Summer is a time of transition for many. Thousands of college students are graduating and migrating to the world of work, and for some, ultimately, to positions of leadership. In the weeks ahead, organizations, such as our industry’s field organization, will be electing new teams of leadership for the coming year. It brings to mind one of my own transitions–from military to civilian life after World War II–and a time when I wondered if my wartime experience would be helpful in a civilian career. As it turned out much of what I learned in the Army Air Corps proved to be useful in later life.
There is one particular experience that I remember well and have tried to keep alive over the years. In 1943 I was sent to Randolph Field, then known as the “West Point of the Air,” where I attended a course in leadership. Among the sessions I attended, the most memorable was conducted by a flight surgeon from Randolph Field’s School of Applied Medicine whose subject was the qualities of leadership. Three lessons from that course stand out in my memory.
First Lesson: “Don’t be down on what you are not up on.”
This is not just a matter of boning up on facts and figures or otherwise doing your homework. Rather it relates to the importance of being sure of your position before being critical of things present. Too often people arrive at a top leadership post assuming that not much of importance had happened prior to their arrival. Worse yet, they sometimes jump to the conclusion that everything previously done was wrong. Of course, as my instructor pointed out, sometimes it is true, but it should not be an automatic assumption. He stressed the importance of learning to “walk around a problem,” looking at it from all sides and perspectives before reaching a conclusion or changing course.
Failure to consider all aspects of a situation can lead to a collision of objectives. Low taxes and good schools may be in direct conflict. Downsizing can collide with customer service, resulting in short-term gains being offset by long-term loss of customer loyalty. Too often the solution to today’s problems limits our view to a short-term exigency without consideration of the more important long-term consequence. Cutbacks in recruiting and training are outstanding examples in our business.
Second Lesson: “Never tear down a fence until you know why it was put there.”
This lesson emphasizes the importance of corporate memory. A successful Canadian mail order house decided to expand into retail outlets and soon spread them across Canada. Years later the executives and board of the company concluded that the mail order business was not profitable and so they sold it. No one remembered that all of the overhead from their expansion had been borne by the mail order division and the lack of profit resulted from absorbing costs that should have been charged to the retail outlets. Belatedly they learned that the fence they tore down was their most profitable operation.
Nowhere is corporate memory more important than in association management. Associations typically have a new leader and a new board every year. In just a few years most associations have a complete turnover of their boards, differing from normal corporate settings which often keep their board intact for years. In such instances corporate memory resides more in staff than in those that come and go.