Colonel Mike Musso, United States Army, Kellogg School of Management
I became a soldier 26 years ago, right out of college. I was in Army infantry for 10 years, including serving in Kuwait. Then I became a Force Management Officer charged with thinking about what future forces should look like. Today, I’m a Senior Force Planner in the Pentagon. The General who runs my office gave me this opportunity to be at Kellogg for a year as an ambassador and a scout.
Throughout my time in the Army, I learned how a staff officer can shape organizational change in a large bureaucracy. One is always, in effect, a middleman between subordinates and superiors. I refer to this as “leading down” and “leading up.” But in both cases the keys to success are showing respect and creating opportunities for people, taking them along a path with you.
I’ve encountered numerous young officers who doubted their ability to make change in an organization as large as the US Department of Defense. It’s a difficult transition from being a commander in the field—where you have authority to take immediate action in your battlespace—into an environment of large programs involving millions or billions of dollars that last many years and involve numerous organizations.
I tell them success stories and coach them on being part of an extended team that discovers and solves problems over time, and that takes care of each other. That’s how you have impact in a bureaucracy. If you’ve something I need, I’ll tell you how I’m going to use it. And if there’s a hidden agenda, I let you know that it exists (even if I can’t tell you exactly what it is). Finally, I leave something behind: What can I do for you in the future? How can I make you look good to your superiors? (We call this “handing out free chicken!”)
I’ve only asked for a job once. All the other times, there was a dialogue about where I could best apply my strengths and improve on my shortcomings. For the people under me, I would delineate possible future paths where I thought they would be of greatest value to the Army. If it was not something they thought they wanted to do, then I’d help them create opportunities on a different path.
On “leading up:” Early in my force management career, I made the mistake of thinking that my superiors’ attitude was, “Don’t bring me a problem; bring me a solution.” But good leaders want to be part of the process, to help shape ideas and, more importantly, help manage the bureaucracy. I recall an exchange that went something like this:
Musso: I shot them an email and they did not respond. General: You need to talk to them in person. Musso: I can’t get in the room. General: That’s where I come in. I will be part of your success or your failure.
I’ve been in and around the Pentagon long enough now to know how it works, where to go to gain access. And I’ve developed a reputation for being helpful and respectful, which helps open doors. I think this applies in the commercial world also. The first thing I try to understand is, “What are the organization’s values and how do they exercise them?” I think hard about their problem in fundamental ways; i.e., the forest versus the trees. Change—particularly disruptive change—does not happen without that. And stories are just as important in “leading up” as in “leading down.” (Mohan Sawhney added, “Stories are like a machete that can wield to cut through bureaucracy. They simplify things. You have to help your leaders understand the stories.”)
I wrote an article while here at Kellogg entitled, “Don’t Run in the Pentagon” that picks up on these themes. Often excessive urgency comes out of focusing too much on a tactical matter rather than the big picture: “Managers and executives should emphasize the creation of flexible, proactive plans with a focus on achieving goals instead of simply reacting to the perceived crisis du jour.” Sometimes you have to allow a situation to develop—“tactical patience”—and maintain organizational discipline in communication so that the bigger picture becomes known to and can be assessed by leadership and partners. Brute force won’t work if success depends on multiple actors emerging and taking up the cause.
Finally, akin to the well-known “management by wandering around” practice (attributed originally to managers at Hewlett-Packard Company), when in the field I would often “go around to the troops and speak to them without giving them any orders.” In companies as well, “subordinates may not engage you in conversation for fear of being handed additional work.” By circulating without pre-planning and without tasking, people become “more likely to tell me what they see, what they need, and…whether they have the resources to do what is being asked of them.” They will share their stories, and I will share their stories (without attribution) to help foster a culture of openness and shared situational awareness at all levels or the organization.