Leadership Strategy for Change – Discovering Option 3

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A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.
Simon Sinek

Little things can become big catalysts for change
This is the story of how a simple game of softball became the catalyst for one of the most powerful organizational team-building success stories of my career. What began as a last-ditch experiment to mold a dysfunctional group of unmotivated, de-moralized, uncaring, task failures, ended a few short months later, with a turnaround team that was tight, trusting, cohesive, and had streaked up the organizational leader board from last place to achieve the coveted status of first-place champions.

How to go from unmotivated to engaged
It all began with MAIT. The acronym MAIT stands for the Maintenance and Assistance Inspection Team. MAIT inspections were a serious business.  Even so, many companies regularly failed maintenance inspections from the V Corps MAIT team. But it was during my early years in the Army,  when I was a platoon leader assigned to the 54th Battalion in Wildflecken, Germany, a major US training base not far from the former East German border, that I first understood just how important these MAIT inspections really were. I quickly learned that a company’s repeated MAIT failures could lead to a young company commander being relieved of a command, which in turn could damage a career.

Thrown into a challenge head first
It wasn’t long after my time as a platoon leader, that I was thrown into the MAIT challenge head-first and had to face the very real difficulties of the MAIT failure problem.

My new assignment was the position of Battalion Maintenance Officer (BMO). Our battalion commander was Lieutenant Colonel Dan Christman, who later went on to become a Lieutenant General and Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. I had been learning a lot about maintenance. Not enough to pass the inspections but enough to begin to understand why we were failing.  So, when Lieutenant Christman asked me why we were having such a difficult time with maintenance inspections I was ready to venture a preliminary analysis. I put forth the observation that as the BMO,  the lieutenant charged with the responsibility of supervising maintenance, I really didn’t understand maintenance very well. And that I wasn’t alone in this lack of understanding. I explained that our first-line supervisors, our lieutenants, did not know how to supervise. To make matters worse, the lieutenants had never been trained to supervise maintenance and they didn’t know what they were doing. As a result, they didn’t have the tools to help train or supervise others.

Introducing a new program
The outcome of this meeting was the formation of a new ‘Saturday Certification Program.’ I put together a supervisory certification checklist and every single Saturday LTC Christman personally certified each lieutenant, one-by-one, until they were all certified. Not only was this a learning opportunity for our team of lieutenants, but it was also a learning opportunity for me.

During my time with LTC Christman, I learned a lot and would learn more and more from him over the years. As the BMO I learned how to maintain all equipment from our trucks to our communications equipment, generators, and much more. After about eighteen months as the BMO, LTC Christman assigned me as the B Company Commander. This assignment was a special opportunity and I was determined to succeed. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that not only would I succeed beyond any personal expectations, but that’s where the ‘Softball Strategy’ for team-building would be born – a strategy that would result in a group of soldiers going from losers to champions – a winning team.

When performance is abysmal
At B Company, our maintenance situation was abysmal. We repeatedly failed the critical MAIT inspections. It was no comfort to know that we weren’t the only company failing. It was clear that if we did not turn things around soon, my time as a company commander would be short-lived.

Playing the blame game
Everyone was playing the blame game. The drivers blamed the mechanics. The mechanics blamed the repair parts clerks, the drivers blamed the supervisors who did not know how to supervise. There was a lot of finger-pointing and a general lack of trust.

We needed to build a team that would work together, trust each other, and leverage the skills of everyone on the team toward a single goal – passing the MAIT.

The softball solution
The solution? Softball. If we weren’t able to build an organizational team a softball team seemed like a good second choice. Our softball team was a true pick-up team with very few skills and little talent. We thought the softball field would give us the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company, to socialize, and to laugh together. We also thought that these bonding activities could serve as foundational trust pillars. We were determined to build a functioning cohesive team that would ultimately transfer the concept of teamwork from the softball field to our company maintenance program.

Our first effort resulted not in the win we had hoped for but in another total fail. It was all because of the beer.

Beer ball
The troops wanted to play “beer ball.” I wasn’t familiar with the game, but it didn’t take me long to catch on. We were stationed in Wildflecken which is situated in the Rhone Mountains. Atop one of the mountains is an area known as Kreuzberg with a famous old monastery whose monks brewed some of the best beer in the world. The beer was not bottled, so if you wanted to sample it you had to visit the monastery. If you wanted to bring some back down the mountain you could to buy a keg of the fantastic brew. And so “beer ball” became our ‘go-to’ game. The rule was simple. There was a keg of beer at every base. When you landed on a base, you had to drink the beer while waiting to advance to the next base. Needless to say, our skills and our softball game became worse. That was our first and last time playing beer ball.

Deciding to win
That’s when we decided to get serious and start playing to win. We decided to build a better softball team. That decision was the first step to turning everything around – from softball to those all-important MAIT inspections.

Meanwhile, we were faced with another big challenge. At that time in the Army, there was a serious problem with drugs and alcohol. A number of troops spent their money getting high and not taking advantage of the remarkable opportunity of exploring Europe – easy to do from our base in Germany.

Refocusing
My wife Renee and my top Non-Commissioned Officer, First Sergeant Trombley were determined to find a way to make the soldiers turn their focus to the enjoyment of living in Europe. They decided that what was needed was a trip. As it turned out, those trips played an integral part in the turnaround Softball Strategy.

Our first trip would be very inexpensive. We would use a military bus, at no cost, and link the trip to leader development training. I asked the soldiers where they wanted to go and a few said they wanted to go to the “Wall” in Nuremberg, Germany. I dutifully filled out the trip request for leadership training. It wasn’t long before my battalion commander called me to his office to ask about the planned trip. His first question was whether I knew what the “Wall” was? I told him I understood that Nuremberg was a walled city where they had held the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War. It had seemed like an excellent leadership development opportunity to me. My battalion commander explained that the “Wall” had nothing to do with history – it was the nickname given to the red light district in Nuremberg. I agreed to take the troops to another, less racy, part of Nuremberg and the trip was approved.

On the Saturday morning of the trip to Nuremberg, there were exactly four people on the bus: my wife, First Sergeant Trombley, Lieutenant Trevino, and me. Not a single soldier had shown up. I took First Sergeant Trombley and Lieutenant Trevino and together the three of us went to the barracks to look for troops who were not too hungover from the previous night. The ones we found we put on the Nuremberg bus. Even though the trip got off to a rocky start everyone ended up having a great time. It was such a success, that the few soldiers who we had gathered up spread the word. It wasn’t long before we had requests for another trip.

Our next trip was much better. In the early days of my career, soldiers received their pay in cash from one of the lieutenants serving as the monthly pay officer. This was a duty that not many lieutenants looked forward to because there was always the chance that they would accidently dole out more cash than required and have to make up the difference from their personal funds. But to get the increasingly popular trips going, each pay period we set up a table next to the pay officer where we collected enough cash from the troops to pay for their food, travel, hotel, and any small additional expenses. Our next destination was Llorett de Mar Beach in Spain. What a difference from our first venture to Nuremberg. This time the bus was completely filled with troops and for many, it was the very first time they had traveled anywhere in Europe outside Germany. The trip to Spain was a huge success.

What does all this have to do with softball or team building?
But what did these trips have to do with softball? And more importantly how did these trips and softball morph into a powerful success strategy dominated by cohesive, trusting teams?

We were about to find out.

Our softball team was starting to improve. We learned how to match the abilities and skills of each soldier to the position on the team where they could add the most value. Even though we had little hope of distinguishing ourselves, we entered the post softball championship. Our hard teamwork paid off. We didn’t win first place, but we did win second place in the Wildflecken Softball Championship. Not bad for a team that had launched their softball career with kegs of beer.

The top two teams from each military garrison were invited to a four-day tournament in Hohenfels, Germany. As runners up, our second-place standing secured us a spot in that tournament. Once again, our pickup team from Wildflecken was not expecting much. We were up against some outstanding teams. We weren’t surprised when we lost our first game to a field artillery team. But it was how we lost that was critical to our future ‘Softball Strategy’ of team excellence. The game was ended early due to the “10-Run Rule.” We were losing by 10 runs  and in softball that’s crushing, so the umpire invoked the 10-run rule to end the game early and put us out of our misery. Here we were, one game in and already back to being losers. But we told ourselves that it was great that we had made it this far. At this point, we still had no idea of just how far we would go thanks in large part to that 10-run rule.

Win once and keep winning
The next day was completely different. We won! And then we won again! We kept winning! After two days of softball, we found ourselves in the championship round. And in a pure stroke of fate we were to play against that very first team, the artillery team, that had beaten us by the 10-run rule! To win, we had to take both playoff games.

We played the first game. It was tight. But thankfully, we won.

Now it was time to play the second and deciding game. But there was one challenging issue. Later that same day, we had another one of our successful ‘explore Europe’ trips scheduled and booked. Two buses would be departing from in front of Bravo Company to take the troops to Rome. And almost all the soldiers on the softball team had already paid and were scheduled to go on that Rome trip. The buses would be leaving while the championship was in full swing – before it ended.

What do you do when you have two options?
I pulled the team together and told them we had two choices. We could either play the game for the championship and miss the bus for the trip to Rome or we could get on that bus with our second-place trophy and forfeit the championship game. I told them that if they decided to stay and play I couldn’t return any of their trip money to them. I told them how proud I was of them when no one expected us to come this far and that I would still be proud of them if they decided to leave the tournament and go to Rome.  I told them that no matter which option they chose, no matter what decision the team made I would support it either way.

The team went into a huddle. I stood to the side and waited.

Going for option 3!
It was Sergeant Myers, one of the team leaders, who finally walked over to me and said, “Sir, we have our decision.” I asked him if the team had picked option one, to stay and play for the championship or option two to take their second-place trophy, get on the bus and go to Rome. Sergeant Myers surprised me by saying, “Sir, we came up with option 3.” I reminded him that I hadn’t offered an option 3. But he insisted. “Sir, you know how the field artillery team ended our first game early by invoking the 10-run rule? Well, we’re going to do the same thing to them. We are going to win that championship game by the 10-run rule, force an early end to the game, and still have plenty of time to spare to make it back to Bravo Company and get on that bus to Rome.”

As Sergeant Myers discussed option 3, my eyes welled up in tears. At that moment I knew we had created a team with the spirit to win. I realized that I had boxed them in with my two options, but they were not willing to accept that. They pushed past the limitations. They got creative. They acted as a team. And what did I learn? I learned that great ideas can come from anyone on a team if the environment is open, safe and trusting to allow for this type of freedom of thought.

As we went into that final game, the tension was high, but the motivation of the Bravo Company troops was even higher. They scored run after run after run. Until finally Bravo Company ended the game early defeating the artillery team by the 10-run rule just as they had said they would and won the 1982 US Army Europe Softball Championship!

As we pulled into our own parking lot, there were the buses for Rome with engines running waiting for winners.

Why settle for one team victory when you can have two?
The team got two victories that day. A softball championship and a trip to Rome. But I knew that through their own imagination, perseverance, and teamwork they had won a third victory – an option 3 victory. They were winners. They were champions. They were a team!

The story doesn’t end there though.

Team building – team bonding
During that year, the skills our team developed on the softball field and the camaraderie that bonded them over our many travels through Europe started to pay off in our maintenance program – the ultimate challenge that had started this whole journey to team-building in the first place. Bravo Company started to pass all of its inspections with flying colors. We were soon nominated to compete in the best maintenance company competition in the US Army Europe and we won! That was just the beginning. We entered the very challenging competition for the best maintenance company in the entire US Army. It wasn’t easy. We trained intensely and worked as a team just as we had in our softball competitions. Inspectors from the US visited our company and inspected every facet of our program. Then, in 1983, Bravo Company, which started out with one of the worst maintenance programs, was named the best mid-sized maintenance program in the US Army. We had done it. We were number one. We were champions!

From losers to winners – from winners to champions
After we won the best maintenance program award people would ask me what the secret was? How had we turned our losing team into a winning one? And I would always respond, “We played softball and traveled on a bus all over Europe.”

I learned many life lessons as a young company commander. I learned that building a winning team is always possible, even without a bunch of A-team players. I learned a leader can change the behaviors and attitudes of the members of a team. I learned a team can learn the skills to face adversity, trust each other, and win. I learned that these winning outcomes can happen when leaders show they care for their troops. And I learned never to box a team into a fixed set of options. I learned that there is always an option 3.

What’s your option 3?

Grab a ball. Get on a bus. You might be very surprised at what happens.

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