Business execution often comes with the language of military engagement. We are on the 'front line'. But there is more to the analogy than just words.
When we examine our strategies for success and reactions to setbacks in the world of engineering, as a reflex we often revert to the military language. We talk of 'gaining ground', 'digging in', 'skirmishes' and 'assaults'. The forum in which we do our business is a battlefield and quite often our competitors are opponents or even enemies that need to be outmanoeuvred, outflanked or simply taken down. The hostility of markets is expressed in the vocabulary of the campaign report.
It's tempting to think that business is open warfare, where there are casualties, and where the only business leader who will make headway is the one who behaves most like Rambo.
Damian McKinney is the author of a new book on how lessons learned from a career in the Royal Marines can influence a modern approach to mission-critical business leadership. Called 'The Commando Way' it is a clear-sighted, level-headed analysis that concentrates on values, strategy and mission. The book untangles these concepts for the manager who might think that these are convenient genteelisms for winning at all cost with a blunt instrument as your only weapon. Rambo, says McKinney, doesn't get into the marines.
"Business is not a win-at-all-costs enterprise," he says. "And we know that because we have values. But it is about winning and it is about winning in the right way. Where there is a convergence between the military and commercial sectors is in this concentration on success. There is a perception in the commercial world that the military is all about winning one battle, but a campaign could last three to five years with all sorts of outcomes factored in. In that respect it is no different to business."
The problem with using military vocabulary to sculpt an understanding of commercial competition is, according to McKinney, that "most people don't know what the words really mean. A lot of big companies see the idea of attack as essentially a resource like walking across no-man's-land in the battle of the Somme. As we know, in that scenario, the minute we hit a problem we just sent in more and more resources. But actually, doing the same thing repeatedly will not effect change. Which is why we don't think like that anymore. A more modern view of attack is to examine where the oxygen supply for the competitor is and how to make best use of the limited resources at our disposal."
Which leads to the question of how good the military metaphor is in terms of helping to explain a method of approach to the world of leadership and business management. McKinney is disarmingly honest when he says that it is "a lot better than I initially expected. When I first left the military in 1997, I had no intention of saying that I was an ex-military guy and this is what I've learned. Far from it. I thought I was in a new world with a lot to learn and that I'd have to work my way up."
One of the reasons McKinney left the Royal Marines was because he no longer wanted to be part of an organisation that was subject to relentless cutbacks. But the transition wasn't smooth and on the first day of his eventually successful career in Civvy Street McKinney was shocked to find that, after a lengthy briefing on the strategy of the company he had just joined, he had no idea what they were talking about. He was told by his manager that he had been in the military too long.
But this wasn't why McKinney was mystified. Throughout his entire induction he'd not once been offered a definition of success. "At no time was I informed of the end-state. And so it followed that no one had articulated what was the plan to deliver that. It was all fluff. For me that was the proof that I could reinterpret so many things that I'd learned in the military and repackage them."
Know your values
"You have to be careful to differentiate between values and mission," says McKinney. "Values relate to who you are, which is why I start my book with that question. Companies invest a lot of money in creating values and they put them on the wall amid great celebrations."
But as McKinney says, he has sat in meetings where board-level people have suggested unethical tactics (not paying suppliers, for example) that directly contradict their published values. "And so here is that moment of pressure where what you hear is people saying quite frankly that they don't mean to honour their values. This is where we see who we really are. And yet to succeed you really have to trust your leader. I always like to believe I'm part of an organisation where integrity is vitally important."
As a result McKinney says that there is a time bomb in business at the moment. "A lot of people are staying in organisations because they have to, due to prevailing economic conditions. But these same people have seen through their management and have seen that it doesn't really feel obliged to stick to their values as they pursue their short-term goals."
But the mission statement is different: it is what McKinney calls the "actionable step". Your vision might be to be market leader in five years' time, but the mission is "what you actually do to achieve that vision. So for me, if you tell me to take that hill, and you explain why it is critical, then that is what I am going to do." He remembers in the early days of his career saying to a CEO: "I love your vision and I've read your strategy. But can you tell me how the two link?" The answer was: "That's a great question."
But a mission will force you to link vision and strategy together. This is what McKinney's book is about. And as the author progresses through the critical questions of who you are, where you are going, whether you are aligned and whether you have team spirit, he refers time and time again to a world where things aren't made up as you go along. Where things aren't done a certain way because that's the way they've always been done.
'The Commando Way' is thought-provoking and far less confrontational than its title may suggest. It's also one of the best business strategy books of 2012.
'The Commando Way: Extraordinary Business Execution' by Damian McKinney is published by LID Publishing, £12.99