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What a Famous General’s Little Black Book Can Teach Corporate America

By Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Memorial Day is a time set aside for Americans to honor the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in our country’s armed forces. It’s appropriate that we should do this. I have two brothers who each devoted 20+ years to military service (one Air Force and one Navy) and I can attest to the sacrifices that they made, and thousands like them make, on a daily basis for our national defense.

My brothers were among the fortunate. They retired in good health and have gone on to fulfilling second careers. Many others have been less fortunate. Some have come home broken in body or spirit. Others gave the ultimate sacrifice to guarantee our rights and freedoms as American citizens.

Devoting one day a year to remember these heroes, both living and passed, seems the least we can do to honor their service.

Memorial Day also has me thinking about all of the great military leaders that fill the pages of history books. Those of us who are responsible for talent management can take many lessons from them that will help us better serve our own organizations. Here are just a few that strike me as particularly relevant in 2016.

Systematically invest in building the bench

All five branches of our armed forces (including the U.S. Coast Guard) have dedicated institutions to Little Black Bookdevelop leadership talent. These service academies accept young men and women and process them through a rigorous curriculum that includes technical training along with leadership training. If you ask graduates about the priority, they will tell you that first and foremost focus is leadership.

West Point, New London, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs all include leadership courses as part of the curriculum. But more importantly, they provide a systematic and progressive set of experiences that teach young people how to lead: guidance and direction to underclassmen, summer leadership experiences, and mentors and teachers who guide and support their budding leadership skills. Students are also constantly evaluated and given feedback with regard to their leadership and technical proficiency.

But the process really starts much earlier. Each service academy has a rigorous admission selection process to ensure that candidates possess the knowledge, experience, abilities, and personal characteristics needed to succeed.

These institutions were all founded to guarantee that the nation would have a strong supply of “ready now” leaders. Our national defense was deemed too important to leave this leadership bench to chance.

Our armed forces are willing to invest in more than four years of education and development to ensure a strong leadership pipeline. When you compare that investment to what many public and private companies invest, it’s no wonder that only 15 percent of leaders surveyed by DDI indicated that their company had the leadership talent needed to address future challenges (Global Leadership Forecast 2014 | 2015).

Engage in practice and provide effective feedback

Everyone has heard of “war games.” The military has been using this technique to develop leaders for decades. Military men and women spend a lot of time on “maneuvers” out in the field training the way they will fight. If they’re not in the field, they’re in simulators that approximate what goes on out there. Early in my career, I worked for the U.S. Navy as a Research Psychologist and I got to experience the Army’s “sim net”—a network of linked simulators that allowed units from across the country to participate in simulated battles. Leaders were given the opportunity to command real troops in these highly realistic scenarios while being evaluated systematically. Once the “shooting” stopped, the leaders and trainers would go through extensive debriefings to analyze key behaviors (both effective and ineffective) and reinforce effective leadership.

Now, most organizations don’t have the technology available to the military to create simulations, but we can take the essence of this method and use it to develop strong leaders. It only requires that we provide opportunities for young leaders to perform in realistic situations and then give effective and timely feedback. From my experience, the “secret sauce” is the quality and timeliness of the feedback.

And yet, how many organizations take the time to ensure that younger leaders get consistently effective feedback about their leadership skills? This issue surfaces again and again in employee surveys, where it’s rated an improvement need. It’s also interesting to note that “coaching” and “building organizational talent” are among the lowest-rated skills for the leaders represented in DDI’s High Resolution Leadership study (2016). This study reviewed scores from behavioral assessments of more than 15,000 leaders.

Track and accelerate high potential leaders

Most Americans are familiar with Dwight Eisenhower, the General who commanded U.S. forces in Europe during the Second World War and later became the 34th President. But many may not realize that at the outbreak of the war in 1939, he was a mere Lieutenant Colonel. And yet less than three years later, he was wearing three General’s stars and commanding all Allied Forces in Europe. By any standard, that’s a meteoric rise into senior leadership! What accounts for this rapid promotion?

Well, first we have to credit the skills and capabilities of the General, himself. But, that’s not enough.

The backstory relates to the then Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. Throughout his career, Marshall always carried a little black book in which he made personal notes and evaluations of officers. In his position as the commander of the Army’s infantry school at Ft. Benning he observed most of them first-hand, so his book became a sort of de facto Human Resources Information System for the Army!

It was General Marshall who noted Eisenhower’s strong leadership potential. When the situation called for a strong leader with the ability to pull disparate groups together, Marshall knew just whom to call!

And it wasn’t just Eisenhower—Marshall used his little black book to advance other junior officers over the heads of more senior, but less able, leaders both before the war. He used it to pluck high potentials from back-water assignments and place them into roles that would stretch and strain them to accelerate their growth. And once the war started, he placed these leaders in positions of command.

Without his keen eye for potential, and his systematic efforts to accelerate junior officers into positions where they could make a difference, America would have been far less prepared for the war when it came and less able to win it so quickly.

Memorial Day is a time for contemplation

All this begs the question, if the U.S. military can grow leaders, why can’t the private sector?

I think we have to ask ourselves if we’re being systematic about developing leaders. Are we making the necessary investments in time and resources? Are we giving young leaders timely and effective feedback? Are we recognizing potential and placing people in assignments designed to maximize growth?

On this Memorial Day, let’s honor and celebrate the sacrifice of those who have served in America’s armed forces. But let’s also take a lesson from their experience and use it to ensure that our organizations have the leadership talent needed to thrive on today’s competitive business battlefield.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D., is DDI Vice President, Global Consulting & Partnerships

Posted: 24 May, 2016,
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