My guest on this week’s episode of the Net Promoter System podcast is a battle-tested leader. General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and head of the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, joins me for a two-part interview. (Listen to Part 2 here.) In our discussion, he describes how he forged trust among the military’s most elite and skilled fighting units. He had to overcome huge cultural barriers because each of these groups had formed strong bonds within, but acted as rivals competing for glory, failing to share information, and casting as-persions on the others.
Today, he provides civilian executives with the lessons he learned about knitting together competing groups. As a cofounder of the McChrystal Group, he offers battle-tested advice to leaders in the business world.
His transition into a working world where no one wears their rank on a lapel and where the word "sir" is seldom heard was not always smooth. In fact, McChrystal told me that after 34 years in the military, he used to have a somewhat dim view of business leaders: “I thought that they would cut their mothers’ legs out from under them to make another dollar profit,” he told me. But it’s precisely this outsider view that gave him the perspective he needed to look at the business and the military worlds with fresh eyes. He sees the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and what they can learn from one another. It’s that friction between two worlds that produced some startling insights. I have the pleasure of sharing some of them with you in this special episode of the Net Promoter System Podcast.
In the following excerpt, he describes his struggle to build trust among the military’s special units, a struggle that struck me as uncannily similar to the never-ending battle to bridge functional and product-oriented teams.
Stanley McChrystal: I took over command of Joint Special Operations Command, which was functioning as a task force across the Mideast, but with our biggest part of our forces in Iraq starting in 2003, and I had grown up in JSOC and I loved it, but it was a purpose-built counterterrorist organization with some very strong subordinate organizations: Delta Force, Seal Team 6, the Rangers and some others, and what they were were collections of specially selected people who were exquisitely trained. The organization was extremely well-resourced all the time.
So it was elite in concept and it was elite in execution. But it was tribal in nature.
Each of those organizations were very cohesive, very proud, very insular, and so as a consequence they were competitive with anyone outside the organization, a little bit dismissive of anyone that wasn't them, and if you looked at a diagram of the organization, it looked like this incredible team of teams. It looked like this team that would be a dream team, because you got all these capabilities together, but we actually knew that internally the organizations didn't like each other; the Delta Force didn't like the Seals, and the Seals hated Delta Force.
Robert Markey: Why is that, for a minute? That seems crazy.
Stanley McChrystal: Well it does, and sort of internally tribally they used to say "Because they're so different from us," but in reality they were exactly the same, and I think that was the reason. It's because you get this cultural idea that everyone who's me, everybody that's my family, my team, is good. I've got a quote in the book a Seal said, “There's a point at which everyone else sucks.” And what he meant was everybody outside of a certain circle, and because these organizations for security and culturally became somewhat hermetically sealed, we had these separate entities. Now up until 2003, that was okay. The organization was 22 years old and it had been able to do a number of things before, but in each case it had done discrete operations of limited scale that it didn't require the synergy of the organization. So you could take part of the organization and go solve a problem.
You could send the plumber out to solve one thing and come back and everybody thought it was fine, but in Iraq starting in 2003, we had complex problems of a much greater scale than we'd ever seen before. So now to draw the analogy, you don't need a plumber, you need somebody to build an entire house.
And so we went in assuming that we had this synergy, and of course we quickly found out we didn't have it structurally, we didn't have it process-wise and we certainly didn't have it culturally, and yet the first response is to think, “Well, somebody here is either negative person” or you want to assign bad motivations.
They weren't. They were good people trying to do good work. They had just grown up that way and that's what was comfortable and that is what had been incentivized, and so as a consequence, we had these different organizations and when we had to pull them together. It was a painful experience, but one that we all learned a lot from.
Robert Markey: The parallels to functional organizations in companies are striking, if you're listening for them. These elite teams of experts—people who had spent years and years developing a specific set of skills and who knew that they were very good at what they did and who had developed a set of trusting relationships with the people closest to them in those organizations, people they grew up with in those organizations. That sounds a lot like sales teams in many of my clients. It sounds like the IT teams. It sounds like legal or compliance. I mean, these are people who are highly expert at what they do.
They are good and part of the reason they're good is because they are in these groups of experts who learn and grow with each other, challenge each other, sometimes they move across different companies, but in the same circles. And they do seem to develop these odd rivalries with other functional groups.
And I think, one of the things I like about your description of the Seals and the Delta Force is the extreme way that it exhibited itself, which almost lays bare something that is often a little bit more camouflaged or masked in a corporate setting. Does that resonate now that you've been to...?
Stanley McChrystal: Completely. We see it. One of our first clients when we started was a lawn-and-garden company of tremendous success. And the challenge was they had great people doing research and developing, coming up with new products. And then of course they [had] production people and then they had supply chain people and then they had people who had to actually get it to the point of sales, so people could buy it, and then they had salespeople, and there were other complexities as well.
But the problem is the salespeople would be out there saying the product that the customer wants is not what I'm being given to sell. And then they're going because the other people aren't doing their job and they're not communicating. So as a consequence, what you have is this frustration because everybody's working hard. Everybody is trying to take the slack out of their part of the organization, and if everyone else would just do their part, this will all work fine, but in a complex, constantly changing environment, to try to do that you have to be adjusting all the time, and everyone in the organization needs to be acutely aware of what the environment is they’re operating in, and most important what the customer wants and needs.
And so what we found in JSOC was, we were doing raids and things like that against the enemy, but that wasn't the metric of success. The metric of success was what we were doing to the enemy, how we were changing the security environment. And so we had to get people from looking in their narrow area, and saying, “I’m doing my job, get out of my face,” to step up and say, “This is the score on the scoreboard, now. Your batting average is irrelevant. What matters is whether we are winning.”
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Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan and former head of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, explains why leadership is more like gardening than chess.
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