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A Military Perspective on Change Leadership

By Dave Koss|

Modern times, and all of the uncertainty this phrase conjures to mind, has driven many companies to digitize their business models. Accenture reports that 76% of companies are investing in emerging technology. Uber and Amazon are hailed as lighthouses on choppy seas, drawing strength from their data-centric approach at a time when businesses with traditional operating models are struggling to keep afloat. Industry 4.0 has dictated the critical importance of adopting a customer-focused, agile, lean, and resilient business model driven through the use of the vast banks of data afforded through mobile, social, cloud,digital data, and offline sources. But before automation can occur, employees need to be prepared, willing, and ready for the journey ahead.

Change management is a vital factor in getting an organization to realize its future state by rallying the business around a single, unified vision and ensuring that technologies, processes, and strategies are in place to support adoption by the larger workforce. But with only 30% of digital transformation initiatives reaching fruition, what leadership lessons and management insights can be used and applied from outside of the business world?

As you’ll read, learnings from the military offer stark parallels to common transformation challenges through the eyes of its leaders and people.

Dave Koss and the military approach to change management

Dave Koss, 30-year Navy Captain, Topgun Strike Fighter and Blue Angels Pilot, was deployed six times and moved 13 times during his career with the Navy. ‘So I’ve had a fair amount of change in my life,’ Dave comments. ‘During my career, I’ve tried to listen to what my commanding officers communicated. When I was in charge, I tried to really feel out what worked and what didn’t. There’s a resounding truth in whatever industry or organization you work in: you don’t manage change; you lead it. It is a constant that requires stamina and the right mindset to mitigate its effects’.

What are the first steps to apply change management within your organization?

Dave recently took command of a military organization with a clear mandate to prepare personnel to serve as officers in the armed forces. Within the organization, there are three unique groups with varied backgrounds. One is full of previously enlisted Marines with a lot of experience and even combat time, in some cases. This group is going from being enlisted to being an officer, in other words, going from a support to a leadership role. Similarly, the Navy group also has previous experience and has a trajectory that mirrors that of the Marines. And then there are midshipmen who are straight out of high school and earning their commission.

The command’s mission was the same for all three groups: prepare them morally, mentally, and physically to serve as productive citizens and leaders in the armed service. Apply this to an organization’s digital transformation. The requirements at the start of the company’s journey are equally as specific:

  • Prepare employees with a clear vision of their objectives – what does the company aim to do by the end?
  • Prepare them mentally for the task ahead – what can employees and the company expect, in broad terms, from one stage to the next?
  • And gradually transition workers from old to new ways of working and thinking – how can we swap legacy systems and spreadsheets for automation?

Dave observes three fundamental tenets that structure his management style: Leadership, communication, and buy-in. ‘These are critical to effecting change within an organization and assisting external agencies with shifting directions,’ he observes.

Benefit of leadership on change management

It’s no secret. The military’s hierarchical structure is a psychological tool designed to engineer obedience into a soldier’s day-to-day fabric. ‘Having someone in charge is great because it’s basically their show. It takes the onus off you to have to think, but as a result, you lose your independent thought and some of the things that go with it. But on the flip side, having a hierarchy in place allows messages, vision, and purpose to flow down, unobstructed,’ Dave notes.

However, with experience sometimes comes a sense of ego, no matter where you work, which is where hierarchy falters.

Understand the nuances of your organization to speed up change management

In Dave’s military organization, a “one size fits all” approach to a soldier’s development was not ideal, but neither was having them divided. Dave surmises. ‘So three diverse groups were subjected to one model that worked for all of them. However, distinct objections were coming from the Marines, ‘Look, this is crap. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We don’t need your training,’ they’d say.’

Dave laughs as he says, ‘I’m a big fan of getting in one room, sitting down and saying, “Hey guys, let’s have a conversation here,” as opposed to standing behind a podium and saying, “This is the way it will be. Am I clear?”. I made it more of a conversation where everyone felt they could truly express themselves, I could explain myself, and we heard each other and understood each other.’

In a flat hierarchy, autonomy is the value driver that demarcates a progressive, people-centric organization versus an establishment. However, this then means that leaders have to work even harder to ensure that they’re accounting for their teams’ individual differences. In both cases, a clear plan is needed from the offset, and having leaders who understand the organizational structure and the personalities of the people operating within them is paramount.

Dave’s advice on this is clear, ‘If your organizational structure is flat, train, educate and empower everyone involved, and have knowledgeable and competent leaders to give them the direction they need to move forward. If the business is hierarchical, nominate capable leaders who understand the vision and the efforts involved to lead the journey. And if external agencies are involved, make sure there’s a solid understanding from them of where they plug in’.

The importance of a good plan as leadership

‘Plan rigorously to develop a comprehensive strategy and rule out unknowns,’ Dave says, building on his leadership point. ‘Illuminate hurdles by talking to your teams before any roll-out. It’s important to involve them early in the process so they can signpost pitfalls while ensuring that your vision also becomes theirs. And importantly, identify what success looks like. From this, you can create a structured plan to move forward.’

It’s critical to paint a picture that doesn’t just depict a period of transitional unrest but of what victory looks like. Always complement descriptions of the hard work and commitment you need from the team with an aspirational vision to create a continuous loop around the how, when, and why. This initial planning stage is a vital trust-building exercise from which communication and buy-in are born.

‘As you start to use your plan to brief, execute, and debrief (post-game analysis), make sure you’re not accelerating your initiative before it’s ready. Iterative execution is a primary focus,’ Dave emphasizes.

‘Prioritize what is important to the success of the strategy and to the people executing and maintaining the culture during the change—always preserve what makes your company great. And as you move forward, always listen to feedback. Establishing a feedback loop is another great way of predicting internal challenges before they take shape.’

As leadership, talk the talk before you walk the walk

Demanding that an organization follow a new structure, process, or vision is similar to “ordering” the change—an approach commonly used in the military. This approach is an easy way to create unnecessary friction instead of pursuing steps to garner buy-in.

‘Our leadership team did its best to lead the change, communicate the importance and gain buy-in at every opportunity,’ Dave explains. ‘At first, there was resistance, a reluctance to move out of the comfort zone, and a fair amount of pushback due to not understanding the true benefits of the team thinking and acting as one’.

Committed to seeing the training through, Dave and his leadership team stayed on-mission, denying the urge to take the path of less resistance and give in to the vocal majority. ‘By having a well thought out plan, maintaining aligned strategic communications, and inspiring alignment, the organization gelled and operated at a much higher level. The definitive indicator of success came in the form of an internal organizational survey that was unanimous in the feedback that the change greatly improved operational efficiency, training value, and even morale,’ Dave comments.

The lesson for digital transformation leaders is clear: ensure that every member involved knows their role and the objectives while equipping them with the strategy, training, education, and systems they need to do their jobs. This will help them make a calculated and empowered transition towards improvement while keeping morale high.

And for their part, leaders need to make sure they have the expertise, patience, commitment, and awareness of the bigger picture. This includes taking into account internal factors such as company culture, blockers to transformation, individual differences when creating training strategies, and external factors such as market conditions, competitor activity, and customer experience. When compounded, this strategic vision is crucial in safeguarding two of a business’s most valuable assets during the long journey towards digital transformation— employee trust and commitment to the company’s future state.

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About Dave Koss

Dave Koss, 30-year Navy Captain, Topgun Strike Fighter, and Blue Angels Pilot, was deployed six times and moved 13 times during his career with the Navy.

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