Monday, May 12, 2008

Friend of Simplicity - Dave Wheeler

My Friend of Simplicity interview today is with a good friend and fellow simplifier Dave Wheeler who lives in Little Rock Arkansas in the United States. I met Dave a few months ago through the Tom Peters Blog. He and I immediately hit it off as two people sharing similar opinions about leadership, front line employees and simplicity.

TREVOR: Hi Dave – Tell me a little about your career.

DAVE: Well, the majority of my professional life was spent in the U.S. Air Force. The first 12 of my 24 years were spent as an Aircrew Life Support/Survival Training specialist. We inspected and maintained a wide variety of aircrew survival equipment from oxygen gear, life rafts, survival kits, and parachutes for example. We loaded tons of equipment on aircraft. But the best part of this field was training. We trained them how to use the equipment, how to escape and evade and how to survive in five different biomes. I essentially got paid to go camping in places like Guam, Thailand, the Philippines, and got to duct tape officers to trees when they screwed up in evasion scenarios. It gets no better than that.

My last 12 years were spent as the military equivalent of a Business Consultant. The title was Director of Quality, Performance, and Productivity Management. I worked directly with Group and Squadron Commanders to "design and deploy" a complete performance management systems for their each organizations in the part of the wing. We started at senior leader level worked down to the lowest frontline group they had. I also trained and certified an “in house” consultant to keep them on track and moving forward. I facilitated strategic and human resource plans, built balanced scorecards of key performance metrics, customer and supplier identification and relationship management strategies, survey design, semi-annual audits of their systems to find strengths and areas for improvement, and training, training, training were the basics. It was the best job on the planet and an invaluable "hands on" education on the challenges and barriers to "doing” effective leadership on the job from the Boardroom to the Floor. I sometimes will pick up a book on leadership and management and wonder "Buddy, have you ever seen a workplace or spoken to a frontliner in your life?” Many can tell you a bunch about "what" to do, but they often don't have a great deal to say about the specifics of execution, the “why’s" or the “hows". I think that's the one thing the "Boardroom to Floor" scope of the consultant's role gave me. After leaving the military I went to back to school, was the Warehouse and Delivery Manager for a furniture store for a time, and have spent the past 6 years progressively as a customer service representative/technical support specialist/Manager/Training Manager in the Telecommunications industry. Decades of leadership and management experience to be sure. Blue collar and frontline to the core.... that would be me!

TREVOR: What stirred your initial interest in leadership?

DAVE: I think the one thing that unites everyone who has had a job is that at some point we have said to ourselves "if I ever get to be in charge here, things would be different". We had a list of things in mind we would change if we had the chance. . Funny thing is those lists were usually 1000% on point as to what the real issues were or what needed to be done to work smarter, more productively, and more efficiently. This is why I went straight to the folks on the frontline when I was told to figure out a way to work around a 25% reduction in staffing and 18% less funding. I always told myself if I ever got to a supervisor position, I would not forget what it was like to sit in that chair on the frontline and I would be the leader that I wanted to work for. I’ve managed to keep that attitude in every job I’ve had and it has served me well. I worked for some terrific leaders early in my career who kind of went against the "rank=knowledge" paradigm of the military and gave me a opportunity to “get out of the chair” and do some low level leading on some project teams. My interest in leadership was simple. First, I wanted to make sure I didn’t disappoint the folks who showed trust and confidence in me. Second, I didn’t want to go back to that frontline chair. The Air Force is unique in the fact that although, I was a relatively senior enlisted person the position I had essentially made me the V.P. of Quality. I had a seat at the conference table with “the big guys” and was a regular backbencher in meetings with the even bigger guys. I was able to listen, watch and learn. There are few folks I respect more than the Air Force officer corps from the lowest ranking Lieutenant to the most senior General Officer. The competition for advancement begins day one and the slightest mis-step can effectively keep a person from getting a position of command. They were generally assigned to a unit for 2-3 years and then move on. In that period that get constant assessments of their units performance, a degree of accountability not seen in the corporate world today. I was definitely lucky to work for and learn from some terrific leaders and I got to observe up close some terrific bad examples as well.

TREVOR: I know you are a great advocate of the Baldrige Quality Framework – can you briefly outline why you think this is important in a business?

DAVE: Well, to put it “Simplicity” I hope, if you have read a book about management or business practices over the past 30 or 40 years you will notice a few recurring themes. They talk about the need of involved and engaged leadership, customer focus and relationship management, data driven decision making, strategic planning, employee well being and satisfaction, managing the processes that produce your products and services, and using a balanced scorecard of metrics to continuously monitor and improve performance. These are the seven core things that an organization “manages”; it’s the stuff that we do on a daily basis. Most management books tell you what to do. They offer little as to why it is important and even less on how to go about doing it. That’s why The National Malcom Baldrige Quality Award’s Criteria for Performance Excellence is such a “value added” tool.

What exactly is the Baldrige Quality Framework? The Criteria for Performance Excellence is a framework that any organization, in any industry, of any size can use to design, “deploy”, and continuously improve a “world class” closed loop performance management system. Oh, and it’s free as well. Each of those seven core items listed above is addressed as a part of the system. The system has two pieces. There is a Leadership Triad that is the leadership, strategic planning, and customer and market focus categories make up. This is the piece of the puzzle that Senior Leadership is responsible and accountable for in any organization anyway. The “Results Triad” are the things that Senior Leadership and the rest of the organization “do” to produce the products and services the company is in business to produce. The categories in the this part are employee focus, process management and the actual data of the “balanced scorecard” of key customer, operational, financial, work force, and process/supplier data. The Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management category is the data driven decision-making piece. It gives the management system the agility and continuous improvement capacity to react and adjust quickly to changes in customer needs and expectations or the competitive environment. Nothing difficult about the basics to be sure, just a better way of organizing the stuff we need to be doing anyway.

Why is a systems based approach a better way of doing business? In many organizations stuff often gets done in isolation. How often do key initiatives not get funded, or folks don’t get the training or other tools needed to produce good results? How many people look at a vision statement or mission statement and not see where their job links to the big picture? “That would be all the time Dave” you reply? The major benefit of a systems based approach is it enables all levels to link and align with company strategy. The Senior Leadership of air mobility might say departure reliability is a strategic imperative. If my army customer is waiting at “Base A” and needs to be in place at “Base B” with x number of troops and equipment at x hour, we had best be launching our planes on time from my base to be at Base A on time to get them moved. My piece of the puzzle in Life Support to make sure planes left on time was to make sure they were properly configured with all the survival equipment required for that type of mission and insuring all aircrew members were certified and current in their training. The Wing Leaders strategic imperative became one of mine so I could plan, train, and allocate resources to make sure that a late departure wasn’t because we didn’t do our job. Aircraft provisioning and aircrew training became key processes that we monitored and continuously tried to improve. Knowing the CRITICAL processes enabled me to identify the customers and suppliers for each. I knew their requirements and limitations, who to talk to for feedback or get involved in trying to do it better. A great snowball effect and possible only because we could align and link to what was really critical rather than spend time on the worthless many. Systems rule!

How does it work? Go out to and you’ll see the link to the National Quality Award site. Next, just download a copy of the Criteria for Performance Excellence and read the overview and core values. The Criteria doesn’t tell you what to do because it’s not prescriptive. For example, the Strategic Planning Category has two Areas to Address. One is Strategy Development. The other is Strategy Deployment. The Criteria just asks questions and asks you define what process you use to align with that item. For example, Strategy Development will ask you to describe the processes you use for strategic planning, who are the participants, or how do you determine what your strategic advantages and challenges. How can you produce an effective plan if you don’t know those for goodness sakes? In Strategy Deployment, it asks you to describe how you translate goals and objectives into action plans and how do you insure that these items translate into resource allocations company wide or what human resource plans do you have to insure you can meet your key goals and objectives. If you have a process to meet that item…great. If you don’t, develop one. You will easily recognize many of the “questions” as concepts the books you have read pointed out you need to be doing. The Criteria take it a step better by giving you a framework to align with that helps show you how to make it work in your company.

Simple, free, and a process that leads to improving performance, productivity, and results. It gets no better than that.

TREVOR: Like me you have great faith in front line employees. How can managers get the best out of front line folks?

DAVE: You build a relationship with them. You become a team. You share accountability for producing results with them so you have a choice. The folks you lead can be your allies or your enemies and your actions help them decide which category they will place themselves in. I have found that making sure they know what the performance expectations are, understand how their performance is going to be measured, and getting the hell out of their way works great. We create an environment that promotes trust, teamwork, and continuous learning and improvement. My job is making their job as easy as possible. I give feedback, coach and develop, and get them the stuff they need to excel. It actually is easy, I’m just the kind of “boss” I wanted to work for when I was sitting in that chair on the frontline.

TREVOR: What do you see as the three greatest qualities of an effective leader?

DAVE: Number One is credibility. Second, would have to be credibility. Finally, yeah, credibility for sure.

My credibility is my leadership capital. Credibility + Consistency = Trust. Trust + Collaboration = Teamwork. If I’m not credible, we won’t be able to work in an environment of trust, teamwork, and continuous improvement. I can have allies or enemies. The best piece of leadership advice I received was from a General I worked for who said he would rather have everyone inside the tent “pee-ing” out than on the outside “pee-ing” in…paraphrasing the Lyndon Johnson quote about J. Edgar Hoover. Crowded but dry immediately became my goal for both the condition of my tent and my leadership ability!

TREVOR: Do you think the leadership model that you knew so well in the military is interchangeable in business or not?

DAVE: Absolutely. I just finished a great book “Leading from the Front, No Excuses Leadership Tactics for Women” that was written by former Marine Corps Captains Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch. They take their “lessons learned” from their time in the Corps and describe ten key practices to become a great leader. One that struck a chord with me and reminded me of a cornerstone of my leadership style was the “True Leaders Dedicate Themselves to Service~Take Care of Those You Lead” concept. My Father was also in the Air Force and he was a disciplinarian and stickler for detail. I recall he would show up in at his troops barracks early Saturday morning and escort them to the barbershop for a haircut or to inspect the cleanliness of their quarters. He was accountable for their appearance and condition of their quarters and he was doing his job. But he also knew them. He was forever in his pocket when folks needed something, if he had troops deployed somewhere he was always making sure their families were cared for and ok. I grew up thinking I had 20 brothers because there were always extra folks at the table on holidays that couldn’t be with their families. As Captains Morgan and Lynch point out “Be it on the battle field or off, I made sure the needs of my troops, both personal and professional, were met.” Take care of those to the right of you and the left of you and they will take care of you. I just shake my head when folks say that being a leader means you can’t discipline someone or hold them accountable for their performance and their actions. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Let one person slide or not pull their weight on a high performance team and see what that does to the team’s attitude and your credibility. “Leaders constantly recognize and demonstrate how important those under their command are to them and their mission,” observe the Captains. That captures it perfectly because it is the absolute truth.

TREVOR: What do you see as the main challenges for modern leaders?

DAVE: I think leaders will be fine. I think Managers however are in trouble. I really found your friend Brian’s observation that leadership is a decision, not a position to be most profound. Some would argue that the difference between being a manager and a leader is semantics. I would disagree. You don’t have to be a manager to assume a leadership position on a team or in the workplace. You also shared some research from your dissertation with me Trevor that pointed out the differences between the two were in their attitudes and actions… proactive versus reactive. Issues like employee retention, service quality, and an ever-changing competitive environment will place a premium on maximizing the skills, talent, and knowledge of the front liners. Credible leadership can make that happen. A manager who only has positional authority will most likely fail because their folks will bail. The costs of turnover are incalculable on damaging a company’s reputation with their external customers and in their community as being an employer of choice for those seeking career opportunities

TREVOR: Finally Dave – I know you have connections with England - tell us about that – and are we likely to see you over here in the UK at any time in the future?

DAVE: My Dad was stationed at RAF Northolt and I lived in Ruislip from 1958-1962. It is strange but I can’t remember stuff from three days ago but I do recall a great deal from the days in England. I think my screams are still echoing in the halls of the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussard’s, I recall rides on the tube to London, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. I recall a Pan American 707 sitting on the ramp at Northolt on flat tires when the pilot mistakenly thought he was landing at Heathrow. I lived at 12 Cranley Drive and recall a nice couple up the street that always had a kind word and a tin of sweets for the kids in the neighbourhood. I knew them as the Krogers. It turns out however that the folks at 45 Cranley Drive were actually named the Cohen’s and in 1961 they were arrested and charged with espionage as Soviet spies. Those were interesting days indeed and a great time for sure. A trip to the U.K. is a possibility; one that I would say is more distinct than remote. Trevor, I promise you will know when it happens. I’ll be knocking on your door to pry you away from the keyboard long enough to go play a round or two (or twenty) of golf!


Rocky said...

Great Interview. I really like the take on Execution. So much time is spent on trying to figure out what to do that often the execution gets downplayed. I really like the points on credibility and teamwork. leadership is no easy thing. I found Dave's take on this subject refreshing and somewhat sobering. it really is not as academic as we so often want to make it. As Brian says, Make the choice to lead and follow Daves Advice; Execute and be credible. Good stuff! I will have to check out the tool Dave Mentions (The Baldridge Quality framework)

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Rocky - thanks for your comment

Dave is clearly a man of my own heart and yours - action speaks louder than words.

dave wheeler said...

Rocky-thank you sir. I have always struggled a bit with wondering whether I really know what I am doing when it comes to leadership. I like your thought "it really is not as academic as we so often want to make it". It's not theory that gets stuff done, it's people.

Trevor- you sir are to kind.

Ian Sanders said...

Thanks for that Trevor (and Dave). It was great to find out more about you Dave (having 'met' you on and I enjoyed the interview Trevor. Neat idea....

Trevor Gay said...

Cheers Ian - have a great weekend