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The Business End


J. D. Pendry


You've heard the argument.  It's an endless one that debates the differences between leadership and management and running an Army and running a business.  Being one of a gazillion people in the world, many of whom often ask, "Do you want fries with that?” with a business degree and an Army Veteran, I ponder these issues now, just as I did when serving.


I know of no successful business that doesn't have and follow a vision and mission and an actual yearly business plan complete with goals that equal success when met.  There is also none that I'm aware of that do not have its core competencies in focus and its organizational values identified.  There is none without a mission supporting training system, a program of professional development for its people and good first line leadership.  There is none without a good competitor intelligence program.  And, there is none that functions without an established decision making process, published standards with which to comply – both internal and external – and some method of ensuring quality, a method of assessment and an effective quality management initiative such as Total Quality Management or TQM.


Now you’re thinking – so what?  Well, let me run this by you.


I’ve never known a successful military organization that didn’t have a vision - The Army has one; the NCO Corps has one - a valid mission statement and a yearly calendar.  All successful units have their core competencies identified and live the organizational [Army] values.  Each has a mission supporting training plan.  The Army has an excellent system of professional development and the world’s best first line leadership.  We have unequaled intelligence on our competitors because like our counterparts in the business world, our continued existence depends on it.  Military units follow an established decision process; they have internal and external standards to meet and a method of assessing quality.  And, they have the Battle Focused Training doctrine, which in case you’ve never looked it up, is a perfect example of a TQM continuous improvement model.


What is so difficult to figure out for both – those in the three-piece suit world and those in battle dress – is that if we look so much alike why are we so incompatible where the rubber meets the road?


The answer is not as complex as it may seem actually.  Understanding the incompatibility is as easy as understanding how each defines essential.


In business, the bottom line determines essentiality.  Unless the business uses the Enron/WorldCom creative accounting approach, decisions most likely ride on how much green folding money they’ll add to the company till at the end of the year.  Take notice of the emphasis on add.  Less money in the coffers at the end of a year is an essentiality killer out there in Fortune 500 land.  Spreadsheet wizards, wearing green visors and sleeve garters, generally project the success or demise [read essentiality] of an idea.  If the projected return on investment is a negative number, guess what?


In the military, essential determines essentiality.  Every soldier knows what mission essential means, but let me explain it anyway.  When we say essential, we mean that if we are unable to do “it” whatever “it” is, we fail.  Failing for us has little to do with red ink on the spreadsheet.  Essential for the military is not and cannot not be tied to the bottom line.  The fact that there may not be enough cash in the till to pay for something does not make it less essential.  A tank must have ammunition and spare parts.  Its crews must have adequate training and gunnery practice.  Those things are essential.  It’s essential that we’re able to move soldiers and equipment from point A where they sit, to point B where the fight is.  This essentiality is not decided by our ability to pay for it.


To understand the problem, understand that business people – the three-piece suit bottom line guys – are often in the civilian decision making seats for the military.  Hosts of spreadsheet wizards, also known as bean counters, surround them.  When the military leader asks for something using his definition of essential, the response he might get to his request is from the perspective of that other definition of essential.


Bottom line decisions cause problems for military leaders.   For example, they may be forced to choose between money for quality living conditions and money for quality training both of which are essential from the military understanding of the term.


I suppose that’s why it concerns me whenever I hear the Commander in Chief mention that he is the only one of his kind to have a masters degree in business.  We need to do a good job of ensuring that he, and his key decision makers, understands the definition of essential.