It’s difficult to find a pejorative that doesn’t apply to 2020. Some of the less explicit ones revolve around the wholly unpredictable nature of what the year’s thrown our way. Words like “unprecedented” and “unbelievable” have been tossed around quite a bit — and with good reason. And while we can all agree that this year has been tough, most of us haven’t been able to do what we’ve really wanted: shrug our shoulders and curl up under a blanket until January 1st. This is especially true for the leaders of our organizations, teams, and companies. When you’re responsible for a team and accountable for its results, you have to find ways to adapt to the environment regardless of how challenging it is. The unacceptable alternative is quitting. The natural instinct for leaders is to try and do more, focus on more, be more places, work more hours, moremoremore…
However, I’ve learned that when we experience massive changes or disruptions to our expected operating environments — when things really hit the proverbial fan — we serve our teams best by streamlining our goals and narrowing our objectives.
On January 7th I deployed as the commanding officer of a Navy jet squadron. We spent the preceding months working through all manner of tasks to include staffing, budget management, training, and safety. We invested considerable time rehearsing missions for the environments we thought (and were told) we’d be operating in — the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. This included purchasing extreme cold weather gear for our personnel who worked in the unforgiving cold of an open-air carrier flight deck. We studied lessons from years past so we’d know how to fly and fix our complex aircraft in extremely harsh conditions. Looking back, I can confidently say we were ready. But then it all began to change — from the very first day.
The day we arrived onboard the carrier, we learned we were no longer headed for the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Instead of visiting ports in England, Norway, Belgium, and eventually the Mediterranean, we would make a beeline for the Middle East. No stops, no ports, no rest, and certainly no cold weather. All our parkas and long underwear now had no purpose — they merely took up valuable storage space. But, Naval Aviation is nothing if not flexible. What none of us could have anticipated was how the coming pandemic would test that flexibility.
In time, the coronavirus blanketed the globe, and in order to keep our ship and our personnel “clean,” we remained at sea for more than 200 consecutive days — the entire deployment. For the uninitiated, when a Navy ship deploys, it almost always makes several planned visits to foreign ports. These stops serve several purposes. They provide much needed downtime for the crew. Allowing Sailors to get off their 1000-foot-long steel home for a few days goes a long way toward keeping their energy and morale up. Strategically, these visits strengthen diplomatic relationships between the US and its allies. The economic impact of 5,000 spend-happy Americans on small port cities is substantial. And, the four or five days a ship spends in port gives the crew time to rest and repair tired equipment. All this to say, port visits serve many important purposes, but due to pandemic concerns we wouldn’t have any.
As one of the senior leaders on the ship, my concerns quickly shifted from, “will we be ready for war?” to, “how am I going to keep my team engaged, motivated, and safe without any of the rest and enjoyable perks that come with an overseas deployment?” It didn’t take long for the strain to show itself.
As family members at home began to test positive for the virus, and as the “real world” around us began to shut down, my Sailors began to exhibit clear signs of anxiety, stress, and worry that typically don’t come until the later stages of a deployment. Our mail delivery slowed considerably as transport aircraft were repurposed to support global pandemic response efforts. This didn’t just affect personal mail (another huge morale booster); the normal supply stream of critical ship and aircraft components also slowed dramatically. Our regular rendezvouses with resupply ships slowed, meaning our food supply suffered. Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced was the complete stop of inbound personnel. Typically, deployed commands continue rotating personnel in and out. Old personnel transfer off the ship and catch a flight back to the States; new personnel make the opposite journey. Due to the measures put in place to keep us “clean,” we were not authorized to bring any new personnel aboard; however, we continued to transfer existing personnel out. My team was dwindling, but I still needed to be able to execute major combat operations at a moment’s notice.
Up to now, this story has been very “Navy-centric,” but if we take a closer look, I don’t think it’s all that different from what many CEOs and small business owners alike faced (or are still facing). Many teams have downsized due to faltering bottom lines and associated layoffs. Supply chains have been disrupted and productivity slowed. For the employees and teammates you have been able to keep, much more has been asked, leading to fatigue and burnout. The settings might be as varied as a factory floor, a restaurant, a bank, or an aircraft carrier, but the experiences and challenges are remarkably similar.
So, when the world we know and plan for is shifting around us, and when the challenges pile up and our teammates struggle to stay afloat, what can we — what can you, the leader — do? Often our first instinct is to try new things, institute new policies, hold more meetings, send more emails, maybe even make substantive changes to your organizational vision and leadership philosophy. What I learned was that “more” is not better; in fact, streamlining and simplifying objectives is the most stabilizing approach a leader can take.
Simplifying or narrowing our objectives does not mean throwing in the towel or giving up on being effective and efficient organizations, and it most certainly does not mean sacrificing ethical or safety standards. Instead, it shows our teams that we have a realistic understanding of our new environment. By not burdening them with the unnecessary and counterproductive tasks that seem to creep into our normal days, we demonstrate respect and appreciation for their efforts.
My team had one objective: to win in combat if called upon. This was always our objective, and it remained so despite rapidly changing (and deteriorating) circumstances. As my team dwindled, as our strained supply chain continued to handcuff our productivity, and as individual resiliency waned, I needed to keep the team focused on what mattered most — keeping our aircraft ready for war. I cancelled, postponed, or flat-out ignored countless other “requirements” that didn’t support that objective. We focused on our core competencies, and if a “requirement” didn’t directly relate to flying and fixing jets (or taking care of those who did), we simply didn’t do it. Had I kept their plates loaded with superfluous tasks, I would have jeopardized our ability to accomplish the one that was truly critical.
In contrast, if an organization lacks a clearly stated purpose or suffers from everything-is-a-priority syndrome, it can find itself continuously bouncing between multiple (and competing) lines of effort with greatly diminished returns. In so-called normal times you may have the resources and personnel to simultaneously pursue several disparate goals. But when circumstances change as dramatically as most of ours have this year, the best thing we can do for our teams is reign in some ambition and focus on what matters most. With reduced staffing, reduced materials, and reduced revenue, what is the one thing you need to do to continue moving forward? What is the one thing you can realistically accomplish that will keep the organization afloat until it reaches calmer seas?
Reframing our perspective on what is (and isn’t) achievable also allows us to know, with a high level of confidence, that when we reach those calmer seas, our organization will be ready to resume its normal pace of operations and productivity. With many of my teams operating at 65 to 75 percent staffing, I knew that if I continually asked for more and more, I would wear them out; I wouldn’t be able to count on them if we were called upon to fight. I knew I couldn’t break them in pursuit of unrealistic objectives without irresponsibly risking their long-term viability.
To remain effective and relevant during these challenges, leaders need to take a hard look at the objectives and goals they’ve laid out for their teams and ask themselves some tough questions:
Are you focused on the appropriate metrics?
Are you chasing unadjusted and unrealistic targets?
Are you trying to meet now unachievable timelines and milestones?
Are you paying attention to the struggles of teammates carrying the load of three others?
Are you keeping an eye on how you’ll emerge into more normal times?
When I deployed in January I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what would be asked of me and my team. Almost immediately that changed. The leadership challenges I thought I’d face were dwarfed by the reality the world foisted upon us. And though the setting of this story is fairly unique, the underlying premise is remarkably similar to anyone who’s had the privilege (and challenge) of leading an organization through these trying times.
Much as my deployment eventually ended, the pandemic will end, but have you done the things along the way to ensure both the near-term resiliency and long-term viability of your team when that day comes?
Here’s to a happy, healthy, and normal 2021!
Views expressed are mine alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.