Building Your Foundation

Since we last talked, I’ve taken on a new role teaching and training a university cohort of about 125 students, freshman through senior, who are learning the fundamentals of leadership, communication, and decision-making. I’m also lucky enough to teach courses in history, team-building, and military doctrine. While the hours have been long and days unpredictable, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity. No amount of thought experimentation would have prepared me for the impact my fellow instructors and I can have on these students—young adults all living in, arguably, their most formative period as they develop their skills and motivations as self-sufficient leaders. Beyond what I hope to do for my students, my new role also affords me fresh perspective on what it means to “teach” … and the distinction between teaching and training.

If you’re new to this site or to me, I encourage you to read my first post that explains what we do and our governing philosophy. The Teach-Train-Lead™ model is predicated on the notion that you must establish a foundation, through high investment-low return education, from which to build adaptive, challenging training that prepares and enables independent action. That foundation must be normative; that is to say, you have to start somewhere—a place grounded in a sense of what should be, where that sense may be tested via rigorous inquiry, to ensure the standards continually improve and reflect the best the organization has to offer. So you may ask, aren’t “teaching” and “training” the same thing? The answer is an emphatic no.

We’re going to dig into teaching over the next few weeks … what it looks like, and why this early phase is critical for any organization’s success. For today, we’ll start with two elements I argue are key to any teaching environment.

The first element is a guiding assumption, an approach that presumes you as teacher expend the majority of effort while your students do little more than ask questions (assuming you’ve set the correct tone). This is the high investment-low return assumption—the idea that before you can present then assess the skills your team needs to move the organization forward, you must impart to them the ideals your organization holds most dear. Remember when we talked about lasting vision? This is where your team’s education begins, with the vision you have set. A vision that is properly developed then shared through the education of new members provides a backdrop for everything that follows. This is the time to present the organization’s core values—those principles of behavior that are non-negotiable. Each of the military services has a set of core values—expectations meant to transcend every conflict, every operating environment, every change in senior leadership. An education that starts with vision and core values, without an expectation of return from the learner, inaugurates a firm standard in each person. The more effort we put into that presentation, the more effort we put into each student’s engagement with those ideas, the more likely we are to build a team that is well-rooted in those standards, and therefore, prepared to take on new skills and responsibilities with a high level of motivation and mutual trust.

As for the second element … it’s not enough to come prepared with your vision and values, to present it all in a well-packaged lecture. You must empathize and communicate. We fail often at this, across industries. Especially when we’re certain of how ‘good’ our system is. A self-assured outlook on our vision and values coupled with a lack of empathic communication drives us to one-way conversations—where we present principles of behavior without soliciting engagement in the opposite direction. Allowing our students to ask questions, and more importantly, ask why the vision is what it is … and why those values are what they are … then allows them to apply their own perspective to each idea, which better equips them to internalize those principles for themselves, which in turn makes it more likely they’ll stick to them when confronted by the real world. We must also be willing to meet students at their starting point and take the time to understand where they come from, how they ended up in your organization, and what their intended role is. By definition, those answers will result in a unique combination that will force you to adapt your approach to each person. As you adapt, you’ll create different examples and meter your delivery in a way that seeks each individual’s comprehension. And each person walking away understanding what the team is about and what part they play … that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Okay, so you may not have signed up for a post that’s heavy on philosophy and light on how-to or “practical” examples. But before you turn away, hear me out. In order to take on the challenge of leading a team, or opening a business and building a team from scratch, you should take some time to sit back and think about why you’re doing it and where you’re trying to go. Then take some more time and think about how you’re going to get there. Putting mental energy toward these questions sets you up for when the going gets tough and its difficult to keep pushing, whether for fatigue or heavy workload. If you haven’t thought through these ideas and built a program based upon them, you won’t be consistent in how you treat new team members and no two onboarding experiences will be the same. If you’re inconsistent for folks at the start, how well do you think you’ll keep the team together after a couple years navigating the ebbs and flows of today’s operating environment?

In my next post, I’ll share what I learned when I was responsible to onboard every new person in my unit. While we were focused on cultivating in each of them the same high standard of performance and familial attitude, I found over time that often I had to overcome a distinctly negative bias in many of them, a bias perpetuated by older generations of operators and trainers who had grown up differently. And who were wholly outside my span of control.

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