Interview: ‘Company leaders need battlefield values’

A former commando says the focus on rank is greater in business than in the military world

In Damian McKinney’s experience, former military personnel work mainly in management consultancy, financial services, charity, recruitment or security. Mr McKinney’s passion for business transformation led him to the first of those.

But he did not leave his battlefield mindset behind: the chief executive and founder of McKinney Rogers, a global management consultancy, sees today’s workplace as a battleground and believes executives have much to learn from military leaders.

He has recorded lessons from his 18 years as a Royal Marines commando, serving on operations around the world, in a book The Commando Way, Extraordinary Business Execution.

He says in the book: “The word ‘strategy’ is a military term that is at the centre of any business’s thinking; it comes battle-hardened into the business vocabulary.

“The potential lessons for the business world have been apparent since General von Clausewitz wrote the book On War nearly 200 years ago. Though the military learned, business is only just starting to do so.”

Mr McKinney founded McKinney Rogers in Devon in 1999. It advises leadership teams around the world and its clients have included large businesses such as Wal-Mart, Diageo, ITV, JP Morgan and Pfizer.

With offices in New York, Tokyo, Nairobi, Barbados, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere, the company uses “Mission Leadership” philosophy – a holistic approach that begins with understanding the organisation’s vision – to advise on business performance.

The values of the military remain deeply ingrained: Mr McKinney says those robust values made him a Royal Marine and he recalls how shocked he was to learn the business world does not take company values as seriously.

“It’s admirable to reiterate the importance of your company values, as Barclays has done recently, but every business should remember that values need to be absolutely true to the DNA of a company and be internalised by everyone,” he says.

“Leaders should not view their position as ‘just a job’. I respect Jack Welch’s approach to balancing performance against values – ‘high performer low values, out; high values and low performer, coach up, before out’. And remember, you only ever really know the true values of a person when they are under pressure.”

He thinks the lack of values in business is a time bomb as more people want to be led by people they can trust and in his book he writes that values are a bedrock for an organisation’s vision: “A vision is so fundamental to the being of an organisation that it should never be seen as a short-lived campaign cry.

“Only by getting the vision right, and being absolutely true to who you are, can you get everything else right that then follows.”

Mr McKinney is also struck by the “blinkered” approach of many chief executives who do not have an instant overview of their business: “You’d be amazed by the number who freeze when I say ‘So, how’s business today?’

“Telling me that they will get all the consolidated figures at the monthly executive or board meeting in two weeks just doesn’t do it. Can you imagine a general not having an immediate snapshot of what’s happening on the battlefield?”

He encourages chief executives to adopt a “dashboard”, rather than a “scorecard” mentality: “You have the dashboard view of the battle. There’s a single screen and a series of measures on multiple screens, so you can keep to your strategy while adjusting operational and tactical plans.

“The dashboard needs enough information to let you make decisions. It has information on sales, budgets, every area of your business’s performance. Some people have had lucky careers based on ambiguity. You can’t rely on luck, you need clarity and future-looking intelligence.”

He suggests the military is much better at gathering competitive intelligence, which involves thinking ahead and putting themselves in the position of their opposition or competitors in order to plan what to do.

“The thinking commando might have limited resources to deploy, but he can use them well because he has thought ‘Where is the competitor’s focus? What new products will he have? What’s the pricing policy?

“My favourite historical figure must be Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate general during the American Civil War. He believed in the power of reconnaissance in planning for the future strategic battle. The business world does not understand it. It makes do with business intelligence – slicing and dicing of the data – rather than competitor intelligence which forecasts what might happen.”

Perhaps the biggest difference Mr McKinney has seen between business and the military is the business world’s focus on rank, status and following orders.

“Ironically, companies are much more focused on what I call ‘command and control’ than their military counterparts. This is even more pronounced during uncertain times like the current recession,” he explains.

“The ‘Do as I Say’ model is old and designed for an ordered, predictable world. In the current, uncertain world this model leads to a lack of pace, accountability and agility to deal with fast-changing events. It paralyses the front line, leading to internal friction that hampers performance and the corporate machine freezes because different parts of the organisation don’t work together.”

Mr McKinney suggests such a breakdown enables the competition to step in, taking customers and talent.

He says businesses have to let employees explore – give them the mission and let them decide on how to execute. He cites several psychological experiments based on the school playground to back up this view. The mission reveals a “what” and “why” but does not specify the “how” – it is up to the team to develop the solution, thinking for themselves.

He suggests: “People in business must ask ‘What have I got to deliver? What are my constraints? What are my freedoms?’ I urge chief executives to talk about the concept of risk with teams.

“Real entrepreneurs like Jack Welch and Richard Branson totally understand both victory and risk.”

Mr McKinney’s own mentors include his mother, who had to leave Kenya with her family and went on to forge a career in the civil service, and his grandfather who was a citizen soldier, volunteering at 16 and again at 40 to serve his country in two world wars, before returning to commercial life after each.

He is still driven by his grandfather’s advice, which he thinks equally applies to business: “Be prepared to be more frightened than you have ever been but show no fear. Don’t let your men lie down too long on the battlefield, you must maintain momentum and remember your duty is to bring all your men back alive. These words would have served Lehman Brothers well.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.