference? Instead of you saying, “You will,” the employee says, “I will.”

How do you make that happen? Do what the military does: define objectives, set overall parameters, and then let your employees decide how to best accomplish those objectives. Let your employees come up with their own ideas and their own plans. Leave the tactical planning to the “soldiers” on the ground.

We all care much more when something is ours: our ideas, our processes, and our responsibility. We care the most when we feel we are depended on - and given the authority - to make important decisions and do what is right.

To build a great business, create broad standards and guidelines and then challenge your employees by giving them the autonomy and independence to work the way they work best. Allow employees to turn "yours" into "ours" and you transform work into an expression of each person's unique skills, talents, and experiences.

Those are challenges all employees want to tackle – all you have to do is give them the opportunity.

Organise the workday more effectively

The military is primarily mission-based, but not all missions are created equally. Some of your objectives are more important than others – so make sure you structure the workday accordingly.

For example, all of us have the greatest amount of mental energy early in the morning. In a landmark study performed by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., parole board judges were found to be most likely to give a favorable ruling early in the morning. Just before lunch, the odds of a favorable ruling dropped to almost zero.

Should judges' decisions have been affected by factors other than legal? Of course not -- but they were. Why? Over the course of the morning judges got mentally tired and experienced decision fatigue. 

The best time to make tough decisions is early in the day. The best time to do the most important things you need to do is early in the day.

Decide what those things are, and have employees tackle them first thing (that’s good advice for you, too).

Embrace a genuine sense of purpose

Every soldier feels they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Every soldier enjoys the feeling of teamwork and esprit de corps that transforms a group of individuals into a real team.

Every employee does, too – as long as you help make that possible.

Create a mission. Share that mission. Be the walking, talking embodiment of that mission.

Not sure what that mission should be? Start with people.  The missions involve making a real impact on the lives of people: customers, suppliers, and employees.

Share what you hope to achieve for your business, your customers, and possibly your community. And if you can, let your employees create a few missions of their own.

Feeling a true purpose always starts with knowing what to care about and, more important, why to care.

That’s what the military provides its soldiers – and is definitely what you should provide your employees.

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