President elect Donald Trump recently announced he will appoint Retired General Mike "Mad Dog" Mattis as Secretary of Defense.
Why is Mad Dog retired? Because he asks the questions leaders don't like to ask - where the answers being considered don't even exist, may be unworkable and otherwise indicate that what the leader wants to do won't work.
Mattis' hard-nosed questions are reported to have surrounded the Iran Agreement. Questions such as, "If we destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, how will we respond if Iran counters with a chemical weapons attack?" For this, Mattis was allegedly fired. Mattis is certainly not the first General to be fired for telling people something they don't want to hear.
In the prelude to the second Iraq war, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fired the Chief of Staff of the Army at the time, General Eric Shinseki, who insisted that at least 300,000 troops were needed to secure and hold Iraq. Half a century earlier, General MacArthur told President Truman that the only way to halt the Chinese in Korea and win that war was to use nukes. Truman fired him, labeled him an insubordinate nut job and promptly called a truce.
These notable examples notwithstanding, Generals are rarely fired. In part, it's because most Generals won't take the career risk of telling senior civilians what they don't want to hear.
They are at the pinnacle of their careers, after all. Case in point, General Westmoreland was never willing to tell President Johnson that the only way to win the Vietnam war was with a greatly expanded effort and with greatly increased casualties. So, America continued to do the unworkable. These problems can and do happen in business as well.
For example, the Chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo Bank stepped down recently because his bank was opening accounts for people that did not ask for them. More than 5,000 people were fired over the course of several years for doing this, yet somehow, the CEO didn't know.
How about you? Does your organization fire the Mad Dogs?
It is hard not to. Group think is hard to stop. And, to be fair, many "Mad Dogs" are not mad in the sense of General Mattis, but simply angry obstacles to change. How do you and your organization tell the difference?
As a CFO and now as a financial advisor to businesses in difficult situations, my jobs have always required asking the hard questions people don't really want to know the answers to. Not to mention telling creditors and companies things they wish weren't true. Along the way, I have learned to tell the difference between the Mad Dogs and the mere naysayers and change resistors.
And, I have learned how to foster an organizational culture in which people speak up and challenge the group think. (In a way, needing a Mad Dog is a sign that your organization is dysfunctional and hopelessly tied up in group think and wishful thinking.)
Here is what I have learned...
- Set an example by asking the hard questions yourself. Milton Friedman was known for putting fear into the hearts of PhD candidates (and sometimes his colleagues) by iteratively asking one simple question - "How do you know that?"
So do the same. In "Listening to the Noise," I talked about meeting customers, employees, suppliers and competitors. In "Management by Wandering Around," I wrote of the importance of meeting people deep in your organization and giving them a chance to talk informally - about the company's objectives and strategies - and listening for dissonant feedback.
- Realize that process matters. Put one in place to allow candid conversation.
Years ago, when I was at Kraft Foods, there was consensus that the annual planning process was a waste. There were lengthy presentations in front of the brass, after which nothing really seemed to happen.
One of the changes we implemented was limiting the Plan review to just a handful of people: the CEO, CFO, Corporate head of strategy, division President, VP Finance, and perhaps the VP marketing. In that meeting, candid conversations could and did occur.
Opposing points of view within an organization can be hard to express and even harder to hear.
- Understand that group think and "firing the disbeliever" are organizational problems that need to be solved. But how do you find the dissenters if you are the CEO of a large organization? You can't be everywhere. That's where corporate staff comes in.
In my days as a corporate financial or strategy analyst, I was assigned to a particular business or set of businesses. One of my critical jobs was to meet and develop relationships with the executives in the business unit and their staff, and flush out the dissenting views. We checked them out so corporate management knew just which tough questions to ask. (Incidentally, if you don't have that capability, the field will bamboozle you, as I discussed in, "Five Recommendations for Managing Performance Expectations Well.")
But they need to be uncovered and given their fair share of air time. Dissent can lead to obstacles and road blocks, certainly. But it can also shine a light on policies, procedures and decisions that, left unchecked, can lead to disaster within any organization. Maintaining the right balance requires judgment and is a critical element of any effective leader's job.