In my article, “Leaving the Military Felt Like a Divorce,” I provide some insight as to why my career in the Regular Force of the Canadian Armed Forces came to an end. What the article does not delve into is the definitive moment I decided that I wanted, perhaps even needed, to move on. Ultimately, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when an officer, who represented the senior leadership within my corps, did not have the gumption to be honest and frank with me. He couldn’t deliver a tough message. Bear with me while I share my personal experience and perspective to show why I believe it is imperative that leaders get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations, and learn how to deliver news or feedback that may not always be well received. The truth may hurt, but dancing around it isn’t doing anyone any favours.
I had been told previously in my career that command of a field artillery regiment was not being considered for me. While I certainly didn’t like that message, I had nevertheless accepted it and was still pursuing promotion and the possibility to command a unit other than a field regiment. However, my Commanding Officer’s death in a training accident in 2014, upon which I was suddenly the Acting Commanding Officer, had a profound impact on my career aspirations and what I was prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve those goals; the carrot that had been dangled in front of me prior to Dan’s death now looked a little wilted. I was still not 100% ready to leave though. While not optimistic, I hung onto a shred of hope that having commanded for 4 months the regiment that they told me I didn’t have the potential to command that they may see my potential differently going forward. Failing that, I also considered that if the stars should align and I get promoted at the right time, I secretly hoped that maybe I could stand in contention for the Director of Cadets at the Royal Military College as a posting. There were a tonne of “ifs” that would have had to occur, but I was not quite ready to throw in my towel. I wasn’t happy with a lot of things in my career at that point, but I still felt that I was valuable, that I could offer something, and maybe I could find a way to stick handle my way to a finish in my career that would leave me satisfied.
Following the succession boards I queried the outcome to determine if the artillery had re-assessed my potential. While the essence of the response was no, my career path would remain the same, it was disguised in a giant pile of garbage excuses and rationale that were sadly lacking in validity. I believe the intent may have been to soften the blow, but to steal a line from my mother, that’s just adding insult to injury. I was an experienced field grade officer and had even been employed in a previous position whereby I had gained first hand knowledge of succession planning. I knew better than to accept his explanations. He had answered my question, but in a round-about, weak, and evasive manner. I am the first to admit that I would not have liked the answer regardless, but had it been forthright and honest, I could have gotten past it. Instead, I lost confidence and trust in the the senior leadership. I was insulted that they thought I was not smart enough to see through their explanations, or that I wasn’t mature or reasonable enough to handle a direct answer. Shortly after, my job hunt began in earnest. Not to leave a false impression, I understood that this individual’s response wasn’t necessarily a reflection upon the entire senior leadership within my corps or within the CAF, but it made the final decision to leave easier, and left a bitter taste that I would have rather avoided.
The courage to have honest conversations, despite how hard it may be, is a sign of respect. It shows that you care, and that you have enough trust in whomever you are speaking with that they can handle some hard truths. Honest conversations foster relationships, growth and productivity. Brené Brown says in her book Dare to Lead,
“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. Feeding people half truths or bullshit to make them feel better (which is almost always about making us feel better) is unkind.”
A huge part of your job as a leader is to look after your people. It is something we hear in the Army so often – “Look after your people and they will look after you.” But what exactly does it mean to look after them? Does it mean get them promoted? Help them realize their goals? Reach what you believe is their full potential?
I often think that we mistake what it really means to look after our people, or are shortsighted in our efforts. When this happens, it isn’t just the employee that eventually pays the price, but the organization overall. It all begins with knowing your subordinates and being able to connect with them. Too often we see a high performing and high potential leader, and the instinct is to start mapping out their career path. We move them quickly through various key positions, send them on required training, all with a view of making sure they hit the gateways at the right time because they are such high potential; we treat them as a human asset to be exploited rather than a human to be developed and cultivated with care. We assume that they must want the fastest path to the top. Of course they want to command the unit, why wouldn’t they? Of course they want to go on the course at the earliest opportunity because they need that course to get promoted. All assumptions that we make, some of which might be correct, but not always.
Looking after people does not mean mapping out the fastest path to promotion. It means establishing a relationship that is based on trust and respect so that we can have a more productive work force. It means setting them up for success, teaching them, allowing them to learn and grow from their experiences – both the good and the bad. It means holding them accountable for their actions. It means challenging them. Who benefits when someone is failing to meet expectations, and nobody says anything? You are jeopardizing their future by avoiding the tough conversations. You are setting them up for a bigger fall down the road. But you are also jeopardizing your relationship overall if you evade the truth in an effort to spare feelings. It erodes trust and confidence. There are few greater threats to an organization than a lack of trust and confidence between leaders and followers. Be prepared to deliver hard truths. Consider it short term pain for long term gain. The truth may hurt, but avoiding it, or trying to disguise it to soften the blow rarely benefits anyone in the end.