Learning from the SEAL Mission

Learning from the SEAL Mission

Strategy alone is like one hand clapping . . . it doesn’t work!

It’s oddly coincidental that I was beginning to work on this column about the relationship between strategy and execution when I happened to start reading No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden by Navy SEAL Mark Owen (a pseudonym).

The mission was extraordinarily difficult. After 10 years of looking for bin Laden, CIA analysts tracked a man they believed to be the terrorist leader to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the SEALs were called in, and ordered to fly into Pakistan under the cover of darkness to kill or capture bin Laden. They achieved their goal, killing the terrorist leader.

Owen’s account of the tremendous amount of training the SEALs went through before the raid is impressive in its detail. While still in the U.S., the SEALs conducted nighttime training raids in a model of bin Laden’s house, while chief military officials watched through night-vision goggles. The SEALs were also given extremely detailed intelligence about the compound.

Because of this extensive training, when the raid didn’t go exactly as planned, the SEALs made decisions on the spot to adapt to the circumstances. For instance, when the Black Hawk carrying Owen and others went out of control and landed with its tail catching on the compound wall, the SEALs were so familiar with the compound’s layout that they were able to instantly adjust and continue with the mission to get bin Laden.

I believe the mission was successful because the goals and strategy were clearly laid out by our military leaders and because the SEALs were given extensive training and empowered to make decisions within certain guidelines.

The SEAL mission underscores what many successful organizations know: that strategy and execution are inseparable. Strategies are built to be executed, and that execution is the key to strategic success. It’s like the old “which came first” question about chickens and eggs—you can’t have one without the other.

Over the years I’ve seen many management presentations on strategy with flashy slides and graphs loaded with data. But most of the time, these strategies fail to involve input from the people who are going to be called upon to execute them. Employees are treated like mindless, choice-less robot “doers.”

This can be a huge stumbling block for an organization, because it tells employees that management doesn’t care about their ideas or input. The result: Employees don’t care either.

But if we use the Navy SEALs mission as our model, what stands out are the lengths that our military leaders went to to ensure that their subordinates understood the strategy, were trained and equipped with necessary resources, and were given the authority to make decisions within well-communicated rules of engagement. This is the part where too many business leaders fail.

My experience is that successful organizations understand the relationship between strategy and execution. They create an interdependent culture where creating strategy is viewed as making choices, and execution is considered doing. An organization that understands this “strategy cycle” relationship looks like this:

  • Broad, abstract decisions involving large, long-term investments are made by top management after seeking input from all areas of the organization.
  • Each level of middle management is empowered to make choices within the broad strategy and understands how their choices affect front-line employees.
  • Employees with face-to-face customer interaction are authorized to make decisions and use their best judgment and creative problem-solving skills to serve customers, within the context of the broader strategy and decisions by middle management.
  • Feedback from front-line employees about ways to improve the strategy and details about execution is sought by and given to top management.

Execution of strategy is everyone’s job; it is not something that management assigns down the line and then waits for results. In order for strategy to be effective, it needs to be pushed to all levels of the organization, and employees need to know what role they play and the importance of their contribution in the execution of the strategy. In successful organizations, business leaders are skilled at anticipating obstacles and paving a smooth path, at understanding the need to involve many people from many departments in the execution process, and at knowing when it’s appropriate to get out of the way to let employees do their jobs with customers and then listen to their employees.

Unfortunately, many companies don’t embrace this principle. I’ve served on and advised too many boards of companies where leaders make compelling presentations about strategy, but when I ask how it will be executed at various levels within the organization, all I get is deer-in-the-headlights stares.

When business leaders ignore this interdependence between strategy and execution, the result is financial disappointment. Maybe we will eat a cheeseburger instead of steak for dinner or pass on buying a new pair of shoes. But when Navy SEALs fail at the strategy/execution cycle, the result can be fatal. So you should ask yourself: How committed is your organization to executing its mission? Would your organization be different if it had the amount of passion, pride, and commitment that the SEALs have in their mission and in making their strategy cycle work? Is your mission a critical one—worth fighting for?

Mark W. Sheffert, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., provides investment banking and corporate renewal/performance advisory services. Contact him at mark@manchestercompanies.com.

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