I Hired a Colonel but Not His Army

I Hired a Colonel, but Not His Army

“I Hired a Colonel, but Not His Army”

This gem was spoken by an attendee at my recent Meet the Ringmasters event in Sarasota. A frustrated CEO had endured the all-too-common pain of bringing a respected senior officer into his nascent team, thinking it could speed the connections to a new customer.

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It’s a double-edged sword that’s all too easy to reach for. Yes, having people on staff with very current contacts and knowledge of the inner workings of the customer’s offices is fantastic. But that information is both fleeting and perishable. Truth be told, such information is also available in many other ways, such as consultants and subscription services. In the end, it’s not even what you need most.

What the CEO needed, as do most fast-growing companies, are talented people with the innate ability to deal with ambiguity and perform multiple roles simultaneously. What he got was a senior officer who was used to leading a team, capable of setting a vision and developing future leaders. What he also got was someone who lacked the cultural fit, not a miss-fit, but someone who did not have the right skills and temperament for the company’s needs.

In surveying corporate leaders at Meet the Ringmasters, those leaders overwhelmingly highlighted that fit far outweighs skills. “We can teach a person the technical side of the business, but we can’t teach the need to read the room and do what needs to be done as opposed to waiting to task an underling.” 

Similarly, “Sending an email to a contact and then waiting isn’t going to be enough to improve revenue or profits.”

The Colonel without an Army is a stereotype, not of former Army officers, but potentially of any senior official from any service who will need some time to immerse in business culture. Some larger defense organizations embrace and actually mirror the uniformed culture. 

Ask any top-five prime contractor where a former Navy Captain fits into the org chart, and you’ll get a response. It’s a particular title and pay band—a blessing and a curse. A blessing for those veterans who need a sound and familiar structure in which to do their best work. It’s a curse in that when containerized in such ways, the large prime rarely gets the unexpected benefits of creativity that might otherwise come forth from the seasoned officer.

In Make Your Move, I wrote of the common refrain among veterans who become corporate executives that it takes 1-3 years to settle in for the ride. 

Business culture is, by nature, different:

  • Pressures of profit and loss
  • Focus on costs
  • Attention paid to investors and shareholders, sometimes ahead of mission
  • Decentralized command and control, or even purposeful lack of command
  • Emphasis on the individual 
  • Accountabilities, both personal and team
  • Communication styles and methods
  • Compensation
  • Titles
  • Discipline

Of the examples above, the military or business culture neither way is right or wrong, but the need for fit is ever-present in each.

Look around your current situation. Do you have a mis-fit among you? What are each of you doing to rectify this problem? You have two choices, each of which involves a hard conversation:
 1. Address the problem by investing personally and meaningfully to bring the mis-fit into conformance with your business needs.

 2. Address the problem by acknowledging that a mistake was made, this isn’t working, and neither party will achieve their potential in the current configuration. 

The only wrong answer would be to live with or otherwise ignore the problem. Leadership is lonely. The choices are clear.

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