If you are like many of my coaching clients, you’ve probably hit that point in your career (and life) where you are feeling overwhelmed and realize that you need to move from working in the business to working on the business. In other words, you can’t always be the one “doing” everything, putting out all of fires and getting stuck in the day-to-day weeds of work.  There is just too much to do.  In addition, someone needs to be thinking about the big-picture stuff and when you look around, you realize that someone needs to be you. 

If that scenario sounds like you, then you likely find yourself in the precarious positioning of needing to figure out ways to get your team (or your kiddos, perhaps) to be doing more of the day-to-day activities so you can be spending your time on the stuff that “only you can do.”  This begs an obvious question, “How do I make that transition, and more importantly, how do I get others to make that transition with me?”  That’s when I usually ask my clients “Have you communicated your Commander’s Intent?” When clients squint their eyes and furrow their brows at me in confusion, I explain with this story:

Several years ago, I was working with an internet security company whose business is to provide large companies and healthcare systems with hack-proof internet protection of customer data. The company’s employee base is made up of two groups: really smart IT professionals and former military personnel with counter-terrorist backgrounds. One of the leaders I talked to that day was a guy who was a recently retired U.S. Army Colonel who’d spent his military career providing data security for the Army. I asked him to describe the military’s systems around leadership communication (because that’s the sort of thing workplace therapists do) and he educated me on a recent evolution.

Commander’s Intent: Why, What & When

He explained it to me like this: After the war in Iraq, the US Army realized it could no longer rely on top-down commands as it had in prior conflicts. At that point, they determined that the world had become too complicated — in U.S. military terms it had gotten “V.U.C.A.”: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. There were so many variables in a given situation that it allowed for very little predictability in how a military event might unfold. No longer could they plan an exact strategy in how to exercise combat. In response, the military developed a new command structure they called “Commander’s Intent.” Now whenever there’s a new mission or objective, the commanding officer has a meeting with their direct reports and their direct reports’ direct reports — two levels down from the commander. At the meeting, the commander issues the “Commander’s Intent” of the mission which is composed of three key elements:

  1. The “Why” of the mission: Why is this our objective? Why do we need to take on this mission?
  2. The “What” of the mission: What needs to be done? What key events must occur in order for us to identify the mission as successful? and
  3. The “When” of the mission: That is, by what date or timeline must this be achieved?

The goal is that the group leaves the room clear on the Commander’s Intent because then everyone can move ahead aligned on the mission. No matter what gets thrown at the team, they can continue with the why, what, when objectives in mind.

But not “How”

You will note that “how” is not part of the Commander’s Intent. This is because of the inherent recognition that there are too many variables on the battlefield to be able to dictate how exactly to achieve the mission. Instead, the Army trusts that the people they have in place are competent actors, capable of interpreting the intent and executing on the mission accordingly. Similarly, I advise my clients that they need to demonstrate trust in their team by letting them figure out the how. When we focus on the how of our teams’ operations, we’re not being leaders, we’re being micro-managers. When you’ve put a competent team in place you should allow them the freedom to accomplish the mission using their own identified strengths. (As an aside, the only situations in which you might manage the how of your team is if you have a young or inexperienced group in place that needs to learn; then it’s your job to show them what needs to be done. We’ll deal with that in another post.)

Take Note of “Who”

One crucial part of Commander’s Intent is who the message gets communicated to. The colonel was clear that it is imperative that two levels of leadership heard the message. The message is the most powerful when it isn’t diluted — when as many people as possible have heard it, and walked through the details. You need your people on board and the best way to get them there is to have them hear the message directly from you.

That’s it. Commander’s Intent: aligning the key players and team members on the why, what and when of your organization’s goals and objectives, empowering them to execute how.

Try it out at work and at home.  And let me know how it goes.  I’d be curious as to what you discovered when you started to message your “Commander’s Intent.”  Send me an email or reach me on the Socials. ‘Til then, keep fighting the dysfunction, friends.