Leadership principle for clarity in uncertain times

The pandemic exposed some of the best and worst management practices at some of the world’s most storied enterprise organizations. Almost no company had plans to pivot to a remote work environment in the blink of an eye, but that’s exactly what most companies, including Verizon, had to do. Those who put quick transitions into action came out stronger, while others struggled in the new norm, putting their employees and customers at a disadvantage. 

How did some companies get this right when others were too slow and ultimately lost market position? After speaking to dozens of executives over the last 18 months, there is a common thread: Those who quickly and clearly defined success for their employees thrived, while those who over-managed and tried to prescribe every move struggled.  

We have come to appreciate a very simple truth about leadership: Effective leaders empower their people. Too many leaders fail to appreciate the nuance that leadership demands, overemphasizing authority and control instead of autonomy and support.

We’re very fortunate at Verizon to have a significant number of military veterans who have taught me about a relevant concept used in the military called “Commander’s Intent.” It is an exceptionally effective tool for establishing the perimeters of a mission, empowering your team to take the initiative within those limits and never lose sight of the mission goal. Crucially, it places value on initiative and provides people with autonomy. 

Now, we know what you’re thinking. The reason this works so effectively in the military is that they make life or death decisions daily. While true, we can apply the same philosophy to business. At its core, the Commander’s Intent helps teams with speedy decision-making, streamlined processes, and taking the initiative. It’s a bias for action, a bias to yes.

The Commander’s Intent has guided some of the best military leaders in U.S. history. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, this philosophy also provides a leadership framework helping many business executives successfully lead their companies through the pandemic.

Let’s take a closer look at the Commander’s Intent in action. 

Aligning leadership through intent

To help explain this philosophy, a colleague from Verizon shared with me an example. In 2007, Lauren was serving in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps. She was a young officer in charge of coordinating all air operations throughout Al Anbar Province. The weight of the responsibility was great—especially given she was just a few years into her career. At stake were costly airplanes, political and international implications, and, most important, the lives of men and women who had also bravely raised their hands to protect and defend. Every day, there were radio calls to support troops engaged in firefights, requests to airlift the wounded, calls for supplies, and ever-changing, stress-filled decisions that needed to be made. There were also protocols, checklists, oversight, chain-of-command, and clearly defined Commander’s Intent. 

One night, Lauren and her team were on watch and running the airspace when a firefight lit up. A service member was wounded and the air center was called, but the closest medical evacuation (medevac) was too far away. Lauren and her team had to make the split-second decision to divert another mission to pick up the wounded service member.  

Lauren and her team were able to do this because they understood what their Commander’s Intent was. Everyone on her team knew exactly what they needed to do and never second-guessed the pivot. This is just one small example of many on how Commander’s Intent drives success in the military.

Commander’s Intent in business leadership

Fast forward a decade-plus, and in a very different scenario, employers large and small had to make some quick decisions. For Verizon Business, a largely in-person office culture in which working remotely was frowned upon, 98% of people had to move out of the office into a remote environment in a matter of days. This included employees in over 40 countries. Failure was not an option. 

We did it by empowering teams at every level to make decisions around security, controls, access to equipment, and serving customers. The mission was simple: Serving the customer cannot stop. Do what is needed.

We explained the purpose of the mission and defined the end state upfront. We didn’t distract employees with how to get there—otherwise known as tactics—but rather we explained the objective. Having everyone understand our definition of success was critical because otherwise, we could not expect employees to seize opportunities as they appear. Employees cannot take advantage of the unexpected if they don’t know where they’re going. 

Putting Commander’s Intent to work

I often see leaders who believe in shielding their employees from the endgame. In my experience, this approach does not work. In reality, bringing in teams early and explaining the overarching objectives empowers employees to act with greater confidence and conviction. 

Do this by being clear and concise. Set the parameters of your mission. Remember, you can still provide structure. The key is that you’re establishing clear, defined boundaries that allow your team to work with the maximum flexibility that their level allows for. It’s your job, as a leader, to ensure that they feel able to take the initiative, while also enjoying your full support and guidance. 

When we reflect on the past 18 months and the considerable challenges we have all faced, there are a lot of lessons we can learn and apply using the Commander’s Intent framework as our guide.

Lessons to learn and apply:

Explain the “what”: This may seem basic, but in many companies, corporate and management jargon makes it a challenge to clearly understand the core mission. 

Explain why: When the purpose is clearly defined, your team understands why they can act. When you eventually divert from the plan (and trust me, you will), action isn’t stalled. 

Empower your team: One of the biggest reasons for attrition and dissatisfaction in middle management is lack of empowerment. Trust your people, give them tools, and let them lead.

Have a bias for action: Alignment and planning will always be imperative for large companies to operate, but that doesn’t mean you can align and plan with a bias for action. Again, it’s the mindset shift. Plan, align, act. 

Believe in shared success: Remember, you’re all on the same team. Act like it and acknowledge the impact of everyone when you achieve your objectives. 

For some leaders, the process of trying to do better can make or break an organization, especially in times of crisis or uncertainty. It’s easy to retreat to legacy protocols, and to revert to the practice of the “tried and tested” when things get hard. But that is not where opportunity awaits, and those behaviors are exactly what led you astray in the first place. 

Using the Commander’s Intent philosophy takes practice, both for the leader and those being led. Not only do leaders need to communicate often, and redefine and refine their Commanders’ Intent, but those being led also need to be trained. But the effort is worth it, and the philosophy is sound. The results will be worth it if done well. 

Remember: Don’t do what you’ve always done. Do better.

Lauren Schulz is the director of Corporate Communications for Verizon Business and a Marine Corps Reserve Lieutenant Colonel having served for 20 years including tours of duty in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa, and Washington DC.

Sampath Sowmyanarayan is the chief revenue officer at Verizon Business with prior experience in management consulting at the Boston Consulting Group.  

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