Leading with Purpose: A Conversation with Mark McGinnis
December 9, 2019

Leading with purpose: a conversation with Mark McGinnis

By Alex Shootman, CEO

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At Workfront, we’re lucky enough to have a front-row seat with more than 3,000 of the world’s leading companies, including half of the Fortune 100. Through these relationships, we’ve witnessed an ongoing and radical transformation in the way we all work, including a shift from working 9 to 5 to being plugged in 24/7, a massive explosion in tools and technology, the flattening of organizational hierarchies, and the rise of networked and distributed teams, among other changes.

In our work, we regularly ask the world’s most successful leaders how they get work done, how they navigate the challenges of the modern workplace, and how they lead and motivate their teams. We pulled from 30 such interviews in order to write my book, Done Right: How Tomorrow’s Top Leaders Get Work Done.

When I hear from folks about my book, the topics I get asked about the most come from my conversations with Mark McGinnis, founder of SEAL Leadership, Inc. and a former Navy SEAL, who has more than 24 years of experience serving in the most elite military organization in the world.

Mark’s invaluable perspective on transformational leadership—on the battlefield and in the boardroom—has greatly influenced the way I work and lead, so I was honored to have another chance to sit down with him for a recent webinar.

Here’s your chance to hear about four powerful leadership tools in Mark’s own voice, including commander’s intent, corporate battle rhythm, go/no-go criteria, and resilience. The full conversation is well worth a listen, or you can read on for a Q&A featuring highlights from our conversation.

1. Commander’s Intent

Alex Shootman: The first concept people ask me about all the time is commander’s intent. Can you help us understand why this is so critical to being able to lead well?

Mark McGinnis: Commander’s intent is the most powerful leadership tool I’ve ever been exposed to. We teach it from day one in the entirety of the military, not just SEAL teams. Commander’s intent at its core speaks to purpose and not objective. This is the “why.” If used correctly by leaders, it can help shape a dynamic organization that handles rapidly changing and really chaotic environments very well.

AS: So it began as a military concept. How does it translate to the business world?

MM: An example for you as a CEO is the idea of painting a clear picture—an HD resolution picture—of what you want the battlespace to look like that when the gun smoke settles and all the shooting is over. Or in the business world, what you want to have accomplished. The biggest thing it allows you to do is to tap into your biggest resource and your biggest asset, and that’s your people.

You’ve hired people around you that are experts at what they do, and now your job is to unlock that expertise and get out of the way. You successfully define your end state and then you give them the boundaries, the left and right lateral limits. Then you say to them, “Now I want you to tell me HOW we’re going to get there vs. me telling you how we’re going to get there.” Now you’ve unlocked all of that experience, that expertise, that vision—and you’ve given it a voice in a way that can take shape.

AS: And what would you say this does for people?

MM: It shows you trust them and you believe in them. And now it’s our plan vs. your plan. We’re all in alignment, because we all are working toward the same goal. We know what our boundaries are, the constraints we have to work within. It builds maximum flexibility for everyone involved to help contribute to the overall success and the achievement of that goal.

AS: I’ve tried to write a couple of these. These are hard to write. Talk about the process you’ve gone through to write a commander’s intent.

MM: Commander’s intent envisions the battlefield at the end of that mission and what it looks like. So we plan from the end to get to the beginning. Most of our missions are done on timelines that are very tight, and they’re facilitating missions. We’re doing something in order to facilitate some bigger purpose. If we plan from the end to get to the beginning, we’ve got a really solid idea of what that end state looks like, and then we can come up with the steps that will take us to that end state. That’s really the trick.

AS: How do you know if you’ve got a good one?

MM: If you walked up to anyone in your organization and said, “What are we trying to accomplish and why?” and they could give you a pretty succinct answer, then you have a pretty good intent. That speaks to your ability to communicate that intent as a leader. It’s one thing to have it and know it in your mind, but if you’ve clearly communicated it across the entire organization, and it’s simple, it’s concise, and your people can repeat it back, then you’ve got a good commander’s intent. It can’t be too complicated, and it can’t be something that people can’t really comprehend. Clear and concise.

2. Corporate Battle Rhythm

AS: Can you describe the typical process or rhythm you see businesses following today to get their work done?

MM: In the corporate space, I see companies that are incredible at planning their next sales or marketing campaign. They’re really good at cascading that or communicating that throughout the entire organization, and then they can go out and execute it. Let’s say it’s a 6-month plan, or maybe it’s an annual plan, and at the end of that 6 months or the end of that year, they pick their heads up and say, “What just happened?” Maybe they got to their goal, maybe they didn’t. But then they go right back into planning next year’s, and then cascading it, and then executing it. And you get into this natural rhythm: plan it, brief it to everybody, and then go out and execute it. So, that’s great, but it really doesn’t afford you the ability to be world class.

AS: What do you see missing from that rhythm?

MM: Here’s what we do in my world. We come up with great plans. The SEAL teams plan with surgical accuracy, and then we’re phenomenal at briefing it. We want everyone to understand the commander’s intent so that they know the plan as well if not better than the team leader does. And then we go out and we execute. And we execute at a very high level in very uncertain and challenging and even hostile environments. And as soon as that mission is over, Alex, we come back. And the first thing we do is we walk into a room with the people who were a part of that mission—and only the people who were a part of that mission. And our name and our ranks are on Velcro on our uniforms, and we take them off before we walk in that door.

In that rank-less environment, we’re not looking to point fingers, and we’re not looking to lay blame. What we’re looking for is to identify all of the things that we’re doing right, because we want to continue to do those things right. Celebrate our successes. But then we want to talk about the shortfalls and gaps and blind spots—the things that went wrong during the mission. Those are really important, because in my world, we can’t afford to make the same mistake twice.

AS: Internally we’ve been trying to execute these after-action reviews, and there can be some level of defensiveness that can occur. You’re talking to a few thousand team leaders. What’s a couple of things a team leader can do, behavior-wise, that you’ve seen work well?

MM: My advice to leaders is twofold. First, you don’t run the debrief. In our world, the team leader doesn’t run the debrief either. We have what we call a “pipe hitter,” someone that is senior not by rank but by respect, that everyone listens to and recognizes as the authority in the room. They moderate it. Remove yourself from that position. Don’t try to lead this. Have someone else that has situational authority over you as the leader.

The second thing is even more important. The team leader always goes first. And the team leader always talks about the mistakes that he or she made first. Because it sets the example, and it sets the tone for the meeting. If you’ll be a little selfless and vulnerable as a leader, and show that you’re human, and not be beyond reproach or mistakes, it sets an incredible tone for your team. Give up the authority in the room, and then set the example, and you can build from there.

3. Go/No-Go Criteria

AS: What is go/no-go criteria and why is it important?

MM: What we’ve learned over 57 years of history with the SEAL teams is that no plan is perfect. We’ve all heard the stories about the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan, where the helicopter crashed, and Admiral McRaven said to President Obama, “It’s okay sir, we planned for this.” Well that’s 1,000% true. What we try to do in the calm of the planning room is think through our plans and try to identify all the things that could go wrong—all the anticipated what ifs, or what we call contingencies—and then have preplanned responses to them. We rely on speed, surprise, and violence of action to be successful. And if we get bogged down in a problem that we didn’t anticipate in our planning process on the actual mission, we’ve lost that speed, we may have lost surprise, and we certainly have lost violence of action, and we’re in trouble.

There are five phases of a mission: insertion, infiltration, actions on the objective, exfiltration, extraction. At each of those five phases, we can identify go/no-go criteria. Things could have gone haywire, nothing could have gone as planned on the insertion portion of the mission. But we’ve got our preplanned responses and these hard and fast evaluators that we would look at and say, “Do we still have the men and equipment necessary to continue this mission? Yes. Okay, it’s a GO.” And then if we don’t have the men or the equipment necessary, it’s a no-go.

AS: How would you translate that analogy to the corporate world?

MM: It goes back to that corporate battle rhythm. We can plan it, we can brief it, we can go execute it, but when do we ever pick our heads up? Maybe your sales teams have monthly quotas and goals built around bi-annual plans, but do you know if you’re pointed in the direction of success? If you bake go/no-go criteria into your plans, then you can make those decisions a month into it instead of twelve months later when the campaign or the sales plan is finished.

AS: So would you say you plan pessimistically, or optimistically, or something else?

MM: I would say realistically. We don’t get invited to the party when things are going well. We get the missions that other special operations forces have looked at and they’ve said, you know, this is almost impossible, or it’s certainly outside of our capabilities. That’s when we get asked to come and play. We’re no fools. We’re very calculating at what we do, and we try to plan as simply and as realistically as possible to give ourselves a chance at success. No one operates at a level like us. We’re world class right now, and it’s because of our ability to keep things very fundamentally simple and very realistic in terms of what we’re trying to do.

4. Resilience

AS: If I’m interviewing someone for a position, and they say to me, “You should hire me because I’ve never missed a number,” I actually won’t hire them. Forgive the crude analogy, but I don’t want to have to be the first person to change their diaper. Proven resilience is a vital skill for a leader. Talk about that for a moment and how it relates to the Mike Tyson quote you’ve shared: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

MM: I would say in my world that no plan survives first contact. The first time you encounter the enemy, something is going to change. In the corporate world, we call it resilience. In my world, we refer to it as mental toughness and grit.

The Navy has poured in tens of millions of dollars to try to identify what common trait might indicate that someone would be successful through SEAL training, which has a historical attrition rate of about 85% to 90%. My class had 244 candidates that started, 17 that finished the initial training, and only 10 that became SEALs. And that’s fairly typical. We’ve never been able to identify that gene or that trait with any statistical significance. But one of the things we did study and took a hard look at was mental toughness, or resilience. And we’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can increase not only your own individual resilience but your organizational resilience. It’s four very simple steps. And we use them every day, in every training operation, every real-world operation, everything that we’re doing.

AS: How would you succinctly describe the four components of resilience or mental toughness?

MM: The first step is to have a clear goal. Again, that’s that why. A big part of our world is defining that why. What’s your goal? What are you trying to do? If you’ve got a realistic and clearly defined goal, then you can move on to step two, visualizing what success looks like. See yourself accomplishing that goal. Step three: positive talk. This is where you’re standing in front of the mirror and saying, “Yes, I can do this. I believe in myself. I’ve trained to this standard hundreds of times. It’s well within our capabilities. We’ve done this before, and we will do it again.” And lastly, control your body’s stress response. We do this through what we call combat breathing. We start about five minutes out from the target, where we start breathing 4 seconds in and 4 seconds out. This actually slows your respiratory rate. It slows your circulation, your heart rate, and your body’s adrenaline surge. Think about a basketball player right before he shoots a free throw or a soccer player right before she shoots a penalty kick. They take a deep breath and they blow it out. And at the bottom of the breath, we call that the natural respiratory pause. That’s the most stable and calm that your body will be. Our combat breathing keeps us hovering right around that natural respiratory pause, and it’s incredible how effective this is.

AS: As the parent of four teenagers, I should practice combat breathing more often. Could you give me an example of positive self-talk, because I imagine there are some people who maybe think that’s kind of corny. What’s an example of that?

MM: As a leader, the fear of combat, the fear of death, that was never an issue. What was nearly paralyzing for me was the thought that I would make a mistake, or do something, or fail to do something, that would cause someone to be harmed or ultimately to die.

I had to spend a lot of time looking myself in the eye in the mirror and saying, ‘You can do this. You trained for this. You’ve done this a hundred times. You’re going to lead another successful operation.” And I’m not talking about having a conversation with the little guy or girl in your head. I’m talking about standing in front of a mirror and having that conversation out loud with yourself. And you’ve got to own it. And you’ve got to really believe in it. It is way more powerful than anyone thinks.

And yeah, the first couple of times you do it, it might seem a little corny or a little uncomfortable, but a lot of the stuff we’re talking about is uncomfortable. Leadership is uncomfortable, and if you’re not willing as a leader to get uncomfortable and try some things that you’re not as good at, then you’re never going to be great, because you’re limiting yourself. This is a great step that forces you to deal with discomfort. We have a saying: “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” because that’s where we really thrive.

To listen to the complete webinar featuring Alex Shootman and Mark McGinnis, click here.

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