My Professional Career
I was embarrassed. They were standing and clapping. There I was in a room full of American and Canadian Air Force officers—and I was alone. My team wasn’t with me—they did the work; they deserved the applause. They were the ones who worked overtime without being asked, who put forward the ideas that made the difference.
Why were these NORAD officers clapping? After all, we had almost started World War III. An alert had been sounded in their command post. Two four-star generals were in the war room when missiles appeared on the radar screens. Not our missiles but their missiles. This highly-trained team of Americans and Canadians started their verification procedures and discovered the mistake moments before they had to call the President. Someone had left our software in the training mode. There were no missiles.
We could have been the bums in this. But we were the heroes. For the three months that our software had been operational integrating various generations of radar into a single display, it had worked flawlessly—unheard of in over a million lines of computer code. We, my team and I, had already been declared the heroes. All was forgiven.
There was a lesson there that I would never forget. The bums were the organizations – the big traditional government contractors – who over promised and under delivered. We had under promised and over delivered. We bid $4 million with a firm delivery date. One of the bums had actually bid $96 million to do the same thing. We met the date exactly and finished $400,000 below budget.
The value of exceeding expectations cannot be over stated. Not only did the Air Force award us an $8.9 million project, we had established our reputation. We were trusted and respected.
Leading a talented and motivated team is what I truly love. Bringing the best out of people, watching them achieve things that they might never have without my help is a drug for me.
I don’t think I’m bragging when I say I’m pretty good at it, but that was not always the case. I had to pay my dues.
First I tried to lead and manage by authority. When I saw the wry smiles and the rolling eyes, I knew that wasn’t working. Intimidation may work in American football, but not when you’re trying to get the best out of people. Hell… it doesn’t even work in combat. I had a lot to learn.
I had worked my way through university operating an atom smasher at one of the world’s most prestigious physics laboratories. I loved it. But Vietnam was hanging over me. I knew that after graduation I had no choice but to go in the Army. So I had taken the courses at the University of California at Berkeley needed to be a commissioned Army officer.
This is where the seed for my life’s work was planted. It would lead me to start companies, form and manage virtual teams and learn how to grow virtual companies that exist only on the Web. It all happened because I was unbelievably fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time, not once but many times.
I became a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and an Army Ranger. I volunteered for Ranger School because it is the best small unit combat school in the world. I wanted to survive Vietnam.
It didn’t matter to me at the time that Ranger School’s existed to train small unit leaders. It does now. If you want to motivate and communicate your needs clearly to someone who has not slept, has eaten only two meals and walked 50 kilometers in the last 48 hours and expect him to do a good job, go to Ranger School. You’ll learn how. If you can to that, you can motivate, communicate with, and effectively lead anyone under any circumstances.
Luck was on my side. I was sent to Germany rather than Vietnam. I was given the traditional job of a green second lieutenant – platoon leader.
By accident, I learned one of the most valuable management and leadership lessons of my life.
My 30-man platoon was given the job of building a bridge by hand. We arrived on the bridge site in the early morning. By afternoon, I realized that we would not be finished until well after midnight. Already we were dog tired. It was winter and the snow was blowing hard. We were knee-deep in mud because the ground had not yet frozen. It didn’t matter how cold it was, we were sweating. It may be counter-intuitive but I knew ice cream would taste great. So I gave all my money to Corporal Welles and told him to take my jeep into the nearest village to buy ice cream sandwiches.
At midnight I halted work and passed out the ice cream. Old sergeants who had been in the Army longer than I had been alive had tears in their eyes. This was a first for them – being led by someone who truly cared about them, who was not faking it, who meant it.
Later that night, when I was radioing in a report I noticed that the platoon couldn’t move the bridge. We would build a skeleton of the bridge balanced on rollers on one side, push it part way across, and keep lengthening and pushing until it reached the far bank. Then we could reinforce the bridge to carry the specified load. The skeleton – still relatively short and light – wouldn’t move. So I put my shoulder into it and ‘rumble, rumble, rumble…’ it moved.
For the rest of the time I was their platoon leader that kind of bridge would never move until I put my hand on it. I didn’t need to push, just put my hand on it.
What a valuable lesson that was. When a manager cares—truly cares—about the members of his organization, they’ll do anything for him.
I guess I did a good job as a second lieutenant because after a year in the Army I was promoted to first lieutenant and given command of A Company, 237th Engineers – normally an assignment for a captain. My battalion commander trusted me. He sent my 160-man company to Hohenfels to build a road while he took his other four companies to Grafenwehr.
The Pentagon sent me a personal letter. I was being assigned to Vietnam. Of the 52 lieutenants in my battalion, I was the only one to go. It seems that because of my Ranger training and experience as a company commander, I was being ‘honored’ (their word, not mine) by being sent to Vietnam.
The day after I arrived in Vietnam, I was promoted to captain. While being promoted a second time after just two years in the Army was quite an honor, I would have rather been a lieutenant back in Germany.
My first seven months I was the senior advisor to a four-company Vietnamese Ranger battalion and its commander during airmobile operations. During those operations, I commanded over 750 US and Vietnamese rangers. I was learning how to be a manager with authority.
Then I became the senior advisor of a unique Vietnamese combat engineer team as well as a battalion. It was a higher priority assignment with greater visibility but without any command authority. There, I was learning how to be a manager without authority. Both were skills that would help me later in my civilian career. I must have done a good job because after I left I received a Vietnamese Honor Medal First Class. (This medal is not at all the equivalent of the American Medal of Honor, but it is the highest award that a Vietnamese three-star general could give.)
Having learned how gratifying a leadership/management position was, I had enrolled as a fulltime graduate student at a near by university pursuing an MBA. That’s me: fulltime employee, fulltime graduate student. If I don’t push myself, I goof off. It worked.
That was a long time ago. I fine-tuned and enhanced those early-learned management skills through positions of successively greater responsibility in high-tech Silicon Valley companies. Since much of my work was managing R&D that advanced Internet technologies, it was no surprise that I started building and managing virtual teams over the Internet even before the World Wide Web was invented.