After retiring in 2021 from a 30-year career in the US Army, I moved to a small consulting company. I figured that I had been working on projects my whole military career and had taken a project management certification course, so I knew what to do. But like Lee Corso says on College Gameday, “not so fast my friend!” While I was not brand new to managing projects, there were still some things I had to learn as I shifted from working for senior military leaders to senior and mid-level civilian leaders. Below are my three most impactful leadership lessons learned, applicable to anyone starting out or in the middle of a consulting project.
Lesson #1: Manage Your Expectations and Those of People Around You.
The hardest part of a project comes at the beginning. Often, direction is vague, outcomes are ill-defined, and although everyone wants to make things better, there is not a lot of agreement on how to get there. Early expectation management will save you a lot of pain down the road. When your project has organization-wide implications, you need to gather information and learn how the different stakeholders view the project you will lead. Participate in as many meetings as possible to understand priorities and major issues affecting the organization. This is especially important when you are new – either as an employee or consultant (if you are allowed). As you look around the organization, do not be afraid to question policies, assumptions, documents, and guidance that don’t make sense. All of these were produced by a person like you, and they may not be right for the current circumstances of the organization.
As you gather information, ideas start to develop. Discipline your grand ideas with reality. And like the old saying goes, “follow the money”, because the budget is the direction of the organization. Strategy without resources is fiction. When there are competing projects, if it is possible, be the first person to produce a draft – whether that is a project charter, brainstorming list, or anything that is going to get wide distribution. Never forget that agenda setting is a powerful tool. And lastly, think about what you are doing. You are getting paid to make recommendations to your client or boss. That requires you to do the hardest thing – see the world through their eyes. Your experiences and backgrounds are different, so naturally, you have differing perspectives on the solutions to projects. Your great idea may bomb with them. And the thought you dismissed may be something they latch on to. As you think through your problem, try to change your paradigm to that of who you are advising.
Lesson #2: Clear Communication Makes Your Life Much Easier.
The key to effective communication is the “three C’s”: clear, concise, cogent. Clarity is achieved through precision in word choice. Time is critical and senior leaders are busy. So being concise ensures you get your key points across. Lastly, being cogent is necessary to ensure that leaders understand what you are telling them and why it matters to the organization. Sell your arguments in terms of with/without risk; articulate the risk and the mitigation measures. Every industry and organization has its own specific jargon that it uses. Whether you are a new hire or consulting in a new (to you) organization, you need to learn the language. Clear definitions are needed because words mean things! Words matter so be precise. This is even more important when dealing with a client who does not natively speak your language. When working with a client who spoke English as a second language, I often found that I had to slow down and listen to understand; not to respond. We were using the same words, but we did not mean the same things.
Another aspect of communication is communication with senior decision makers. It is easy to get into the trap of expecting that they will want to receive information the same way that you do. Learn and adapt to senior leaders’ style of receiving that information. Do they prefer briefings with slides and diagrams? Short information papers? Are they a “talk out loud to hear themselves thinking” kind of person? Whatever style it is, you can bet it probably does not match yours 100%. Adjust accordingly.
Lastly, be patient when your ideas on important issues are being reviewed. It will get more scrutiny than you think is necessary by those who do not have your level of knowledge and contextual understanding. But good ideas stand up to the pressure.
"Good ideas stand up to the pressure."
Lesson #3: Navigating Relationships is Crucial to Your Success.
Whether you realize it or not, one thing you do in your job is subsidize your client/boss’s thinking—he or she must count on you to do some of the mental gymnastics for him/her and help them develop options for his/her boss. Building that level of trust does not happen overnight. There is a time for details and substance and a time to win hearts and minds. Access to the senior person is limited – use it well. In the movie Ferris Bueller, the main character makes the following statement: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris was right. Sometimes you need to look around and see what you can do to make sense of what is happening around you.
To do that, you need to do a few things, beginning with getting out from behind your desk and walking around. See and be seen. Make contacts in other departments, business units, sections, etc. - sometimes a short phone call can save you a lot of extra work and wasted time. Since you will not have all the answers, outsource your thinking when it makes sense to do so (i.e., when you are clearly not the subject matter expert.) Find the people whose judgment you trust. You need them on your team because they add the expertise you need to bring more than just an opinion to your boss or client.
So how do you know if you are making a positive difference? I have seen a lot of middle management leaders struggle with this question. Just like in a game of poker, there are “tells” to look for that indicate you are making your desired difference.
Although each organization and its culture will dictate what those tells are, the following list is a good start point for assessing your impact:
· When a question comes up about your area or issue, people around the organization know who you are and ask you
● Others ask for your advice on staffing and seek your comments about their work
● Senior leaders regularly ask for your input or opinion about issues
● You are asked to brief important issues or sit in on important meetings
● When a crisis takes place or something needs to happen quickly, you’re normally involved in the process
Remember that no one will take care of you like you will. You have to think about what you want to achieve in your work and with the organization. Prepare relentlessly and assume nothing. Visualize things for yourself and anticipate potential trouble. Help instill preparedness in others. In the end, all you can do is be your own person. Communicate honestly, set an example for others, take time off to rest and recuperate (those are not the same things!!), have thick skin, and don’t blindly believe your positive press.
Andrew Ajamian culminated a 30-year US Army career in 2021. He served as a senior advisor to numerous different defense leaders in the Pentagon and in various units around the globe. Since retiring from the Army he has worked as a consultant helping organizations improve performance and achieve strategic goals. Andrew holds a BA in Political Science from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and an MA in Management from The University of Alabama.