“You’re a TSgt, you’re going to be the expeditor.” These are the first words the flight chief said to me as I climbed off of the plane on my first deployment in four years. This is not a big deal at home station where I would have had two other expeditors and 1/3 of the workload. Here was a huge sink or swim moment for me and I was determined to swim.
In 2009, the C-17 ramp in Al Udeid was the busiest cargo hub in the Middle East and only topped in ops tempo by Ramstein. Simply because of my rank, I was thrust into managing 3 times the workload as home station with a team of about 30. I never expedited before other than covering the truck so the “real” expeditor could grab some lunch and I was just managing his/her plan. I was on my own and had very little room for error. If I failed, planes would pile up, people would get burned out, and we would have to push aircraft away as our parking space was limited. If I failed, we all failed. No pressure.
After the initial shock, I realized I already knew most of what I needed to know to succeed. Over the years, the things I had picked up from watching others prepared me for this moment and all of the other sink or swim moments that followed. If you dig deep, you will see the same is true for you when you are thrust into the deep blue waters. Here are a few of my lessons you may have seen too:
The bent hose. Many first time leaders feel the need to succeed and lean on their technical skills and how they used to do the work they are supervising. This pushes them to micromanage the work. They get into the weeds on one task at a time and lose sight of the overall picture. In James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, he talked about the challenges we face as a bent hose. Think about a kink in your garden hose. The water does not come out very well. You are faced with two options: turn the water pressure up trying to force more water through the bend to increase overall flow or work to remove the kink.
In this scenario the option is obvious, but not so much when it applies to work. We see a bottleneck at work and think the smartest thing to do is to throw resources at it. We pull people from other jobs and pile them up. There is no more room for these people and there is now work in other areas not being done which will cause tomorrow’s bottleneck. I have seen this play out many times as a technician and carried it with me as a new leader. If I focused on the kink in the hose, the rest would take care of itself.
Take care of the people today and they will get you tomorrow. So often, we are worried about clearing our to-do lists that we forget we have humans working for us. The work is always going to be there and even if we get it all done right now…more will appear. I was blessed to have someone with candor to call me out on this. While I was burning my gears trying to keep everything together, he suggested I cut back a few of the friday guys so they could get some extra time on the phone with their families. My first thought was to see if I had the choking powers that Darth Vader had; however, I thought back to those who took care of me over the years.
When we take the time to remember our team is filled with humans and not robots, making a small sacrifice of not getting one menial task done today paid dividends in the long run. When the team had some extra time to chat with their loved ones or whatever they did, they were in a much better mental state when they came back to work.
Leaders eat last. The person who trained me in my new role told me to never eat lunch until my team had the opportunity. I like to eat and thought he was crazy at first. Then he explained how if we take care of our needs first, we are satisfied and could “forget” our team has needs too. However, if our stomachs are rumbling, we are more motivated to get our teams fed.
This applies to all the needs of our team. If we are only concerned in getting the supplies or equipment we need first, we can easily overlook the needs of our team. When I was asked if I wanted something new at work, I would first walk around the building and see if someone else had a greater need or if it would help them more. Imagine how it would look if I was kicked back and comfy, while those doing the actual work were starving and under-equipped.
These are all things we have seen to some degree in our careers from supervisors we had and from peers. There are several more and if you take the time to look back on the lessons you learned, you will have everything you need to reach the surface and swim to solid ground.