How the Army Prepared Me to Work at Google

doug-raymond.jpgThis post is part of our Frontline Leadership series, looking at what business leaders can learn from today’s military.

Upon learning of my military background, one of my Google team members exclaimed, “You don’t seem like an Army guy! It must be so different for you here”. His assumption was that an ex-military officer would be more comfortable barking orders to a line of soldiers standing at attention than debating product features with a software development team. Well, he was right in some regards.

Google is a very different environment from the tank platoon I led at the beginning of my Army career. We’ve got better food, a more relaxed dress code, and a very flat organizational structure. However, the leadership qualities that make an Army officer and a leader of an innovative organization successful have a lot in common. What I and many of my fellow ex-military leaders at Google have found is that military leadership experience has prepared us well to succeed in a fast-moving, innovative environment.

Communicate the mission. Officers are often evaluated by how well their soldiers understand the mission of the unit and their role in accomplishing it. In an innovative organization roles are often fluid and only roughly defined, so communication of a vision is even more important. Just as soldiers confront unexpected challenges on the battlefield, employees in innovative companies are faced with hard problems with no well-defined approach to solve them. Google’s founders have been particularly effective at challenging us to “organize the world’s information” without telling us how to do it. Successful military leaders exhibit a similar ability to define a challenging mission and inspire their troops to believe that they are up to the task of getting it done.

Sensitivity matters. A successful military leader treats each of his soldiers with respect and dignity, regardless of race or gender, and shows a similar deference to the traditions and culture of the area in which he is operating. This attitude translates well to Silicon Valley, which has gathered sharp minds from all corners of the earth and was initially as foreign to me as any country to which I’ve been. Many military leaders entering the civilian workforce today have not only the experience of leading diverse military units but also the experience of working with local citizens and government officials in remote and sometimes hostile parts of the world (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan) — a much more intensive form of sensitivity training than anything offered in the private sector.

Real respect is earned. The military has a strict code of respect that defines the relationship between a leader and those under his or her command. A senior officer is addressed as “sir” or “ma’am”. However, any officer worth her rank knows that formal authority is usually the least effective type of influence they can use. Only by earning the respect of her soldiers can an officer lead effectively, because that is the only way her intent will be carried out when she is not present. Mastering the work of the unit, enduring the same hardships, and setting the example in performance and conduct allow a military leader to exert influence far greater than rank. Military leaders who have mastered these skills are particularly effective in innovative organizations where they often have no formal authority over those with which they work. Most new employees in the private sector today are uncomfortable with formal hierarchies or the idea of a chain of command — but they are very interested in identifying projects and leaders who will take an interest in them and help them learn.

Trust and challenge your soldiers. Companies that thrive on innovation take pride in hiring smart people and then giving them leeway to try a lot of different things. Our CEO, Eric Schmidt, recently described his management philosophy as having “…an employee base in which everybody is doing exactly what they want every day.” While military units have strict rules of engagement, one of the fundamental principles of small unit leadership is to push decision making to the lowest possible level. In the military I was trained to be able to act in the absence of guidance, to allow some errors caused by pushing the envelope, and to trust my soldiers’ expertise and decision-making. The combination of mutual respect, trust, and a challenging and clearly defined mission has motivated small military units to achieve the seemingly impossible. Military history is full of stories of cohesive, motivated units overwhelming far superior adversaries. Leaders in companies achieve breakthrough performance by trusting their teams to accomplish more than they initially believe is possible.

The military has not been an obvious place for high tech companies to recruit. These organizations often assume that military leaders are too accustomed to strict hierarchy and discipline to succeed. A closer look at military leadership should encourage managers of innovative organizations to seek leaders with military experience to tackle their tough business challenges.

See original here, by Frontline Leadership @ Harvard Business Publishing