Everyone is a Hero When it is Seventy Degrees and Sunny

The Program is a team of former military officers and special operations warriors that provides transformational leadership training and team building to more than one hundred sixty collegiate and professional athletic teams and corporations across North America. All the teams that we work with experience similar leadership, communication, and accountability challenges, despite having drastically diverse battlefields. A talented athletic team will win games, but if they lack leadership (and equally important, “teammateship”), they will never consistently compete for championships. A corporate team may see short-term financial success because it has a product that currently dominates their industry.  However, just like how an athletic opponent will figure out how to “shut-down,” a talented player, a corporate competitor will eventually figure out a better product or create a cheaper version of it.

A talented athletic team will win games, but if they lack leadership (and equally important, “teammateship”), they will never consistently compete for championships. A corporate team may see short-term financial success because it has a product that currently dominates their industry.  However, just like how an athletic opponent will figure out how to “shut-down,” a talented player, a corporate competitor will eventually figure out a better product or create a cheaper version of it.

Without core values, goals and standards that reinforce those core values, and great leaders and teammates that create a culture of accountability to meet and exceed both, long- term, consistent mission accomplishment will always be untenable. In the military, we all know too well that a failure to meet and exceed, both our individual and team goals and standards, will eventually lead to the death of teammate. In the corporate space, this is not typically the case. More often, it is a teammate’s livelihood that is in jeopardy. However, some corporations compete in industries and on battlefields where their teammate’s lives are at risk every day that they show up to the office. Following is a case study of one of them.

As in most industries, maintaining current customers and resigning new ones, and thereby increasing revenue, is the overarching goal.  The same is true in the energy industry. The ability to provide energy on a consistent basis and most importantly, safely, is the measure of excellence, and the equivalent of competing for a championship in the athletic realm.

The Program’s energy client, although extremely successful financially, had recently experienced multiple near-death incidents that prompted a root-cause analysis. To summarize the findings, many safety precautions had been ignored and standard operating not followed. There were a thousand excuses why, the root- cause analysis determined that there were two reasons: a lack of leadership and zero teammate accountability. Each safety precaution and procedure, had it been first supervised (leadership) or failing that, identified and then corrected by a co-worker (teammateship), could have been easily addressed, and in doing so, eliminated any chance of death or serious bodily harm. Unfortunately, neither occurred.

We Fall Back and Don’t Rise Up

Many organizations with whom we work, promote people to leadership roles that have done exceptional work in their current role within the company, or “in the field.”  This is very similar to making your best player your team captain, just because he or she scored the most points for your team. These employees may have never aspired or considered themselves to be a leader but are now being held accountable (or should be) for the actions of their team. This is a common challenge throughout all types of organizations with whom we are privileged to work. Basically, most organizations promote their best salesman to Director of Sales. Prior to our working with this energy client, they had participated in other leadership training programs, but they were judged to be largely ineffective. All had been classroom-based where a charismatic presenter told a good story and gave best practices to the audience. The participants were taught how to be a great leader. Unfortunately, very little time or effort was spent actually developing their ability to be one.

Everyone is a hero when it is seventy degrees and sunny. Unfortunately, that’s not when you need them. We need great teammates and great team leaders when it’s not. To ensure that we have them in those moments of adversity that we face on a daily basis, we mustn’t stop at simply “teaching” people what to do, we must develop them!

The strictly classroom-based training taught people how to communicate. Unfortunately, this is different than creating the habits of effective communication. Most “leadership development” programs tell people what to do when faced with adversity and give them some options on how to deal with it. This is incredibly different than developing leadership techniques and then creating habits for both the controlled and uncontrolled environments that the leaders in our client’s corporate teams operate in during the completion of their daily duties.

Contrary to popular thought, people do not “rise to the occasion,” in sports, in high risk/reward business scenarios or in their own personal life. Physiologically, in times of stress, rather than “rising to the occasion,” we fall back on our training and the habits that we created during it- good or bad.  When experiential training is conducted in a seemingly uncontrolled environment to simulate the stress that an energy supervisor might face in a storm situation, or a deadly downed-power line repair situation. When a leader has created and developed a habit of effective communication by conducting every job brief the same way every day, the right way, that’s what they will do when under stress, as well.

One Step Further

One of the main techniques we trained our energy partner leaders to use when conducting their job briefings, morning meetings and safety meetings is called the “backbrief.”  This is something that every effective military commander does before they conduct any mission. The plan (often developed by the team leader and key subordinate leaders of the unit) is first briefed to the entire team. The team is then allowed to ask questions. Typically, very few are asked. Then, on most teams, the leader says, “Great, lets go!”  As an effective leader and communicator, we must take it one step further, and we now see our energy partner doing the same.  As soon as the questions from the team are complete, the leader ensures that every member of the team understands the plan by asking his or her own questions back to the team.  These questions are asked to individuals in the briefing that may have a critical role, a junior member or a teammate who may not have been paying very close attention.  In essence, the leader is having the team walk him or her back through the plan. This serves two purposes: first, it ensures that what we perceived we had communicated, was understood by all team members. Additionally, when done consistently, it ensures teammates pay close attention during the leader’s brief and ask any questions as they are aware that they may be called upon at the completion of the brief.

Teammates Hold Each Other Accountable

The elite teams that we have all been a part of are made up of two kinds of people. As discussed, in addition to great leaders, we also need great teammates. Many employees believe that being a great teammate is akin to “doing their job.” The majority of society thinks if a team member shows up on time, does their work, follows the rules, and performs when asked to perform, they are a great teammate and should be compensated and promoted consistently because of it.  The Program disagrees. Doing your job makes you a good employee. Not a great teammate.

We start by calling each other teammates, not co-workers or fellow employees. Words are powerful, and the way we refer to each other shapes the way we treat each other. A great teammate consistently meets and exceeds the standards of the organization of which they are privileged to be a part. Then, they hold their teammates accountable to doing so too.

Great teammates must first meet the standards of the organization by showing up on time, doing their work, following the rules, and performing. Doing so ensures their own personal success. A great teammate though also ensures the team’s success. In order to do so, that employee must also demand and help their teammates to meet and exceed those same high standards. This is called accountability, and it may be second only to leadership in difficulty. It is what also makes us great teammates.

Why is it so difficult or uncomfortable to hold each other accountable? There are numerous reasons, but one of the main factors is our desire to be well liked. We fear the reaction we may get from their teammate when holding them accountable, even if it is to potentially save their life. We fear personal confrontation. It causes us discomfort.

We all want to be good friends with our co- workers and that is great… except when our desire to be “good friends” is greater than our desire to be great teammates. Never forget that “you go to the movies with good friends. You go to battle with great teammates.” Great teammates hold each other accountable. In doing so, we help to develop the best versions of each other. Our desire to help our teammate become the best version of themselves is more important than any desire to be well- liked, to be a good friend. Further, our teammate becoming the best version of themselves is more important than any feeling of personal discomfort we may feel while ensuring it. As we teach and then prove throughout our training, a team that holds each other accountable is a team that truly cares about each other. A team who doesn’t is simply a team that has signs in their lobby telling each other that they are a “family.”

The results we are observing from our teaching and developing more effective communication and greater accountability are still manifesting themselves into our client’s culture, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.  Throughout the entire company, at every level, the “backbrief” has become an integral part of daily communications in all types of meetings conducted within our energy partners’ area of operations. This will eventually lead to a culture where there is no other way to communicate. We even have one specific incident reported where one of our energy teammates conducted a backbrief in the evening with his son in preparation for school the next day. The mother was reported to have been “thrilled that he took care of business this morning without her help or reminders.”

Individuals can do well in life, but great teams compete for championships on whatever their chosen battlefield. Great teams are comprised of great team leaders and great teammates. Our energy partner’s team members ability to do their job allows them to provide energy. Their ability to be great team leaders and great teammates allows them to do so consistently and safely. It is saving lives.

Moving Forward

Holding our teammates accountable is challenging and there will be push- back initially when creating a culture of accountability.  In one example, as energy supervisor stated, “I addressed a situation with a subordinate who reports to me. It was not comfortable to call him out on issues he’s been having, but it needed to be done.  He wasn’t really happy with me after the closed- door session, but I stood my ground and clearly explained my expectations moving forward.” If we continue to hold our teammates to a high standard, we will start to receive less pushback; it will be expected, and our culture will change to that of a company that truly cares about each other and will not hesitate to say something when the situation demands it. Further, as we constantly remind our energy partner (and all our clients), accountability need not be negative.

As leaders and teammates, we must hold our teammates accountable when they are meeting the standard. Yes, highlight behaviors that are unacceptable to mission accomplishment, but ensure that we also reinforce those behaviors that are vital to it!