What Part Of Supporting Commander Don’t You Understand?

Every business has a point where the rubber meets the road. This is usually some type of client interaction that provides the valued service or product that results in an exchange of currency. In service oriented organizations, it is the work that is done for the client. Simple. Everything else that the organization does is to support that service to the client. So those not directly involved in client interactions are in a supporting role. Sometimes we call these functions back office or staff work. These supporting functions are not in the spot light. In the military we would say these functions are not the “pointy end of the spear.” Don’t get me wrong. The fact they are not on the tip of the spear does not give anyone the right to mistreat or think less of those in supporting roles. On the contrary, the organization would not function at all without the supporting roles. In fact, supporting roles can reduce the friction in the business and improve service to the client. This can make all the difference between a great service provider and a “okay” service provider. That’s why leaders must make sure their organizations get this right.

McChrystalThis brings me to a story where I was able to witness a great leader deal with this first hand. In 2007, I was on my way to command a submarine, but I had a few months before my Prospective Commanding Of
ficer (PCO) schools were to begin. There was obviously a lot going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East. So, I was sent on temporary assignment to Bahrain, home of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, to be a liaison between General Stanley McChrystal’s team fighting terrorism in the Central Command area of operations and the US Navy 5th Fleet. General McChrystal had taken a liking to using submarine PCO’s for this duty. My job was essentially to make sure General McChrystal’s group got the support they needed from the Navy’s 5th Fleet. You see, in Joint Military terminology, General McChrystal’s group was the “Supported Command” and for this particular operation plan, the 5th Fleet was the “Supporting Command”.

But, the 5th Fleet had it’s own set of headaches dealing with Iran acting up and Somali pirates who were stealing tankers in the Horn of Africa. I was having a hard time getting the right level of support from the 5th Fleet for very fast moving, anti-terrorism operations. It’s not that 5th Fleet staff was necessarily ignoring the needs of the anti-terrorism operations. In this case, it was mostly a matter of setting priorities and getting the right people’s attention. For whatever reason, I was not getting the support we needed to conduct these operations. It was clearly my fault as it was my job to make sure we got the support we needed. Perhaps it was my low rank – as a Lieutenant Commander I was practically invisible to the three Navy Captains who were the Chiefs of Staff (yes three). Perhaps it was my bad attitude or poor approach at developing relationships. No doubt I could have done better. But, bottom line, the Supporting Commander wasn’t supporting.

When I briefed the General and his staff during our weekly calls and reports, he was clearly not happy. But instead of blaming me, he told me to stand by, he’s coming down from Iraq to visit. A few weeks later, General McChrystal and a few staff members arrived in a C-130 at Bahrain International. Bear with me as I think the following part of the story is funny and worth sharing, even if it’s not directly related.

When I informed the 5th Fleet staff that General McChrystal would like to visit with the Vice Admiral commanding the 5th Fleet, I got a lukewarm response.  “Sure, we will try to fit it in but the Admiral is very busy.” My response, “Okay, well if he is too busy, I will let General McChrystal know the Admiral doesn’t have time.” They quickly change their tune “No, no. We can fit it in.” Let the power plays begin.

Next I ask for transportation and security support. Normally if a senior officer such as a three star flag officer is visiting, the local command provides full support for logistics and security. Well, this time nothing was available. The Vice Admiral would be using all the bullet proof SUVs for a visit with some dignitaries. No other SUVs are available, sorry. Seriously?

Well, I didn’t have a staff to help me and only had a small rental sedan that would not be much for a 3 star transport from the airport to the 5th Fleet base. I checked out local rental companies in Manama for an SUV. No SUVs available but I could get a mini-van. That’s right. I was going to pick up one of the most powerful war fighters in American history in a rented mini-van. I told the General’s staff of my predicament and they said no problem. The General doesn’t get excited about such things. Just pick us up. Cool.

I get to the Bahrain airport early. Well, lo and behold, there is the Vice Admiral’s SUVs. Turns out he is being picked up at the airport at the exact same time as I am picking up the General. The Vice Admiral walks off his Gulf Stream corporate jet (or something like that, forgive me, I am submariner). He strolls in his bright white uniform to his awaiting bullet proof SUV. They whisk him away with a full security detail. Then a few minutes later, General McChrystal walks off the back of a C-130. He is in his Army fatigues. He has a few of his special forces team with him. They are smiling and relaxed. We hop into the rented mini-van. I apologized for the pathetic transportation. “No problem, Bob. Tell me, how are things? Are you getting the support you need? What can we do to help you?” Then he got very personal. He asked what submarine I would be taking command of. When he heard it was USS KEY WEST, we ended up talking about Ernest Hemingway (Key West, Florida resident for part of his life) and books the General was currently reading. He asked about my family. He was so engaging in the conversation, I took a wrong turn. Yes, a wrong turn, in the Middle East, in a rented mini-van, with the most senior special forces war fighter in the Central Command Area of Operations. I should have been court-martialed on the spot. But, he shrugged it off and we got back on track. I joked it was an evasive anti-tailing maneuver I learned in Submarine school to avoid Russian fast attack submarines – a crazy Ivan maneuver! I am not sure he thought I was funny.

When we made it to the Naval Base, we quickly went in to meet with the Vice Admiral and his staff in a conference room. So, here is the “Supported Commander” in his fatigues with Iraqi dust still on them sitting across from the “Supporting Commander” in his white summer uniform. I couldn’t help but picture the scene in the movie “A Few Good Men” where Lieutenant junior grade Kaffee and Colonel Jessup meet in Guantanamo Bay. Kaffee in his whites. Jessup in his Marine Corps Service uniform (if only he had fatigues on). The Colonel’s description of Kaffee’s white uniform is not politically correct. I will leave it at that.

I expected the General to lean forward and yell “What part of Supporting Commander don’t you understand?” But, he didn’t. In fact, the conversation between the General and the Admiral was quite pleasant and professional. The General explained why the Admiral’s support was so important to the operations. The Navy Chiefs of Staff were all nodding their heads in unison. “Stan” told “Bill” (I forget his real name) that “Dave” (Petraeus – four star General in command of CENTCOM) and he would really appreciate 5th Fleet’s support. Hand shakes all around. We leave the conference room after only 45 minutes or so.

The General pulls me aside into a small office. “Bob, if you don’t see an improvement in support, please let my team know.” “Yes, sir.” A few hours later he was gone. From that day on, support for our operations was not a problem. And in fact, I can’t talk about the details, but I can say that American lives were potentially saved by support from the 5th Fleet on some operations we had only weeks later.

That’s a long story, but I think the leadership lesson is important. If you are a business leader and you hear that one of your “supported” business teams is not getting the help it needs from a “supporting” business function, don’t shrug it off as office whining or just complaining. Find out what is going on and do something about it. Clearly identified roles of supporting and supported are as critical in business as they are in war. In today’s world of flat organizations and employee empowerment, I am afraid we are creating friction in organizations where it shouldn’t be. Creative friction is good. Operational friction is not. Sometimes, a person in a supporting role needs to be guided on what that means. At the same time, the supported role needs to recognize the value of those supporting the “pointy end of the spear”.

In summary, the leader’s job is to make sure people in the organization understand their roles and how they work together to make the company and it’s services great and accomplish the mission. That’s what General McChrystal did for me in 2007 on a small island in the middle of the Arabian Gulf. I tried to take that to my command of USS KEY WEST and my business career since. Perhaps the General’s great leadership example could benefit your organization as well.