We’re All On The Same Team

Juan Ciapessoni, co-founder of strategic branding firm The Electric Factory, wrote in the winter 2018 issue of Success:

Company objectives should reflect something deeper and perpetual than a profit and loss statement. They must define a humanistic, societal role where the goals transcend the needs of employees and the company as a whole. This bands the company in a common cause and creates a unified culture.

What does this have to do lasting vision? Objectives are born out of vision—the elements of your long-term strategy that represent actionable, progressive milestones. If your vision doesn’t evoke deeper meaning, something more than sales figures or quarterly market share, it will prove nearly impossible to develop objectives that motivate and inspire your team. But even with an aspirational vision that’s well-developed and primed to share, we may risk alienating members of our team or others, and sacrificing the “company as a whole” for what we think is right for a smaller group or project. I learned this lesson the hard way, after what was my most formative professional experience.

I was assigned a position directing training for a 90-person Air Force unit (“squadron”). Lucky to land in a dream job, and at the location I’d hoped for, I arrived raring to go as my career field underwent its most comprehensive reorganization and cultural overhaul in decades—it was a once-in-a-career opportunity. With expectations changing daily, I knew the unit instructors and I would field questions we couldn’t answer while crafting a philosophy and adapting processes from the ground up. But I had a vision! A vision of how I wanted the squadron to operate and train, a way to prepare operators from Day One to solve problems we couldn’t think of—I wanted them ready for anything. I thought it made sense, and was lucky to have supportive leadership … it was also driven by growing up in a career field that prided itself on attrition and unreachable standards of perfection. In charging toward this vision, my background would lead me to react in a viscerally negative way reactions to certain ideas or expressions of resistance, all of which fed a perception of elitism and protectionism that undermined the otherwise salvageable parts of our larger organization’s working relationships. And what’s worse—I didn’t see it for far too long.

A couple months after I arrived, my squadron and its three sister squadrons executed a reorganization that placed much of the responsibility for training on section supervisors like me with cadres of five instructors. I was able to select five highly motivated operators as our “initial cadre”; all were respected in the unit and possessed years of experience. I laid out my intent at our first meeting and asked, foremost, for patience and flexibility—we would be changing schedules as we learned what worked and what didn’t, headquarters requirements would adapt and change as the system evolved, and we would attempt through it all to respond to our operators’ feedback so the program could improve and work for them. And I was upfront with the standard of performance—to study, be adaptive, and work independently. Each would execute simulator and classroom-based sessions that changed with each trainee input and were augmented based on stimuli trainees could request only minutes ahead of time.

We pushed the envelope in instructor training, and they pushed the envelope training our operators. We tried to imbue in each operator a steady confidence and willingness to solve problems on their own, make mistakes and learn from them, and identify discrepancies in processes around the larger organization so everyone could get better. We changed the culture for the better, so I thought, and for a while encouraged an openness in communication that improved how we worked together in the field. Our squadron was doing well and operators were taking to the new training slowly. Then an early sign of trouble … a sign I missed, but was clear and present in the moment. We received complaints from other squadrons about some of our senior operators; we were unapproachable and unwilling to answer questions. Unwilling to help. I found it hard to believe but couldn’t ignore the feedback. When I asked some of those operators, I’d often hear something like, “They’re not willing to look it up themselves” or “how can they not know that … they should be their best folks out there”. In pushing hard for a culture of independence and proficiency, we began sowing the seeds of exclusivity.

As passed the first year mark, I remained blind to the adverse impact of our changes. I stayed buried in the management of training and leading our five-person team as it experienced turnover in the four to six-month range. It took about four months to prepare and certify a new instructor in our system, so we often went without a full complement. This exacerbated our already-strained relationships as we’d ask only certain people for help to cover sessions, which itself took time away from each of those instructor’s day jobs. As our operators interacted with support agencies and members from sister squadrons, they wouldn’t hide frustration at perceived slights or what they deemed lacking performance; all of this resulted in adversarial relationships that followed them back to the office and sometimes even off-duty. At my level and above, I failed to demonstrate the validity of our method. My peers in other squadrons were working just as hard and caring for their troops but would question our approach to standards and would hesitate when we presented an idea. Early on, not understanding how controversial my ideas were, I didn’t do enough to slow down and bring others alongside. Two years on, we developed divergent cultures and a team dynamic that hindered even daily tasks. The other squadrons were conditioned to be skeptical of us—especially if we requested help.

I left the job after three years but have been lucky to maintain a relationship with my previous bosses and peers. What sticks with me now is something one of my supervisors told me a couple months after I left, himself still at the unit. “We’re doing alright,” he said, “working hard to mend a lot of the bridges you burned while you were here.” Regardless of the squadron’s growth in that three-year stretch, such an assessment reminds me of all we lost in an approach that put a smaller team and rapid improvement above everyone else. So what does it all mean now?

My biggest regret from that job is failing to include a broader range of teammates in early decisions. I never afforded them a chance to engage and provide input. The more you do that outside your own team, the more everyone feels they’re working toward the same goal. Because we were, as a four-squadron team, but my approach only reinforced constant competition. Healthy competition is beneficial, but there must also be space for constructive debate and deep collaboration.

Progress isn’t worth alienating members of the team. If you’re worried about their input, or are at odds after a decision, that may be a sign that you need to think through it more. Or at least, take some time to understand why some are resistant. Keep emotions at bay and reason through their concerns and questions. They’re not a slight on you as a person or professional, but a signal that the team wants to help you. To get beyond the needs of a few, everyone must be able to band together. As Juan Ciapessoni suggests, this is how you pursue a “common cause”—or a meaningful, lasting vision.

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