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Lessons Learned in the Army: Develop Leaders Three Levels Down

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Within my first six years in the U.S. Army, I had been a member of four different battalions (around 700 soldiers organized into four sub units), been a member of two combat arms branches, evaluated leaders from six different battalions, and been across the world and the United States.

Military training had taught me that the commander, the senior officer in charge of a military organization, was the most important person to look at to judge and to evaluate the quality of a unit. However, even my limited experience had taught me that the real strength of an organization is three to four levels from the top.

Junior leaders in any organization make an organization great or lead to its eventual downfall.

The breadth of experience so early in my military career taught me to look deep into an organization when evaluating how good it was. Of course, being wrong several times also helped me appreciate the strength of leaders three to four levels from the top as the real sources of strength in an organization.

During one of my first evaluations of another military unit in Korea, I was sure that the organization I was evaluating was a dud. The senior commander was bookish, not very fit, and not Ranger-qualified, a sin for a Combat Arms officer in the U.S. Army. Ranger School was, and is, that nine-week U.S. Army school where you sleep less than two hours a night and most soldiers lose 20-25 pounds. Combat veterans frequently state that Ranger School was harder than combat. 

As I evaluated my unit, three levels below the commander, they were far from awful; they were awesome. They maintained their equipment, had good standard procedures, were excellent marksman, planned well, and took care of each other. So, even though Army training stated the commander was the most important person, it was the leaders three to four levels below him that made the organization a success.

This example, reinforced everywhere I went, convinced me that the only way to develop a great organization was to build, maintain and continuously develop junior leaders. These lessons are incredibly valuable for business as it seeks to simultaneously improve product quality, reduce costs, grow and offer a better customer experience.

Corporate Lesson No. 1 – Scrap Your Traditional Leadership Development Programs.

Companies love their leadership development programs because it gives them a recruiting tool they can vocalize. Companies need to scrap, throw away and cancel these traditional leadership development programs because they do not create the leaders that companies need. Instead, companies need to use coaching, distance learning and special projects to improve vast numbers of leaders at the same level.

Companies must abandon the great leader concept and embrace the great leaders concept. Developing a large base of junior leaders is how companies find and maintain success.

Corporate Lesson No. 2 – Set Up A Low-Level Job Rotation Program to Grow Knowledge.

Too often, a company finds a great junior employee and holds that employee in his or her current position for years longer than it should. A great addition to a large lower-level leadership program is to create and enforce the use of a lower-level leader rotational program to distribute experience, while teaching new skills, leadership aptitude and greater knowledge of the company.

Rotational programs that last six to nine months are an excellent way to develop new leaders, distribute best practices and build retention in proficient junior leaders by giving them new skills.

Corporate Lesson No. 3 – Create Innovation Programs from the Bottom Up.

Some companies believe that the best innovation comes from the bottom, where those closest to customers, operations, problems or the influence of competitors are working.

Companies need to have a formal, web and mobile-enabled, and structured innovation program to feed new ideas, develop the new ideas, vote on their development and then put them into pilot programs followed by full implementation if they are successful. Making junior leaders responsible for innovating new ideas at their current level prepares to make them great future leaders at higher levels of the organization.

Corporate Lesson No. 4 – Reward Initiative and Great Customer Experience.

Giving junior leaders and junior teams the right, the attitude, and the belief that they can and should act independently and act with initiative to identify and solve company and customer problems develops the most important skill sets for junior leaders.

I can teach someone Excel, data analytics and business statistics with relative ease. I cannot teach someone initiative, nor can I teach someone to care about customers. Business skill sets can be taught later in a career.

Business beliefs in initiative, in the value of customers and in the value of others cannot be taught in the future. Initiative towards solving problems and delivering great customer experience is what companies need in junior leaders.

Set about to build a great company. At every level, look past the CEO, CMO and CFO to the managers and team leaders that truly execute the company strategy and build the company culture of excellence. Look to the future to set your path ahead and then look down three levels to build a great team of junior leaders.

Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with more than 20 years of active and reserve service in many units, serving in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea and at home. He is also an adjunct lecturer of marketing at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of two books: "Combat Leader to Corporate Leader" and "Battlefield to Business Success." He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.