By Zach Mierva
Recently I was fortunate enough to guide nine cadet companies in developing goals for their organization at the United States Military Academy (USMA), where I currently work. After observing two semesters of failed attempts at mission and vision inculcation, I opted to change the script on how cadets create priorities for their organization to lead deliberately purposeful organizations rather than a group of people who happen to live and work near each other. Working alongside the incoming cadet commanders and first sergeants, flanked with a seasoned TAC NCO (Tactical Non-Commissioned Officer acting as a company First Sergeant) and former USMA cadet leadership, I watched as these future leaders transformed their lofty concepts into tangible steps to improve their formations by leveraging the art and science of creating purpose, direction, and motivation. I found the exercise incredibly impactful as a tool that I believe should be in a leader’s kit bag for future use within any level of an organization and in any industry.
This technique stems from an exercise in Turn the Ship Around, by L. David Marquet that I adapted for the company level (120 cadets). The original concept is focused on cultural change, and hinges on the phrase: “I’d know we achieved [this cultural change] if I saw employees [doing x, y, z…].” By shaping the organization away from vague ideas like “have people be more creative” to more measurable and specific ones such as “employees submit at least one idea a quarter,” we start to develop actionable steps to change culture.
However, I am in the camp that at West Point, where the cadet commander and first sergeant are only in position for a semester (about 20 weeks), they cannot impact lasting cultural change. As a Tactical Officer (and with my NCO counterpart), I see culture change as our job because we remain in position for two to three years. Despite their relatively short tenure, I think that the cadet command team can absolutely influence climate change. So rather than focusing the exercise on culture change, I modified it significantly.
Too often, leaders (not exclusive to West Point), feel they must have a vision statement for their organization. On an episode of the Military Leader Podcast, I heard a general officer talk about how he doesn’t believe there should be a vision statement, rather a series of goals or priorities to focus your organizational energy. After seeing two different cadet command teams develop a “check the block” vision for their company, and immediately forgetting what their OWN vision was, I saw an opportunity. To enact lasting change, people need to internalize the goals for the organization; if they can’t even remember them two minutes after hearing them, what good are they?
After learning about the cultural change exercise from the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning (CALDOL; team that runs the Center for Junior Officers), I retooled their product into something that cadets can work with, and I’ve broken down the steps I used and the logic below.
- I put the prompt on the board: “I’d know we have created an organization that fosters [goal] if I saw cadets in my company [doing thing 1, thing 2, …]” and provided an example. “I’d know we have created an organizational culture that fosters high discipline if I saw Soldiers always showing up on time, wearing the correct uniform, and making corrections on poor performance.” I then instructed everyone to write their goals and measurable steps on notecards so I could observe their thought processes. After the first iteration, it was clear the intent wasn’t being met. Most of the goals focused on family, love, and trust, with the measurable items being focused on care for one another. Back to the drawing board.
- I instructed the cadets to return to their barracks for the evening to think through more substantive goals and steps, and to talk to their classmates and Tactical Officers (TAC) to get feedback.
- Upon return the following day, I had them put their thoughts on chalkboards for everyone to see. Leveraging my assistants, we walked the room and discussed how we can action on the items that they wrote. If they could not quantify how to observe the concept, we had them try again. We started to see more goals focused on physical fitness and academic improvement, with measurable steps like company tutoring sessions and additional fitness training after hours. Now we were getting somewhere.
- Now with goals, and physical manifestations of those goals being accomplished, we moved into the final phase: reinforcement. Another oft underutilized method are policies. And that’s not to say that every company doesn’t have policy letters in place—but my question is WHY are they in place? How are they reinforcing our organizational goals through positive or punitive methods? When I was a company commander, policies definitely didn’t achieve that; they were copy/pasted and I changed the name and date from the previous commander. This isn’t enough. By looking at the goals created, I instructed the cadets that they now have created the framework to build their policies to support their goals. They can create an academics policy memo that reinforces company tutoring and rewards people for attending or implement a physical fitness policy that establishes punitive measures if you fail to reach the company APFT goal. NOW we’re helping our formation accomplish the steps we created, which lead to accomplishing our goals.
Here is an example for reference:
The overwhelming response from the exercise was positive, with the cadets recognizing the value of identifying the tangible steps. Unfortunately, due to time constraints we were unable to get to the point of creating our new organizational policies together. Given the opportunity to execute this again, I would focus significantly more time on this exercise to give better clarity and guidance throughout.
An incredible benefit was having all the future command teams together, which created a framework for idea sharing. During the After-Action Review (AAR), I required each person in the room to share with the group something they learned from another member present. This demonstrated that each command team benefited from hearing the ideas of someone else, and they started to build a network outside of their company to bounce around ideas and share lessons learned. In fact, this proved so impactful that they requested a technological solution to continue to share across themselves (we have Office 365 at USMA, so we leveraged Microsoft Teams as a method for them to talk and share documents).
I hope this provides another tool to leverage in developing your organization. I truly believe executing this within a battalion or even brigade’s worth of company command teams could positively shape the organization. By allowing for information sharing, coupled with oversight by the battalion or brigade commander, could enable stronger nesting of goals/priorities within the unit.
Zach Mierva is a US Army armor officer currently serving at West Point in the Brigade Tactical Department. He is passionate about leader(ship) development and the 8th step of troop leading procedures.
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