The Chains of Command

“Hello, Mr. Howe. Remember me? Mario Ramirez, Radarman Second.”

Whoa! Had it really been 45 years since I walked down the gangplank of the USS Harry E. Hubbard (DD-748) for the last time and waved goodbye as the old destroyer pulled away from the pier for yet another “cruise” to Vietnam? Indeed it was, and yet the voice hadn’t changed — I’d have recognized Ramirez’ particular South Texas accent even in the middle of Brownsville.

And here he was, in the midst of our shipmates’ reunion in Seattle last month still calling me “Mr. Howe.” Then, as now, the military frowns on familiarity between officers and enlisted men: you can’t be best buddies with people whom you may have to send in harm’s way.

It was occasionally painful, but those 3½ years in the Navy did provide some very useful management lessons. Standing in front of my 20 men — radarmen and electronic technicians — I remember thinking more than once, “What am I doing here? Less than two years out of college, giving orders to well-trained sailors, some of whom have been at this for 12–15 years or more.”

So, 45 years later, I asked Ramirez if he had found it strange taking direction from a “boot” ensign.

“No,” he said. “I knew the chain of command. You were just passing the word down the line from the Captain and the Exec, and my job was to make you look good so that you could make them look good.”

The kid from South Texas had come a long way in a short time since he reported on board the Hubbard.

So had my latest small company recruit, the Finance Director for one of my clients, hired three months ago. She was an exceptional “find,” with an experience base that was a perfect fit for the company’s needs and a can-do attitude that impressed everyone. Her immediate instinct was to make sure that she had a firm handle on the accounting history and could readily provide the details in the event of an audit or a due diligence process. The COO liked that priority; he is heavily into the details.

The CEO, on the other hand, is the consummate strategist. If the COO wanted the FD to know the numbers going backwards, the CEO wanted her to own the numbers going forward — the assumptions, the projections, the budgets, the ROI analysis. All of this was included in his assignment for her during the first ten days on board, and he was pleased with the result — an updated five-year model through which the management team could play out its options and its sensitivity analyses.

The word quickly circulated that the new woman was working miracles — not only keeping both the CEO and the COO happy, but responding to every “money question” that the 40-person office raised, and even finding time to initiate a few of her own. Other members of the management team, recognizing that she was readily absorbing the information stream, began to add to the flow of facts. Then opinions, suggestions, and even strong recommendations created a torrent: “You shouldn’t extend the contract for [the FD’s direct report]. He dropped the ball on something that I requested from him.”

The result, of course, was an often-contradictory cacophony of voices, many with their own unique versions of best practices in areas other than their own. He or she who was most strident got served, while many others ducked for cover. The new FD before long got overwhelmed trying to respond to inputs from so many sources.

Now you, the dedicated denizen of The Bayou, probably think that I’m going back to first principles with this, to recommend the Navy’s singular chain of command as the solution du jour. But no employee today says “Attention on deck” when the CEO walks in or “Aye-aye sir” when taking direction, at least not in small companies. And every manager wants to be empowered as an initiative-taking problem-solver, so you have to cut people some slack once they’ve earned your confidence.

The key is communication. My most effective client CEOs/COOs make sure that everyone is on the same page by:

  1. Meeting with the senior management team. Every week. Same time, same place. All senior managers attend, by phone as a last resort.
  1. Designating a note-taker and circulating the results. Being careful in their selection — the notes become the institutional memory.
  1. Keeping the agenda simple. In addition to each manager’s regular responsibilities, focusing on the four or five projects that he or she is working on that will make a significant contribution to the Company’s goals.
  1. Dealing with more complex issues off-line in ad-hoc meetings, thus involving only those whose insight and experience will add value to consideration of the issues. Being sure to circulate word of the outcome.
  1. Identifying the impediments to each person’s ability to make progress on those goals, and assessing how other members of the management team, or other employees, can help them break through the barriers. This is where overwhelmed managers can ask for assistance, or for additional staffing, and/or offload administrivia.
  1. Making certain that their (the CEO/COO’s) priorities are acknowledged and confirmed by the other members of the management team. At the same time confirming the priorities of the various managers.
  1. Establishing time lines for each person’s achievement of his/her goals.
  1. Committing to take-away action items, the specific objectives that will be reported on by each person in the following week’s meeting.
  1. Encouraging their managers to schedule department meetings to put out the word [Whoops — sorry, Navy expression!] and to make sure that the work of their people aligns with departmental and company goals.

Most of my best Navy buddies showed up in Seattle, which made the Reunion a great event. And a number of us extended for a week-long Holland-America cruise to Alaska, which was not at all to be compared to our Vietnam cruises in the ’60s. As evidence: within a day or two, “Brad” and “Mario” had replaced “Mr. Howe” and “Ramirez.” The ties that bind are not to be confused with the chains of command.