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There is no growth in the comfort zone. Training should push people beyond where they are comfortable so that they learn to handle those situations and grow.
We know that leadership is a skill. Like any skill, no one is born with exceptional leadership abilities. They must be learned. While experience is a great teacher, you don’t want the only opportunity to learn to be in critical situations where decisions have high stakes. Mistakes can be costly. Instead, you must create opportunities to train. There is no inoculation for leadership training. You must constantly work to improve leadership skills or the skills atrophy. Therefore, you must make training a part of your daily and weekly routine.
What We Mean by “Training”
Often, people think of training as a formal program. Imagine a school or academic course led by a dedicated cadre of instructors who are subject matter experts. Instead of reporting to work, you focus exclusively on learning new skills or acquiring knowledge.
This style of formal training is effective and important. But the most impactful learning we have seen and experienced was not in a classroom or formal training program, but through informal training. Informal training can be discussions, case studies, role-playing, or drawing things up on a whiteboard with your team. You can make time for this informal training multiple times a week if not every day.
No Growth in the Comfort Zone
There is no growth in the comfort zone. Training should push people beyond where they are comfortable so that they learn to handle those situations and grow. Engaging with other human beings and making decisions under pressure are two things that are hard. You must practice getting comfortable handling these problems in real time.
An easy way to quickly improve your leadership skills is through role-playing. For example, if you need to have a tough conversation with an underperformer, you don’t want to go into a situation like that cold, without any preparation. But if you have someone role-play this—pretend to be the underperformer and react realistically as that person might react— each repetition will drastically improve your ability to have that conversation with maximum effectiveness. Just one or two iterations of role-playing the scenario will set you up for success and enable you to better prepare for contingencies. It will radically increase the effectiveness of your conversation.
Role-play preparation will ensure you don’t go too easy or too hard. If you go too easy, the underperformer doesn’t fully recognize the need for improvement. If you go too hard, the underperformer becomes defensive, refuses to accept the criticism and implements guidance to improve. This is the Dichotomy of Leadership. Role-playing will help you identify the best approach.
“We don’t have time to train,” the business executive told us. Jocko, the Echelon Front team, and several hundred leaders worldwide listened as the business executive asked a question on one of our Extreme Ownership Academy Live sessions via private Zoom meeting.
“In the SEALs, it sounds like training was your whole job before you deployed to combat,” the executive continued. “You trained for months. In my company, we don’t have that luxury. We’re in combat daily—in the business, dealing with customers and supply chain issues. So, when are we supposed to train?”
It was a good question. In the SEAL Teams, we were fortunate that experienced leaders created a training and deployment cycle. While a SEAL team or teams were forward deployed to combat, the other SEAL teams trained extensively to prepare for their pending deployment. After training, they would go forward to relieve the SEAL team deployed. And the cycle would continue. But there are always opportunities for informal training, so you have to make time.
“Even on combat deployments, we have to make time to train,” Jocko said. “Let me explain to you what we mean by training. Most of what I learned in my career in the SEAL Teams was through informal training. Just a few minutes spent around a whiteboard or talking through a situation where decisions had to be made under pressure. Then, evaluating and analyzing those decisions for where we could improve. You don’t need to pull your team offline from work for weeks or months to focus exclusively on training. Every day is an opportunity to train.”
“Every time you do something or make a decision is an opportunity to train,” I added. “When your people come to you and ask you to decide for them, instead of being the ‘easy button’ and solving their problems, ask them what they think they should do. This provides an opportunity to train them so that they learn to make decisions for themselves. Anytime you are doing something on your own or solely making a decision to solve a problem, you are wasting an opportunity to train your team.”
The senior executive nodded. He now understood that informal training was something he needed to do all the time to develop the leadership skills of the people on his team. “Does that answer your question?” Jocko asked. “It does,” the senior executive responded. “That’s very helpful. Going forward, I’m going to build time into the weekly schedule for informal training.”
This week, think about where you or your team need to improve and build time into the schedule to train in those areas. Is it a role-play scenario where you put your people in difficult situations where they have to deal with problems? Is it talking through a time-sensitive decision to deliver the best outcome for the mission and team? Identify the areas where you need to focus training to improve your performance. Then, build time into the weekly schedule for training, even if it is only 10-15 minutes per day. Now, EXECUTE.