What does a military unit that faced annihilation have to do with enterprise productivity. A lot more than you would think.

Last week I packed up my carry-on sized bags and headed off on economy to spend the week in Seattle, attending meetings with coworkers from several different parts of my company. Business Development, Sales, and Marketing mostly. But most of the people I spent time with were from the geek side of these establishments, with backgrounds in enterprise IT or software development. Most of them could still write some fine systems, and at least for the Sales Engineers I met with, most of them know more about architecture and enterprise IT than your average IT person.

And that is something I’ve found over the years. While we don’t often have time to just pop off and socialize with people from another group, if you make the time, be they business people or IT staff from another area, or HR reps, you will generally find that there are some smart folks in your organization that can and will help you when you need it. I’m a geek. The kind of geek that at thirteen knew he wanted to program computers for a living. That kind of implies I’m not a terribly social person. But taking the effort to get to know the strengths (and weaknesses) of fellow employees has always paid off. If for no other reason that you are consistently reminded of how smart the team you have working with you is.

imageIt’s easy to assume that your average employee isn’t a rock star, but I’ll bet money that if your organization is successful, they are. There are two reasons I say that. First, to become successful you have to have smart people doing what needs doing in the marketplace. Second, once a company is successful, smart people want to come work for the organization. But if you don’t get to know your coworkers you’ll not see that and be reminded of it. I’m not a fan of the back-slapping, fun loving type of interaction, and my experience is that most geeks aren’t, but a sit down for ten minutes talking personably about what they’re doing that’s cool, and what you’re doing that’s cool, not only increases opportunities for you to identify places you can help each other, it builds respect and trust, both of which make for a stronger organization. If you ask any military unit from any country how they survived a tough spot, they’ll all tell you the same exact thing “Because we implicitly trusted each other”. The same is true for any group trying to achieve, the higher the level of trust, the more the group will band together to fend off emergencies and dangers.

If your organization is larger than eight or ten people, there is a pretty good chance there are people you’d rather not spend a break chatting with in it. Let’s face it, you get Cisco sized and there is a near zero chance that you will like everyone in the organization. Heck there is near zero chance you will meet everyone in the organization. But that’s not the point. If you chat with everyone else, you’re doing the same thing… Building trust and cohesiveness.

 

Canadian Soldiers in France, WWII.

“Isn’t that… networking?” many of you will ask at this point. I suppose you could call it that, but networking has a much more base goal in my opinion. Networking is so that you can forward your career at some point. This might well forward your career, imagebut is more likely to develop understandings that allow you to go “I really don’t want to work extra this week, but HR/Accounting/Whoever really needs this project to come in on time”. And them to go “I really don’t want to lose this feature, but I trust my IT guy, if we have to drop it to make deadlines, we’ll schedule it for right after release.” This type of give-and-take works far better than rooms full of managers hashing things out, and is far less confrontational. Good for everyone, good for the organization.

While I wouldn’t spend a ton of time each week doing this, I would make the effort. It can pay off in many ways, but the biggest payoff, in my experience, is inn stress reduction. If there is a level of trust built over months or years, then the bad news about project X is more palatable to whichever side has to receive it.

You’re not soldiers in a battle for their very lives, you are employees pursuing a livelihood. I’m not claiming the stressors are the same, I am saying there is much that could be learned from tight-knit military units that fell into hard times. They sacrifice for each other, they protect each other, and they gather together to do the seemingly impossible. Misunderstandings are quickly glossed over and failures do not begin with recriminations. Most enterprises could learn something from that, but it has to start with you, chatting with people you don’t normally work with, just chatting about work, when you’re not working together.

If you want actual networking (not the geek kind) advice, see this video: Peyton Manning Farewell. I am not a football fan in any way (shhhh, don’t tell anyone here in Green Bay Wisconsin that, they tend to get pretty upset if you’re not a Packers fan), but this is the way you should exit an organization. They fired him, over an injury he received doing the job they assigned him. And he lets everyone know there is no bad blood. Maybe you don’t want to go as far as he did – he hugs the man that let him go – but the experience and knowledge you gained at an employer has a hard-to-quantify value that you can be grateful for, even if you really didn’t enjoy the job. Seriously, this is a classy exit, and I wish him luck.

But don’t go looking for an excuse to practice a Manning-style farewell. If you are in the company of smart people, it is presumed that you belong there. I write pretty, so they let me hang out with geeks that can describe DNS at a level I didn’t think existed, or draw multinational corporations’ IT networks on a whiteboard at the level of specifity you want on-demand. If you ever get the opportunity to work with an F5 Field Sales Engineer, you’ll get what I mean. Bright folks, and they’re typical of the quality of people we have across the company.

Peyton Manning

And no, if you’re in management or HR at your organization, this is not an invitation for you to poach our astounding staff, I just like to remind them that they are some of the best once in a while.