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.

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.

A Personal Failure of Vision

You should know about the time I failed miserably. Well there are many of those times. But for this week, we’ll focus on one—my New Year’s resolution.

We’re less than a month away from 2019. That means we’re less than a month away from creating a fresh set of New Year’s resolutions. Those elusive goals we create with determination only to forget by the time the snow’s melted and spring flowers bloomed.

If you caught last week’s post, we talked about what vision is, why it matters, and three rules to guide your vision for yourself or your team. But it’s one thing to talk about it … it’s another to think about it in real life. How the three rules apply and where we fall short in real life—that’s where we headed this week.

We often start the new year motivated. This is the year … the year we’ll chase that new job, or spend more time with our spouse and children … live a better life. Yet research suggests we fail to see through 80% of the resolutions we make. Exercise and weight loss are the most popular resolutions made annually, yet the spike in gym memberships in January always precedes a fall through the spring. The effect is so predictable, fitness companies construct their business models around it. Think about it next time you’re at the gym—does it have the capacity for the large January crowd? Or is it so full after the holidays, you’re waiting until things ‘return to normal’? As I think through why so many of our well-intentioned goals are left to die each year (my own included), I can only ask why.

You made your resolutions for a reason, didn’t you? Did losing weight, getting a new job, or spending more time with your family suddenly become less important, less worthwhile? Of course the answer is no! Yet when push came to shove, those resolutions—and many more like them—fell by the wayside as winter gave way to spring and our lives overtook us. Why did we allow distractions to derail our effort? Was it because we didn’t see the value in those ideals? Or was it because we didn’t see an early result, or even the potential for an early result, so we ran out of gas and cut our losses? Let me ask you this … did any of your friends or family know about your resolution? Did that affect the outcome?

So where did I fail? Every year I resolve to exercise more or in a different way, to seek a new fitness goal. I’m a distance runner and have enjoyed foot races since high school. So with a couple marathons under my belt, I resolved to check off a long-time bucket list item—to run an ultramarathon. An “ultra” is any race longer than the 26.2-mile marathon distance. I wasn’t looking at a 50 or 100-miler, ‘merely’ a race that exceeded the 26.2 milestone. I settled on the Dead Horse Ultra 50k. I ran their 30k with a friend in November 2017 and loved the experience, despite a tough course and sub-freezing conditions at the start. So it should’ve been easy—same course, same town, same time of year. Only this time, pay a bit more for the longer distance and get a few more miles in throughout the year. Well, I thought about it every couple weeks. I was running and felt alright through the summer. But every time someone asked about my goals for the year, I’d reply with, “my goal is to run my first ultra …” and the conversation would end. I wouldn’t elaborate—and more importantly—I’d never think about it afterward. On top of that, I never shared the idea or talked through it with anyone close to me—my wife had an inkling. Few friends, even fewer coworkers (okay, none). So what went wrong? Back to those three rules

My goal, like anyone else’s, amounted to a vision of the future I hoped to realize. Was the idea of running an ultramarathon aspirational? I’d argue yes—it’s beyond what I’ve accomplished before and certainly takes effort to accomplish. Was it developed? Now it starts to break down. I knew which race and knew I wanted to “run an ultra”, but what mental energy had I dedicated to the idea beyond that? I never visualized what it would take to train for it, and certainly didn’t put together in my mind the images of me running the race. Without that to start, what could I hold onto as the year progressed and I allowed the rest of life to consume me? Was it shared? My wife knew, like I said, that I wanted to run an ultra. But that’s all I said, nothing tangible to latch onto and with which to hold me accountable. As if I was afraid to think about it. Afraid it would actually happen.

Where’d that last bit come from? Of course I wanted it to happen! But did I? Was I prepared for the training, the travel, the preparation ahead of a 30-mile race that would no doubt tax me physically and mentally? Where I ran the risk of not finishing at all? I don’t think I was. I wasn’t ready for the effort it would take to support the goal, so I prevented myself from working through the idea in my mind and preparing for days on the road and trail, putting in miles and stretching and sleeping and getting ready. How many of your goals—your resolutions—do you drop because you’re afraid of the work you’ll have to put into them? This is why the three rules are vital to the success of any vision you have for yourself or your team’s future.

Aspirations and dreams are powerful, and provide a great foundation for where you want to be a month, year, or five years from now. But they’re nothing without the development needed to support them—what will it take to make that vision a reality? What’s the work involved, what level of effort will I have to expend, what sacrifices might I need to make to enable that vision? These are important questions to answer. Then once you have the answers, SHARE THEM! With your family, friends, coworkers—anyone close to you whom you trust to get behind you and hold you accountable. If it’s worthwhile—if it’s meaningful—then it won’t be easy. The visions we have that mean the most require the most thought and a village of support to achieve. That makes success all the more sweet. Because achieving a lasting vision isn’t about us as individuals. It’s about how much better we can be so we can do better for everyone around us.


Next week we focus on vision in the workplace, and what can happen if you charge hard toward your vision–at the expense of teammates.

Why Lasting Vision?

We’ve spent the last couple weeks talking about the power of vision, both as leaders in a professional environment and as individuals. It’s easy to look at someone like Elon Musk who harbors vivid images of cleanly-fueled cars and affordable space travel and see how such vision drives his daily actions. But what about you and me? For the rest of us trying to figure out where we are in life, and more importantly, where we want to go—how do you develop such a lasting picture in your mind that has the same staying power? Vision is as important at work as it is at home and you must devote real energy to its creation and maintenance. So that’s what we’re going to talk about all month—VISION.

What is “vision”? Does it sound more like something an HR focus group needs to worry about? I’d argue that if you’re making that assumption, it’s because you’ve only been exposed to corporate vision statements that often don’t have much weight behind them—assuming you even know what your company’s is. These statements have all the potential in the world, but without regular communication and much needed context, that potential is lost on you. Your organization probably has a vision statement; you may even know what it is … but could you articulate what role you play in its achievement? If the answer is no, who could blame you for believing such a thing irrelevant to your life? With everything else at home and at work to worry about, the last thing anyone needs is more time spent on a vision statement. But the reality is that these disconnects don’t prove a vision’s lack of utility, only a leader’s inability to translate that vision into meaning that drives team members forward. No matter where you are in the hierarchy, vision should be foremost in your mind—the end state you see for the impact you will have on the world around you. What should you look for in a vision? Here are three rules to consider when crafting a vision or trying to figure out if the one you’ve been provided is viable.

Rule #1: Visions are aspirational. Some would argue there’s no value in goals or objectives if they aren’t “realistic” or “relevant” (if you’ve never heard of the ‘SMART’ goal-setting model, read more here). When developing goals, you’re supposed to ask practical questions—is this the right time, am I qualified to achieve this, does this goal fit in with the others? While I am a believer in realism when we talk about day-to-day actions and incremental steps toward a vision of the future, I have also come to believe strongly that a lasting vision cannot merely be ‘realistic’. It must be aspirational … other-worldly … something that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve without effort. Your vision represents the best case in your mind’s eye, what the new project or the customer’s experience or your life would look like if everything went perfectly. What does the customer’s satisfaction, your team’s loyalty, or your happiness look like? “Receives the product on time”, “we make next quarter’s revenue target”, or “I get a job that pays for this house” … none of those can be enough. They will not be enough. All three might be worthy objectives that can, themselves, be ‘realistic’ to the moment, but none will sustain and motivate the kind of progressive effort necessary for continual improvement and, most critically, personal and professional growth.

Rule #2: Visions are shared. Visions of the future are meaningless … even the personal ones … if they are not shared. For the team at work, it doesn’t help anyone if only the person in charge knows the vision and can see it for themselves. In this case, managers drive their people toward ideals those same team members can’t internalize for themselves, which leads to those same, valuable employees staying with the job simply for the paycheck or benefits. Even if you retain some of them over the long-term, you’ll watch as their motivation drops and their engagement tempers.

Rule #3: Visions are developed. Why do corporate vision statements seem to lose momentum or fail to engage the workforce long-term? They’re not vivid, rich in detail, or easily embodied by the team that’s in place to achieve it. I’m not saying your vision should be page after page of exposition or analysis; one phrase or sentence should be enough to inspire your group. What is often missing is the leader’s description of what that vision looks like in real life. Beyond the vision statement, a lasting vision is an image—or series of images—that represents the ultimate ‘win’. But you can’t conjure it once and call it a day, confident that will be enough to move forward. The vision must be examined, turned over, and filled in. It must be rendered in full color, ready to feed an example for the team when they need a better idea of why they’re doing what they’re doing in the first place. Emphasizing such fidelity in a vision does two things: 1) it makes the aspirational, far-off ideal feel more attainable and therefore enables goal-setting in the near-term and builds motivation; and 2) it enables you as a leader to share the vision with your team—friends, family, coworkers. The more detail they can ‘see’ and ‘feel’, the more likely they can internalize the imagery and take ownership of their own role in its achievement.

So what does all this matter? Why spend the time and energy crafting an aspirational vision, rendered in full color, that you then have to share with the world around you? Because with everything that’s going on around you, distracting you, pulling you in multiple directions … a lasting vision provides a meaningful end for which to strive. An end that drives the daily effort necessary to always be improving, growing, and developing into individuals and organizations that can offer much more to the world around them.


Next week, this month’s series on vision continues with a look at New Year’s resolutions … why we fail at seeing them through and how applying the three rules of vision can enable you to achieve something great in the coming year …