Former Navy SEAL combat veteran and passionate entrepreneur, Brent Gleeson, is the co-founder and CMO of Internet Marketing Inc. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrentGleeson.
In Part 1 of this blog series I wrote about six important aspects of military leadership that are critical to building a successful business and developing a driven team. Originally, Part 2 was going to focus on strategic planning but I thought it would be more appropriate to discuss team building first and address that important topic later. In this post, I will focus on building the team and managing in a chaotic environment. Most of my readers will probably never serve in the military or be in a combat situation, but we all deal with our own chaotic environments every day. In business, this could be a brand crisis, employee turnover, economic issues, or even externalities that mentally affect your staff. It’s essential that leaders know how to successfully guide their teams through these situations.
Building a Team In the Midst of Chaos: Forging SEAL Leadership
There is no better time to have a strong unified team than amidst chaos. That’s the basic principle of the Navy SEAL training program. Before we can manage a strong team within our organizations, we must build one.
In early 2000, I quit my job as a financial analyst in Dallas and joined the Navy to pursue the most challenging special operations training in the world. A few months later, I checked into the notorious SEAL training program called BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) and joined Class 235. Needless to say I was terrified. BUD/s is the first six months of the one year journey to become a Navy SEAL.
The third week of BUD/s is called Hell Week. Even with that name, it’s an understatement. During Hell Week the class experiences the most grueling physical and mental punishment imaginable with no sleep. Its purpose is to weed out those that aren’t solely committed to the mission. During this week, the survivors really come together as a team and share moments that forge them into the most hardened special operations warriors in the world. The real training comes later but this is where the foundation is laid and the brotherhood formed. Class 235 started with approximately 250 students. At the end, only 23 were left.
The first few hours of Hell Week is called “Break Out.” Break Out is designed to simulate pure combat-style chaos. Hell Week always starts in the early evening on a Sunday. The whole class is crammed into one of the classrooms to “relax” and watch movies. No one can relax of course or enjoy the movies. We knew what was coming, but had no idea how crazy it would be.
At one point during the evening, the instructors burst into the classroom, shut off the lights, and start firing M60 machine guns and M4 rifles (blanks) while screaming orders through megaphones. To this day I still shudder when I hear a megaphone turn on. The class is ordered out onto the grinder (a paved courtyard where much of the physical training occurs). While being sprayed with fire hoses and surrounded by smoke, explosions, and gunfire, instructors sent us in all different directions: bear crawling to the surf to get wet and sandy, to the grinder to perform hundreds and hundreds of flutter kicks, pull-ups, and pushups. It is pure mental, emotional and physical chaos.
The class is divided into boat crews of seven students each. Each boat crew has an officer in charge, or boat crew leader. During this chaos, boat crew leaders are expected to keep track of their crews, maintain an accurate headcount, and still prep for the first evolution of Hell Week. If they fail, the whole crew is punished brutally. You live and die as a team.
The point of Break Out, other than to force the uncommitted to panic and quit, is to simulate a chaotic environment, and teach the class how to remain focused and calm while relying on each other, despite the most miserable and stressful conditions. Our class had the tragic experience of having our class leader (highest ranking officer) die during Hell Week. We were devastated by this loss to the class. The instructors told us, sympathetically, but purposefully to “get used to it.” Things change. Be ready for when they do.
Similarly, when building a business, situations can often seem unbearable and the stress can seem insurmountable. But as leaders, we must learn to remain focused on the big picture, stay calm and confident, and continue to make sound rational decisions. These decisions are made much easier if you have a strong, unified team supporting you.
Let’s face it, building a start-up or running a growing business in this new economy is chaos, plain and simple. As your business, grows the obstacles you face becoming more complex and more difficult to negotiate. This is why it is imperative that we as leaders develop as quickly, if not more quickly, than our businesses. In my company’s industry, digital marketing, if we are doing business the same way today that we were six months ago, we become obsolete. Don’t be left behind or wait until the chaotic event happens to start building up your team. As a leader, you should constantly be building a team that can weather the storm when it hits.
My philosophy on managing and planning is that you should inform, inspire, and engage the team at all levels. There must be buy in from the whole team for the execution of the plan to be most effective. We do this by allowing the team to take ownership of helping define the direction of the company and set goals.
Here are some tips for building a strong, unified team that will execute the plan successfully:
Recruit talent that have a passion for the business and fit the company culture – I have never seen a more clearly defined culture than in the SEAL teams. I can spot a Team Guy a mile away. This doesn’t happen by accident. How are you currently selecting the right team members, building your company’s culture, and aligning it with the core values?
Properly communicate the company’s mission, vision and values to the entire team – This is imperative for having a strong team. Everyone must not only understand the mission and values but believe in them. In the Teams, the mission is clear and simple and there is buy in from everyone. We must have this same unification in our companies.
Engage ALL members of your team in the planning process – When everyone is involved in setting the direction of the company and defining how you are going to move in that direction, the team has ownership in the company’s achievements and will be more passionate about their role in its success.
Ensure members understand their roles in achieving the objectives – As the saying goes “get the right people on the bus and put them in the right seats”. In the Teams we first get the right people, those who are committed to the cause and survive selection and training. Once on a team, each member is trained for specific jobs (sniper, breacher, driver, etc.) that they are well suited for. We often find in our businesses that we have great talent but they may not be sitting in the right seat. Place people in jobs that leverage their skills and set them (and the company) up for success.
Keep everyone in the loop as the plan progresses – As we discussed in Part 1, pass the word! There is no sense in involving the team in one planning session if we don’t then communicate the progress or adjustments that are being made along the way. Involve them consistently and utilize their feedback to keep the plan moving in the right direction. Doing so will result in a happier more productive team.
Have contingency plans and be flexible enough to make adjustments along the way – In combat, contingency plans are even more crucial than the original plan. The team must be trained to be dynamic and adjust the plan on the fly. During capture or kill missions in Iraq, bad intel would often lead to the team hitting the wrong target or kidnapping the wrong person. We had to adjust quickly. Is your company ready for possible obstacles such as employee turnover, losing a large client, or major technology changes within your industry?
And, in the midst of chaos, remember that your team is looking to you for leadership, so even in the craziest of environments, keep communicating even if you can only give them a little information at a time, let them know that they can ask for help, and encourage them to rely on each other for support.
In the third part of this series, I will focus on how to find good leaders. Hint: Hire a veteran.