Women in Leadership

Back To Back: Two Good Reads On Entry Level Leadership And Culture

Stuart Nachbar asked:

This month, I read two books back to back: Soldier’s Heart by Elizabeth Samet and Punching In by Alex Frankel. Both of these works are an excellent introduction into entry-level corporate culture and leadership development.

Soldier’s Heart is a civilian English professor’s take on the leadership culture of West Point, based on her 10 years experience as a faculty member. Professor Samet is in a rare, but well qualified position to pen Soldier’s Heart. Only a fifth of the academy’s faculty is civilian instructors; the rest are military officers on rotation or “regular Army.” Samet’s academic interest also makes her special; she has studied the dynamic of command and obedience in American literature.

Soldier’s Heart is not the first work about West Point by a soldier or civilian, but it comes from the most interesting perspective: an outside working inside.

Soldier’s Heart has a balanced look at the military culture. Samet writes that no cadet wants to be, in one cadet’s words, a “non-thinking slasher,” someone who would kill for the glory of war, or the sake of killing.

West Point is, and has always been, a literate culture. Classical literature through Armed Forces Editions educates and entertains soldiers in battle, and reinforces American values. She writes of books as weapons to spread ideas, and counter actions meant to curtail freedom. But she also states that tales of war talk of motherhood or a woman’s love for soldiers -but not a woman’s love for soldiering. There is nothing about motherhood in the military culture, but there is the need to fight for mother.

The professor adds that today’s military culture has conflated military missions with spiritual missions; soldiers become instructed to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith. However, that might be necessary instruction to lead at a time when officers, enlisted and veterans are questioning our nation’s involvement in Iraq, a war that they believe to be unnecessary.

This faith extends to open displays of the Seven Army Values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. Soldiers tape the Values to their dog tags. Soldiers also display the Soldier’s Creed, officially posted in 2003:

I will always place the mission first

I will never accept defeat

I will never quit

I will never leave behind a fallen comrade.

The Values and the Creed are possible not only because of the culture, but also because our soldiers are professionals who have chosen to serve. Samet sites one Army study that mentions that professional soldiers still fight for each other, as they did, for example in World War II, but they also accept the responsibility that Army has entrusted to them.

The Army, as an institution, has had mottos and mission statements longer than most American businesses, and has a culture where everyone must live by them. Some of the most successful corporations have copied the military’s strengths- and some of its imperfections. According to two online employment sites, GIJobs and CollegeGrad, 24 of the Top 50 Military Friendly Employers in 2007 also hired 100 or more college graduates for their entry-level positions. It is safe to say that these companies use the same values to develop and retain their entry-level and military transitional hires.

Which brings me to the next question: can those without the military orientation become as successful in these firms as those who have served with honor? The answer, according to Alex Frankel’s Punching In, is sometimes, if you can get along to go along.

Values, missions, attention to detail and duty are part of the dialogue in Punching In, another work where an outsider looks inside, and serves on the front lines of indoctrination into corporate culture.

Frankel worked in entry-level customer service positions at United Parcel Service (UPS), Enterprise Rent-A-Car, The Gap, Starbucks and The Apple Store, took online aptitude tests with two retailers: Best Buy and Home Depot and went through the lengthy interview processes at The Container Store and Whole Foods.

Like the Army, these corporations try to engage and turn their workers into fanatical and loyal employees. Interestingly enough, he refers to front-line workers as the Brand Army of these firms and called UPS the Other Army, because of the company’s esprit de coir and the spit and polish appearance of the front-line workers. Both the Army and UPS do not accept alteration, recreational display or desecration of their uniform.

Frankel respected UPS more than the other organizations, because their workers, especially the drivers, were the most trusted. He adds that this is necessary because UPS workers are all in the field. They can track their locations, but any problems must be solved on route. Each driver and their helper is like a platoon of soldiers; they must follow orders, but they have some lee way in how to execute them.

Frankel did not say the same about the other organizations. For example, he praised Enterprise’s efforts to motivate workers to believe that they can advance from desk clerks to regional managers – though he adds that further advancement is less possible. The company hires approximately 8,000 entry-level employees, although the rest of the work force is no larger.

Frankel shows how Starbucks has become a “third place,” a neighborhood-meeting place away from home and work, but believes this will be a difficult strategy to maintain because of the standardized appearance of the thousands of stores and employees. He considers Apple Stores to be an excellent setting for those who are already fans of the technology; they need little indoctrination and training as well. And he shows The Gap to be little different from other retailers who are loathed by retail workers, a company bent on standards and policies that put store design first, product second, credit card sales third and the employees last.

Like the Army, these organizations have a uniform, policies and shared values, but unlike the Army, they can hire and fire at will. It was interesting that Frankel conveyed the most respect for the organization that was the most like the Army.

Given UPS’ success – the company maintains 80 percent market share against several large competitors, including the U.S. Postal Services – that’s quite a complement for our troops and the men and women who lead them.

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