8 MIN ARTICLE
As a veteran who spent 16 years in the Navy, I understand a few things about uncertainty. Of the 200-plus combat operations missions I was involved in, not a single one went as planned. Because the battlefield constantly changes, my sea, air and land (SEAL) team required a system that would allow us to work off of partial information and give authority to the team to make decisions and adapt quickly as needed.
Your practice as a financial professional is far from a combat operation. But during times of economic and political uncertainty, clients deserve a team that’s able to handle a changing environment. Despite being risk managers by trade, many firms didn’t fully comprehend the importance of business crisis management prior to the pandemic. Today, the need and urgency is clear.
The good news is you don’t need a specially trained force to manage effectively in any environment. There are three components that equate to a type of high-performing, adaptable team: mission, systems and a culture of responsibility. Here’s an overview of what those mean in the field and how you can implement them in your practice.
Whether on the battlefield or in a boardroom, it’s important for all members of the team to have a clear, concise mission statement identifying the next desired outcome. This provides the team with a goal and enables them to chart progress toward an anticipated result.
You may be wondering, “Who has time for a mission statement in a crisis?” But even when everything seems upside down and time is of the essence, it’s crucial to define your top priorities. This doesn’t mean you’re defining how to achieve them. With a clear mission statement, you give your team the freedom to get the job done how they see fit within their areas of expertise.
For example, if the market has fallen 20% or more in a single day, your mission may be to reach out to personally reassure every client within 24 hours. From there, you can define the parameters of the mission. In the military, we relied on the five W questions favored by news reporters: who, what, when, where and why. What is the task? Who is working on it? When will it begin, and how long will it last? Where does it happen? Why are we doing this, or what does success look like? You can also define what not to do and alternatives to approaches you want to avoid. It also helps to discuss the following:
- Roles and responsibilities: There can be zero ambiguity on who does what. In the special forces, every operator signs a contract outlining their own role and responsibilities, as well as what’s expected of the team’s leaders. On business teams, this type of outline can help you reveal gaps in responsibilities, as well as redundancies and areas of improvement.
- Rules of engagement: Beyond everyone knowing their roles, team members at all levels of the organization should be clear on what they are allowed or empowered to do. You want them to be able to act in the face of opportunity, instead of having to take the time to get approval from the top. In war, that process equates to people getting hurt. In our line of business, especially in this current environment, that process equates to a missed opportunity and lost relationships. Do not be afraid to empower your team to make judgement calls.
- Clear and frequent communication: A team that regularly shares information raises the intelligence level of the organization as a whole. When I worked for a team reporting to General McChrystal, I attended his operations and intelligence brief every morning with more than 6,000 others in the chain of command. This meeting was designed to share both positive and negative information with the entire force, keeping us on the same page so mistakes were not repeated. From there, various teams would break off and hold their own morning huddles to reiterate the commander’s intent, share intel and triage any outstanding issues.
How often you meet will depend on the needs of your organization, but team leaders should provide regular chances to hear and share information with the group. This can be crucial to staying on top of changing circumstances, as well as checking the pulse of your team and understanding their states of mind.
When you need to make decisions quickly, it’s vital to have systems in place to help you prioritize, act and measure performance as you go. Using these two simple, scalable frameworks can help your team literally get on the same page.
Planning checklists: Checklists can be used to improve consistency, so that fewer steps are missed, and to keep a team motivated knowing exactly what to do next.
In the book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” author Atul Gawande tells the story of how a simple surgical checklist was heralded as “the biggest clinical invention in 30 years.” When the US Airways Flight 1549 was disabled in a bird strike, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger can be heard on the voice recording saying, “Get the QRH.” He’s referring to the Quick Reference Handbook — a checklist designed to be used in the event of engine failure. They may sound simple, but it’s not an overstatement to say checklists save lives.
My team used a checklist for every mission I went on as a SEAL, but it was always the same framework:
The four P’s of mission planning
The mission statement or intent of leadership.
The action steps we will take to get to the next milestone.
How the plan will be carried out, including chains of command, roles and responsibilities, and milestones for each team member.
Our key performance indicators and how we will measure progress and optimize over time.
Your checklist doesn’t need to be complicated, provided it covers what’s important to you. But breaking it down in this fashion can help align the team when tensions or anxiety are running high, or provide a clear pivot when circumstances change.
After-Action Reviews (AARs): The first thing my team did after a mission — even before eating, taking off gear and equipment, or even breathing a sigh of relief — was head straight to the briefing room to conduct an AAR. That’s because the period immediately after the event is the best time to capture details, celebrate wins and learn from mistakes. The structure of the immediate review can vary, but it helps to focus on a few general guidelines:
- Strongly encourage participation: We are working in different ways right now, so mandatory participation (which is required for a SEAL team) may be a lot to ask for some. But you can set the standards you want to see and lead by example. Show your team these reviews are important by being there and being on time.
- Keep the feedback loop open: Create an environment that encourages people to be honest. Everyone needs to be respectful of one another. There is no rank during this process, no fears of repercussion, and no punishment for being wrong or making mistakes.
- Share what you learn: Once you have captured AAR learnings, share them broadly to encourage the entire organization to adjust and optimize to achieve collective goals.
As humans, we crave information. We tend to believe that the more input we have when making decisions, the better the outcome. But when time is a factor, you and your team may be forced to make decisions with limited or imprecise details. This is OK — right or wrong, deciding allows you to inch toward a goal. The greater risk is often delaying action, which can lead to a loss of opportunity or other unintended consequences.
General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, had a rule around decision-making in uncertain environments. He called it the 40-70 rule: When making a decision, you should have no less than 40% and no more than 70% of the information needed. Anything less could lead to mistakes, but anything more usually meant a missed opportunity.
How can you apply decision-making guidelines in your practice? First, empower your team and foster a culture of decision-making and accountability. You could also limit the number of people who should be consulted before a decision is made or set a deadline for all decisions as part of your process.
Start by leading with positivity
As we used to say in the military: one team, one fight.
When there are many negatives in front of you, it helps to take a moment to reflect on the positives. Remember that leaders drive behaviors. Lose your cool, and it brings down the team. Instead, take a moment to show how much your team means to you. Do something above and beyond to show how much your clients mean to you. Simply checking in on how people are doing and showing genuine compassion during a crisis is what people will remember. With a mission, systems and a culture of responsibility in place, you’ll be better able to deliver these personal, meaningful touches to those you serve.