Commandant’s Reading List – Team of Teams

At the start of the year, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft shared his reading list on All Hands. As part of a continued discussion on leadership, the Commandant has invited members from across the fleet to review the selections and share insights on how they are applying what they’ve read to mission execution. This is the sixth blog in the series and was authored by Lt. Cmdr. Megan Drewniak, currently a lecturer at the World Maritime University.

Lt. Cmdr. Megan Drewniak was honored as the 2016 Military Times Coast Guardsman of the Year during an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., July 14, 2016. Military Times photo.

Lt. Cmdr. Megan Drewniak was honored as the 2016 Military Times Coast Guardsman of the Year during an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., July 14, 2016. Military Times photo.

Team of Teams, authored by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is an outstanding resource that examines the managerial style utilized by Joint Special Operations Command and follows the transformation from a rigid command structure to a cooperative team comprised of smaller specialized teams.

Gen. McChrystal utilizes the complementing experiences as a four-star general in the United States Army, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, commander of the U.S. Forces Afghanistan and director of the Joint Staff to describe the concept of building a “team of teams” with a common purpose, awareness and empowerment in an environment where information is more accessible, often creating an increased level of complexity. The General does an excellent job at assessing the structure and management style of other successful organizations and formulates a common-sense managerial approach to leading people in a way that makes them feel valued, respected, involved and committed.

Team of Teams is pertinent to us as modern day Coast Guardsmen because it explores the philosophy of Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American mechanical engineer, who sought to improve industrial efficiency in the early 1900s. Taylor adopted the “reductionist process” to streamline how production employees work and what they need to understand in order to accomplish individual tasks. Taylor believed that employees must only understand their individual roles and need not communicate with others or ask questions of their supervisors about the bigger picture. Taylor’s methods were tried and applied to military discipline where they were largely adopted for much of the 20th century. While McChrystal acknowledges that Taylor’s methods had relevance in the early 20th century, today, in much of the world that is less true. The General began to question the deleterious effects of this military mindset where subordinates were not encouraged to question their superiors or participate in decision-making processes. Pointedly, he directly attributed lack of communication and involvement of key participants for the failure to prevent the attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Therefore, he felt compelled to restructure his command, transforming the mind set of personnel from the archaic beliefs of Taylor to embracing the ideas that our world and consequently jobs have become increasingly complex, and people thus find their work more interesting and enjoy being more self-directed. McChrystal created a culture built on the foundation of trust where, “cross-pollination” amongst various groups increased collaboration, sharing of resources and effectiveness. While there are many lessons that one may derive from this book, those that had particular resonance with me are detailed in the following four points:

Team of teams1. Above all, teams require a sense of purpose and trust between members to successfully accomplish more than a single person could alone.

2. Creation of successful teams can still result in difficulties if different teams do not trust each other. A team of teams consists of cohesive, specialized groups that out of necessity, like-mindedness, goal attainment and professionalism must trust each other to do their jobs and communicate throughout a task. These teams make the transition to being goal-bound vice process driven.

3. Team members that do not trust each other do not share information and resources. Members of teams that trust each other share information willingly and grant access to resources when they know it will benefit the organization’s common purpose.

4. A successful leader cannot lead through an age-old hierarchy system, as it promotes irrelevance. This antiquated ideology separates the decision-makers from the entry-level employees tasked with accomplishing the day-to-day mission. By eradicating this thought process, it generates an environment where people are free to act autonomously because they understand and buy-in to the same strategic content and possess a clear direction of the objectives and goals. A leader that resists the urge to monitor and instruct, and who leaves decisions to those farther down the chain of command, gets equally good results and a more efficient organization.

As I reflected on these four points, I felt drawn to them, not because they are a revolutionary idea, but because these ideas embodied the type of command climate and environment I was privileged enough to be a part of for the past two years. The individuals I served with were consummate professionals that exuded tremendous dedication to the mission, each other and those they vowed to protect and serve. These qualities are of course not unlike other Coast Guard members, but what made this environment unique was the chemistry that existed within our unit. While we had our individual “teams” charged with accomplishing a particular mission, we were ignited with a sense of common purpose as a larger collective team. This common purpose infused the unit with energy and excitement; it transformed individual members into a cohesive group aligned around a common set of goals. The Sector Commander and Deputy trusted their team members to make decisions, act as we saw necessary, and carry out the mission to fruition. There is a fine line between encouraging autonomy without requiring accountability, and the unit leaders did an excellent job at holding people accountable for their work while recognizing there were multiple ways of achieving the end goal.

I truly believe that this freedom to control our tasks, our time, and our chosen method transformed the “feeling” of being united around a common goal into a powerful influence that was largely unstoppable. While it is evident now as I have read this book, it was something that just seemed to fall in place. However, it would not have been possible if everyone did not trust each other, feel safe to share information and were given autonomy from supervisors to accomplish the mission.

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