One of the latest posts is a mini interview with Ken Hicks, the CEO of Foot Locker and a graduate of the United States Military Academy who spent six years in the army just after the Vietnam War. And here’s the exchange that most resonated with me.
Tell me about a couple of things you learned from your military experience that have made you a more effective CEO.
When I took over my artillery battery, at age 25, I could shoot a cannon better than any of my section chiefs. And I had six guns. The only problem is, I could only shoot one gun at a time. I realized that what I had to do was train my section chiefs to be better cannoneers than I was. Because shooting 18% of the battery isn't going to be effective. And my job really wasn't to shoot a cannon, it was to develop an entire artillery battery.
So I learned that you're very dependent on your people to be their best. You train and develop and motivate them. People think in the army that you tell somebody to do something and they do it, and that's far from the truth. They actually have more options and pressures that can be very intense. Think about it — if somebody in Afghanistan screws up, they get sent back home. If they don't, they stay in combat.
I think that’s a common story in the association world—people promoted to positions of leadership because of demonstrated excellence in managing programs. Hicks was the best cannoneer before given command of an artillery battery, just like that CME Director was the best educational program manager or that Executive Director was the best membership services manager before getting their current jobs.
So I think Hicks makes a critical observation for association leaders and leaders-to-be. The job of the manager and the job of the leader are fundamentally different things, and success in the former won’t necessarily translate into success in the latter.
To help bridge that gulf, new association leaders can use their managerial excellence to train better managers, but they can no longer do that work themselves. To use Hicks’ example, your focus is no longer on firing one cannon really well. Your job is to create a team that consistently fires all the cannons as well or better than you once did.
That's a lot harder. But also a lot more fulfilling.