In the latest installment of our Senior Advisor Interview Series, General David Rodriguez discusses how his decades in the military shaped his views on leadership and how he communicates those lessons with leaders and their teams in the private sector today. Rodriguez also touches on his approach to getting the most out of people and the importance of learning from failure.
Knowing how and when to listen is an invaluable and often overlooked leadership trait, but it’s one that General (Ret.) David Rodriguez put to good use when leading teams at every level throughout his military career, including as the Commanding General of Army Forces Command and Commander of the International Security Assistance Force - Joint Command in Afghanistan, among others. In the following Q&A, Rodriguez, now a senior advisor for McChrystal Group, shares the leadership lessons he carries with him today and how he helps teams understand the reasoning behind their decisions.
Q: How do you translate decades of experience from the military to the work we do with teams across industries, and how has that been received?
A: Ultimately, there are so many similarities between the public service or the military and the business world or private sector. It comes down to working with people, empowering team members to do things better than they think they can do them, and accomplishing a mission. The things that get in the way are people and processes, no matter the environment or setting.
When I retired from military service, I assumed it was going to be a bigger transition than it ended up being. Being a problem solver and leader of people is not exclusive to any one industry or background. When I encountered the Ebola crisis in West Africa, people told us we didn’t know what we were doing since we didn’t come with a public health background per se, and I told them they were right. But I also said there are people who do know what they are doing, and we are going to work with them to solve this problem, and we’re going to do this together.
Q: What’s your approach to helping leaders put the ego aside when needed to ensure the best ideas or information is brought to the surface for the betterment of the team?
A: Anytime a leader becomes too comfortable in what they’re doing and thinks they have the answer, they are destined to fall behind. A team must have the speed to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and that’s not something that an organization that is slow to change, bureaucratic, and believes it has it all figured out will be able to do easily.
It’s our job oftentimes as outside trusted advisors to get the leaders of an organization into a culture where they are focusing on the speed at which they are changing relative to the environment. That is a difficult thing for anyone to do, but ideally, they are open to it and allow for impactful discussions regarding how to drive that change. If that doesn’t happen, we see teams who are constantly reacting to changes and not allocating the resources to being prepared for change.
Q: Throughout your time as a leader and working with leaders of teams, how do you help them think critically about the “why” behind some of their processes and behaviors?
A: I start doing that by asking leading questions. I have a set of five consistent questions that I challenge leaders to think about and ask themselves and their team that they need to be paying attention to all the time.
The first one is, “what are the things that only I can do?” If a leader doesn’t focus on that, they will end up doing other people’s jobs and not focusing on the right things.
The second one is, “what are my priorities, what are your priorities, and how do they fit together?” This uncovers a leader and their team’s common purpose and leads to them discussing what matters most.
The third question I ask is, “where do you think I am wasting your time and where are you wasting my time?” If a leader can start to uncover where time is being wasted, it leads to efficiencies and a conversation around their team’s operating rhythm.
The fourth question is, “where do you need my help?” This is important because leaders will share where they need help, which may not be a natural tendency for them. Empowered execution is about giving the responsibility of completing tasks or objectives to anyone who can take it and execute, and this question uncovers where a team does and doesn’t need assistance.
Finally, leaders should be asking, “what information do you think I need to make a decision?” There is always some amount of disconnect between what the decision-maker thinks and what the team needs.
Q: What can teams learn from failure?
A: Failure at some point in some aspects is inevitable. Leaders will fail, your organization fails, and your people will fail you. It happens in business every day. They just need to figure out how to learn and grow from it. The difference between great leaders and great people is every time they fail, they look at it as an opportunity instead of a failure. You can’t change the failure, but what you can do is learn from it, what you do next time, and how you get better at doing that.
That mentality is what ultimately spawned the entire effort that General McChrystal led to transform the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Failure can set the fertile ground for growth and learning if you have the right mentality and allow it to lead to change. We always used to say that as long as the failure wasn’t due to a lack of effort, if someone is doing the best they could and they fail, then that is okay. Laziness or a lack of effort is an entirely different conversation.