The thesis for my Masters of Military Arts and Science was called Management: The Missing Link to Army Leadership Doctrine. It is currently sold on Amazon as a make on demand book and had a distinct following and minor success in a few European countries. No idea why. I mention this because I really had no clue what I was talking about. Sure, it is technically excellent, but practically it lacked the nuance and quite frankly experience required to make it the reference that it could have been. My time at Amazon has given me that experience and now I am penning a short blog to illustrate a few insights.
Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what is not. I am not sure who to attribute this to, but it absolutely informs my daily interactions. Define what you want to focus on, develop methodologies on how you will track the focus areas and communicate to your team why these particular areas are important. Traditional Military leaders would have visions, missions and problem statements. Managers have to take it a step further and develop mechanisms for how their focus areas are to be prioritized, executed and tracked. Good managers will have a list of things that they need to accomplish. Great managers establish systems to ensure required tasks are properly communicated, understood and not missed.
After three decades in the military I thought my transition to a technical manager in the corporate world of Amazon would be a breeze…it was not. Oh, I had leadership and the whole big picture thing down, but I lacked the tools and understanding of how and what I needed to manage my responsibilities. See previous blog titled “5 Lessons on my Transition 2 Years Later” that illustrates just how bad I was. Mastering these five things helped me get better: power listening, developing deeper and more meaningful work relationships, formulating defined problem statements, intensely managing my schedule and time and finally, establishing well-understood and shared mechanisms.
Power Listening. I’ve always considered myself a good listener. I am not the kind of person that over-talks others or thinks that my voice should be the loudest. Don’t get me wrong I have strong opinions, but not so strong that I’m blind to better ideas, methodologies or other courses of action. Power listening requires a level of empathy that we all have to work on. It requires you to not only hear what someone is saying, but when necessary to act on what is heard…hint as a manager - it is always necessary to one degree or another. Failure to act in a managerial setting can result in catastrophe. If you only heed my advice in only one of these lessons that I have put into my kit bag…this is the one…!
Developing deeper and more meaningful work relationships. As a manager your responsibilities are more closely tied to your teams’ daily duties and actions. The Pattonesque aloofness and field commander presence is not enough. Managers are more like platoon leaders and company commanders in that they share the burden and have the requisite expertise to right the ship or change the course. They are also closer to the team. Developing trust through common struggle and understanding is essential. If at any time the team believes that you are out for yourself and not them…consider them lost. Your relationships have to be deeper, more meaningful and without exception the team has to come first.
Formulating defined problem statements. It is impossible to solve problems without first understanding the root cause to why the problem exists in the first place. Formulating proper problem statements so that not only you, but the team focuses effort in the right direction is a huge part of the solutions process once the root cause has been identified. This is where communication begins and is the first step on the road to solving the problem. Teams can identify with and act on good problem statements. There is nothing worse than the manager that takes multiple bites of the apple and in the end has no idea of what they want. Take an extra minute, hour or day if you need it, but go in with your best understanding of the problem the first time.
Intensely managing my schedule and time. As a battalion, brigade and higher commander I had someone manage my calendar, and after a few years at Amazon I have help now also. But the first few years in operations I had to develop my own calendar and manage my own time. Professionalizing my time management was the one thing that opened my eyes to the business world as a whole. I went from aimlessly going from one task to another to actually being able to cull out time to learn other processes, spend time with other mangers and be present for associate team members. That’s right, managing my time allowed me to do more, but it also made my time at work more fulfilling. Take it to whatever level that you would like, but my calendar is beautiful…it’s color coded, balanced, gives me time and allows me to maximize my day. I’m in love with it and it’s the single most personally-managed tool that I have.
Well-understood and shared mechanisms. Finally, the establishment of mechanisms to track important tasks will save you time, inform the entire team of where they’ve succeeded or fallen short and will provide a modicum of structure to organizational requirements. An example of a mechanism is not just the grocery or items list that you have on the fridge, but is the list and cell phone reminders that tells you when milk expires and when to buy new air filters. It is in place so that you do not leave to chance or memory that something has to occur. Mechanisms are Yoda-level techniques that will make your organization better. And a lack of mechanisms will potentially doom your team to fail. Whoever said, you do not rise to goals you fall to the level of your systems was categorically correct.
As a manager you can always get better. I got better by listening and collaborating with my team more. I dedicated more time to them by improving my own time management. And through better problem statements and established mechanisms I provided my team with the required structure to get better every day. That said, it first took me understanding that I was not a great manager before I was able to take the steps to becoming a better one.
Lee Flemming is a retired Army Colonel currently working at Austin 2 (AUS2) Fulfillment Center in Pflugerville, Texas as an Assistant General Manager. Lee is a 28-year Army Veteran with extensive operations and management experience. The Boots2Amazon series includes regular installments meant to inform and educate Service Members and the public about life after the military and transitioning into employment at Amazon.