Military Leadership In Action: Q&A with Garland Williams

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Garland Williams; he is the Dean of Academics at a leading for-profit college and retired Army Colonel. My relationship with Garland goes back to his transition and he is one of my favorite people to check in with.

1). What is your biggest leadership lesson learned in the service that you can apply to your current business decisions?

The strategic pause. Three years ago the Army changed their policy on tuition assistance. Some of the other schools panicked and immediately started changing their policies. My boss asked what we should do and I said well let’s take a strategic pause. Congress put pressure on the Army and the Army’s tuition plan was restored and we were in a good position. Other schools got in trouble for over-aggressive military recruiting practices based on their reactionary change to the Army’s policy while we let it all sort itself out. Sometimes, the right decision is to not make one. Make sure you have a better understanding of the situation before you launch in a direction.

2). What do you think is the biggest misconception about hiring military officers into industry?

That the military produces rigid leaders who cannot work outside the plan or deal with ambiguity. We are good at planning but also understand that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Military leaders must have contingency plans to shift to on the fly. They are working with many, many things simultaneously. They don’t panic when something different happens. They are good with what my boss calls a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous) environment.

3). What did your advanced education (MA / PhD) teach you about Leadership that was contrary to Army leadership?

It was more an observation than a lesson. In the military, we empower our subordinates because they may need to step up and take command. Academia tends to hold intellectual property close working in a silo of one. There was more self-focus and less team focus.
That was also one of the differences that I liked about for-profit schools. Our classes need to be scaled for all of our faculty to teach. The intellectual property belongs to the university and not the professor. Like the military, for-profit schools move fast and counter to the slow movement of traditional academia.

4). What leadership lessons were echoed in your advanced degree college experience?

They both press the importance of following a professional reading program. When I showed up at graduate school I quickly realized how much I didn’t know and it became necessary for me to step up my reading program. Reading has given me the opportunity to learn the leadership lessons from good and from bad leaders. It’s helped me see the changes in business and to look closely at the demand curve, to be more of a futurist.
5). Do you believe that investing in hiring JMOs (Junior Military Officers) delivers a good return?

YES! These are the best young leaders in our country. In their twenties, most will lead upwards of 30 people in their first position; their civilian counterpart might be in their fifties before they are given that experience. They quickly learn to blossom through subordinates
Only three out of ten young men and women are qualified to enter military service due to the military’s moral, educational, and physical standards. Of that group, only 10% are selected for the Officer Corps. The challenges of meeting career gates make our Junior Officers the most qualified leaders in the USA. Even in the current downsized military, Armed Services continue to struggle to recruit officers. In addition to their leadership, their experience translates to most corporate careers.
I recently mentioned in a talk, the Three “Ms” that military and civilian leaders focus on: Manpower, Materials and Money. JMOs have lived leadership in conditions that if they made a mistake, the entire world is watching through the international media; however, the world doesn’t see reports because the JMOs are that good and are getting it right.

6). What are the top three qualities you view as important in a business leader?

1. Calm Under Pressure. You must be calm so your people can execute, not freeze and contribute to them delivering on their goals. Calm is efficient.

2. Be Decisive. Have the ability to make a bounded, rational choice with 70-80% of the information present, even if that choice is a strategic pause.

3. Empowering Subordinates. Leaders in turn make leaders and your subordinates need to come to you with solutions. Of course there are non-negotiables like lying, cheating or stealing, but your subordinates should be able to make the call in your absence and know that it’s okay.

7). Has your Army background helped you plan and execute business strategy?

Yes, from the basics of knowing how to plan. The decision process of a mission in business is much like the military with implied and specified tasks, assumptions and the course of action. We set priorities and look at options. We test the facts. In our business we will ask, “Is there a market? What resources will we need? Do we have them? Where can we find them?” Then we take a course of action.

8). Is there anything that you learned in the military that is contrary to business decision making? Business is not as good at having a contingency plan. In the military, we assess at decision points or look for trigger factors to establish if the course of action is working or not. Business tends to stick with a plan far too long.