February 9, 2021 8 min read
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What do nuclear weapons have to do with entrepreneurship?
As an Air Force nuclear operator, I had to build a team of experts from scratch and set a vision that motivated not only my small five-person team, but the larger 100-man unit we served. I staffed the team myself, set parameters for our new program, saw to each person’s onboarding, preparation and certification as instructors. Entrepreneurs build teams every day, businesses large and small focused on ideas that many may not understand. Leaders incubate a detailed vision of the future and have the endurance to see it to fruition, no matter the hurdles before them. This was my world in 2014 when I took on a once-in-a-lifetime challenge to rebuild how we taught, trained and led the Air Force’s strategic nuclear mission.
I’d been in the Air Force almost six years by the time I arrived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As an experienced missile operator, I’d witnessed many delegating missteps and knew our community regularly failed to develop better leaders. Up to that point, our individual worth was measured by three monthly tests, each a set of 20 multiple choice questions graded against a 90 percent standard, and whether we asked too many questions. While deployed on alert, young crew members sometimes froze with indecision when facing the complex problems that simple test questions can’t replicate. I would be assigned on a new position with responsibilities that included delivering ongoing combat training. My job was to help the team become fearless, with little to no guidance on how to do it. So with a brand-new team of five, where would I start? I knew two things: I needed to keep things simple, and to maintain a consistent message.
1. Teach values
I brought our team into a sterile conference room on our first day together and asked for patience and flexibility. A lot would change in a short period of time and our work schedules were anything but certain. But our task was straightforward—to build a development program that created world-class operators who would be ready for anything. As you build your team around a great idea, ask yourself: What’s your vision for them and what mission will you fulfill together? What are your non-negotiable core values? And when faced with an ethical dilemma, how do you want people to handle it?
We spent many hours discussing values over the ensuing year, but starting with these three questions helped me get to the core of why we were doing what we were doing. More importantly, it helped me convey what I expected of each person. This wasn’t about watching them perform; in fact the investment in energy at this stage is incredibly high. Whereas each team member’s output is quite low. You won’t see dividends from this time spent immediately. You won’t see it until something goes wrong and you’re facing an irate client, bad product rollout or losing a potential revenue stream.
For my instructor team, as soon as they encountered difficult decisions or a resistant crew member, I could see flexibility, patience and “ready for anything” in action. When trainees struggled, the instructors devoted extra time to helping them, going so far as changing their own schedules to accommodate study sessions. When they built scenarios for use in the simulator, they spent hours crafting difficult, highly complex situations that were realistic yet aimed at pushing every crew member to the limit of their potential. And to face their fears with a safety net before doing so in real life.
2. Train skills
After values comes something more tangible. I had to quickly determine what role each person would fulfill. For a new business owner, this could be anything from running cash registers to client intake and business development. With a well-honed value set, now we get down to the tasks each person performs as part of their job. What skills do they need so they can perform autonomously? What must you demonstrate, or ask someone else to demonstrate, before a team member can operate independently? Who evaluates performance of these skills and decides when a team member is ready. As the leader, are you qualified to train it or do you need help?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting help. When it came time to train a new scheduler for my team, I knew nothing about the software we used to view and edit the schedule. So I asked for help from an expert. They joined one of our team meetings and ran a tutorial. Most of the daily tasks proved simple with a few clicks. Anything more troublesome and our team scheduler had a ready-made support structure in place to field questions. For most of our daily tasks, I relied on individual team members to gauge when they were proficient and ready to take full ownership of their role. At this point, your time and energy invested decreases as team members’ output increases — as you train skills, you expect proficient demonstrations from people who are working toward a vision of the future and with a set of values to rely on.
3. Lead by letting go
This was the toughest step for me. After dedicating myself to teaching values and training skills, what did execution look like? For months, despite everything I described above, I kept tasks to myself. I did way more in a day than I had hours available, asking my instructors for help only to validate or backup my work. What I missed was how frustrated they all were. They wanted to invest more of their own time and contribute toward our vision. Yet I’d erected walls around the important stuff, leaving scraps for them as we trudged ahead. Just as I reached the end of my rope, a mentor pulled me into his office and laid out the problem in broad daylight: “Your instructors want more and you need to let go and trust them.”
I resisted at first, arguing that I needed to “train them more.” But there’s always something else you can provide. There’s always more to learn, more to discuss, so much so that we can justify holding onto things forever. And watching our team crash and burn as a result. I walked out of his office and into mine, calling in my senior instructor. Without hesitation, I let go and told her she would take over 100 percent of the scheduling responsibility. She knew the software, knew how to handle conflicts and was primed to take on more of a leadership role. A key to the change was this: I wasn’t going to check her work. I trusted her, but also knew I had to show that I trusted her. Anything less would’ve made the whole thing suspect.
It’s never a good time and you’re never ready to let go of something you thought was near and dear. But the sooner you do, the sooner you find the time to focus on bigger challenges lying ahead while building an even bigger, more effective squad in the process. This has never been more true than during our current global pandemic. Indeed a new survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Kajabi, a commerce platform, found that despite the challenges of COVID-19, found that 78% of entrepreneur-respondents have used lockdown as an opportunity to further plan how to grow their business once the vaccines had returned us all to some sense of normalcy.
Leadership way more art than science, so there never will be a one-size-fits-all solution to motivating others. But if there’s one thing the best leaders have proven for the rest of us, it’s that simplicity matters. The more you take on, the more priorities you set, the less clarity your team will have on the future. Take a step back and follow these three steps to watch your team grow into a powerhouse that makes a difference in the world.