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Building on Thoughts from Experts: Supporting your Team

Originally published on March 1, 2017

This is part two of a multi-part Blog series on strengthening your team by building on thoughts from experts. The foundation for these articlesderives from comments made by writers in the Harvard Business Review over the years to which I add my expertise and experience.

We all tend to view our role as a leader in different ways based on the context and environment in which we work–and our life experiences. This is–and should be–only natural, in my opinion. The same kind of leadership it takes to effectively lead a combat unit differs from those it takes to run a community service nonprofit organization in many ways, albeit there may be some concrete principles that transcend the specifics of organizational missions. One of these is the role of teamwork and the proposition of valuing and enabling the team to accomplish the mission as the organization strives toward its vision. 

One of the things that define a leader above those who are simply a boss is how they interact with employees and how they act with regard to responsibilities. A boss will typically be demanding, engage in minimal discussion of ideas from employees, and provide a clear culture of employees being underlings whose tasks lie beneath that of the boss. Conversely, a leader is interested in drawing on the ideas of the team, looks for opportunities to develop leadership skills in team members, and often partakes in some of the tasks to achieve the goals set forth for the team. 

So let’s explore this second principle in the series–supporting your people. Let me give an example from my experience to illustrate the perspective through which I view leadership. When I was in the Navy, I was made the Maintenance Department Head (Aircraft maintenance with 8 C/LC-130 aircraft, 6 HH-1N helicopters, $100M in supply assets, and another $100M in support equipment; however, the most important assets in the department was the 330 people–enlisted and officer–who worked in the department.

Three weeks after I took over, we failed the big inspection…ouch! I got to have a personal audience with our Wing Commander, who told me that was my predecessor’s inspection and that mine was in 90 days. He gave me his card and wrote his personal cell phone number on it, and then said to call him directly if his staff was not supporting me. Leadership by example–he was the Commodore but would willingly help a lowly Lieutenant Commander accomplish the mission.

Now, the Wing Maintenance Officer was a quality guy and I never had to use that private number… but the gesture that the Commodore was willing to make would stick with me. You see, I had been through the formal training that the Navy provided for officers–even a few additional ones–but this was an example of leadership that stood above all others in terms of showing an up and coming leader how to lead instead of just talking about it. Believe me, it made an indelible mark on me as a leader! You could find me atop an aircraft helping with corrosion inspections. You would see me in aircraft helping with cleaning–and getting my fellow aircrew to assist as well. I would be in each of the various shops from time to time to see how my sailors were doing and if they had what they needed to do their jobs–and see how their studying for advancement to the next paygrade was coming along. I did that the entire rest of my career in every command.

When the reinspection was coming up I gathered my people together in a formation and posed a question to them about how to proceed–should we do our midterm depot-level (MDLM) inspection and gear replacement separately or do the inspection work and MDLM

work together, as it would save over 1,000 man hours of work. The downside was that it would require us to be on around-the-clock-operations (three 8-hour shifts) for two solid weeks, including weekends. I put the formation at ease and asked each division to discuss it quietly among themselves, after which I asked the division officers how their divisions felt about the plan. Without exception, everyone signed on for the plan. The Division Chiefs made sure constraints like childcare needs were accounted for, the right mix of people was available on each shift, and that they had the preferences of those who wanted late hours or overnight shifts. And off to the races we went the following week!

In the end, we passed resoundingly the inspections–both of them. The Commanding Officer asked if it would be appropriate for him to give the squadron the rest of Friday and all day Monday off work as a reward–I stated emphatically NO! While 75% of the squadron worked two straight weeks on 24/7 shift schedules, 25% of the squadron remained clean and air-conditioned in their offices–to what end would it be to reward those who did not participate in the tasks? There were 6-8 of our enlisted personnel who came down after finishing their office work and helped out during second shift–those Sailors deserved the reward along with the Maintenance and Supply team. I told the CO that it would be more appropriate to reward those who did the work and keep the remainder on their normal work schedules–after all, some of the second floor Sailors found the time to be part of the team but it was not important to the rest of them at the time. 

When the results of the inspections were announced, the CO called forward the 6-8 Sailors who had gone the extra mile to help the team. Along with the Maintenance and Supply Department, these Sailors were rewarded with Friday afternoon off as well as all day Monday off (including watchstanding those days). My department could not be happier and those who did not lend a hand–although some were grumpy at first–understood why. The next deployment we broke every record for logistics, aircraft readiness, and flight hours, operating so well that we moved 50% of the next deployment’s materials that season as well. We won three straight Wing safety awards, the annual Wing Maintenance Award and that year’s Battle Efficiency Award for the Pacific Fleet. THE TEAM did it!

The Principle

So what leadership principle made the difference? Supporting the team–supporting my people. Although there were opportunities for distractions and roadblocks to accomplishing the goals of our inspection preparation, it was my responsibility to keep those distractions at bay so my team could be successful. However, there were three very important underlying steps that made it possible for me to be effective as a leader in motivating and supporting the team.

Show up on time. Let’s face it–there is an inherent principle in a busy workplace to have the motto “when that cat’s away, the mice can play.” It can happen in any organization, big or small. This principle does not mean that, as a leader, you have to start issuing orders when the clock strikes 8 am–it means that you need to be there and be visible to the team–they need to see that you are willing to hold yourself to the standards to which they are expected to perform. When you are there, the likelihood of wasted time happening is lessened.

Stop intrusions. Give your people time to do their work–don’t continually interrupt their productivity, even with a “how’s it going” comment. Observe quietly from a distance and trust your people–you showed them that they can trust you, so return the confidence back in them. Don’t expect them to return emails or calls right away; frankly, if that is what you need it shows that you have not planned very well for the project… 

Have disagreements. I have always told my people that I do not have a corner on the good

idea market–I only tell the that because it is true! I do not want their inputs, I need their inputs in order to optimize our efficiency and our opportunity for success. You know that “open door policy” that you say exists? This is the time to make sure that the door is not locked so that people really can approach you with their observations and ideas. I had, and still have, a principle of not bringing a problem to the boss without at least one option to solve it. This goes along with the axiom “no surprises for the boss” (“boss” is used here in a generic sense, not differentiating between bosses and leaders). And yes, that also applies to me and the CEO when I bring an issue to him.


Today, I still operate under this same principle of support now that I work in the private sector–I expect each department head to run their departments effectively and efficiently to support our mission and vision. I consult with them, I listen to them, and I and available to them. I give guidance to them, but do not micromanage. I trust them.

We are in an interesting period of time in the business world. Business is evolving faster than ever in the past and requires participatory and supportive leadership to optimize the team’s opportunity for success. You can have the best equipment, the highest budget, and the prettiest logo–but if you don’t understand that people are your most valuable asset and give them the support that they need to feel and be successful, the rest of your assets lose their value.


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Join me next week for the third post in this series: The Value of Recognition.

Would you like the learn more about leadership? I teach a full-day course in Managerial Leadership and a half-day Executive Leadership Seminar.

Harvard Business School. (2011). Management tips from Harvard Business Review. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.



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