23rd April 20206 Minutes

In his first blog post, senior consultant Phil Hanson explores seven lessons he learned in the army that can be applied to remote working during COVID-19.

lesson from army remote working COVID-19

Image courtesy of Johnny Fenn Photography

People naturally avoid difficult conversations

Ten years in the Army taught me more than I could possibly convey in a single thought leadership piece. However, some of my experience, including front-line combat in Afghanistan, left me some unique insights into team dynamics and leadership in extreme circumstances, many of them pertinent to the COVID-19 pandemic. The seven lessons I learned during my Army career I feel most useful for thriving under difficult conditions are:

Everyone responds differently to stress, and that’s OK

Like infectious diseases, stress responses have a lag time which can vary enormously by individual. This means treating people with patience, followed-up with a bit more patience.

Personality is a poor predictor of stress-response; I have witnessed shy, retiring individuals quietly carrying teams through astonishing adversity. The only consistent truth is that the appropriate response involves patience, compassion and understanding.

Consider the most candid conversation you’ve ever had; someone truly opening up to you about something personal. Now reflect on how it began. It probably meandered through small-talk before finally settling on the real issue once they felt comfortable enough to raise it.

Remote-working makes it too easy to close conversations early. Give people your time, make them feel valued and listened to: Make difficult conversations that bit easier.

Trust is not optional in high-performing teams

It’s often said that what sets the British Army apart is the quality of its Non-Commissioned Officers: Highly-trained, empowered junior mangers who are told what to achieve, not how to achieve it, in a concept known as Mission Command. This reciprocal-trust environment brings out best of the team’s collective strengths.

Virtually everyone responds best to a default position of trust; and will strive to justify this faith placed in them. The rare exceptions to this rule are rapidly exposed, rendering the concept of “respect is earned” redundant in the modern consulting profession.

Professionalism is a mindset

In 2015 my Battalion received new Colours from the Queen: The parade was the culmination of months of painstaking rehearsals and uniform preparation. The result of this was that on the day, leathers polished and medals shining, I felt utterly prepared to perform in front of 20,000 people. Equally, I would never deploy on operations without every bit of my kit being just-so. Both scenarios boil down to one principle: Being every-inch the professional soldier.

Wearing pyjamas whilst WFH every other Friday may be an understandable novelty, but long-term, looking and feeling in work-mode is critical to working in work-mode. It also helps delineate work-life balance.

You have to look after yourself in order to take care of others

Being an infantry officer often involves rapid decision-making whilst exhausted, soaking wet, and freezing cold. Typically, this means making personal sacrifices for the sake of your soldiers, but a good leader knows they need to take sufficient care of themselves to make the right tactical decisions.

It’s too easy to neglect ourselves, convinced we’re doing right by colleagues, friends and family. Granted it’s a tricky balance to strike, but the longer difficult scenarios last, the more important it is to take care of ourselves too. It’s what’s best for the whole team.

Followership is just as important as leadership

Despite all knowing that too many cooks spoil the broth, when we analyse team dynamics, we too often focus exclusively on leadership qualities at the expense of others.

Whether you call it followership, or just being a team player, the art of knowing your role, doing it to the best of your ability and supporting leaders is an often-overlooked critical success factor for high-performing teams.

Kudos is better than caffeine

Whilst it may not exactly be ground-breaking news, it’s nonetheless true that most people could be better at giving credit to others. When the going gets tough, it’s easier than ever to forget to say well-done, despite it being more important than ever.

Coffee may flow through the veins of many consultants, but recognition for job well-done provides a boost that is far more enduring than a caffeine fix.

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