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Management consultant Richard Martin uses his military experience with the legendary Van Doos to help businesses improve. (For The Globe and Mail/Tim Fraser)
Management consultant Richard Martin uses his military experience with the legendary Van Doos to help businesses improve. (For The Globe and Mail/Tim Fraser)

MONDAY MORNING MANAGER

Take a military approach to business Add to ...

For many years, Richard Martin was an infantry officer with the legendary Van Doos, the Royal 22nd Regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces. These days he’s a management consultant, based in Île-Perrot, just west of Montreal. But he’s still in many ways a Van Doo, since he applies his strategic and operational knowledge from his years of service, as well as his reading of military history, to organizations with which he works. And he feels that seven kernels of military wisdom might help you:

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An offensive mindset is essential

In warfare, you can’t win on the defensive. You can buy time or protect vital ground. But to win, you will have to go on the offensive.

It’s the same in business, where seizing and maintaining the initiative is critical. But too many companies become complacent when they’re ahead and fail to realize that more aggressive competitors can overtake them. Alternately, they are too timid in trying to overtake competitors or to stake out their own strong positions on valuable market ground.

In Brilliant Manoeuvres, his book published last fall, he gave the example from the Battle of Gettysburg, when, on the second day, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, with his men exhausted and out of ammunition, took the initiative by launching a bayonet force charge down a hill at the Confederates, stealing the initiative and securing the vital left flank of the Union army.

Decide what not to do

Organizations always have many choices. It’s therefore vital to stay focused, to select your aim carefully and maintain it throughout your organization. In the military, it’s considered vital to concentrate your forces. He has an entrepreneurially inclined client, however, who is always chasing new ideas. “He’s not helping himself by losing the target. And when he loses the focus – it’s his company – the people under him lose focus as well,” Mr. Martin says in an interview.

Exercise mission command

Mission command is the process to ensure everyone through the ranks is aligned with the goal of the mission and their part in achieving it. Commanders advise their troops what to achieve and why they need to achieve it, and let them figure out how best to achieve it, knowing that no plan survives its first test against the enemy and changes will always be needed in implementation. “The military encourages leaders (and even private soldiers) to exercise maximum initiative and creativity in achieving their respective goals,” he says. “It makes the organization more flexible, adaptable, and responsive to threats and opportunities.” But he stresses that all this initiative comes in achieving the goals that have been set out, not in coming up with new ones.

Manoeuvre for maximum advantage

Manoeuvre, in military terms, is the art of pitting your strengths against your enemy’s weaknesses. You have to avoid what is strong and attack what is weak. That’s what Apple did by focusing on the consumer market, where BlackBerry was weak, rather than its business market stronghold. “Don’t do a frontal attack at the enemy. Bypass them or hit them in the weak flank,” he warns.

Probe for advantage

When a military commander is advancing in unknown territory, he will order his forces to advance on a wide front, sending out scouting parties and vanguard elements to probe for gaps in the enemy defences and to find weaknesses that can be exploited. When a gap is found, the commander can pour in forces to widen it and create a breakthrough. The business equivalent is to experiment with small tests of new products, programs, and markets. “Instead of barrelling forward with heads down, take small steps – small experiments – and if it works, stop what isn’t working and reassign resources to what is working,” he says. He points to Toronto-Dominion Bank, which moved slowly into the United States and kept building its strength by testing new markets, compared with some Canadian companies that have swooped south with huge investments in nationwide chains, and then found themselves without the resources to build.

Accept there are never enough resources

There will never be enough resources, so you must apply the twin military principles of mass and economy – applying strong force in one area and economizing in others. “You need to recognize your driving force, what in the military is called the centre of gravity. This is the source of your unique strengths. You need to build your strategy around the centre of gravity and manoeuvre on this basis,” he says.

Assess and maintain morale

Morale is not being happy. Morale is the willingness to do what is needed to succeed – to work for the best of the organization and make sacrifices. When morale is bad, people think of themselves. You build morale by allowing your subordinates to contribute, leveraging their talents, challenging their skills, and letting them make a contribution to the overall purpose. You don’t build morale with money. Mr. Martin recalls a time of monetary catch-up in the early part of this century, when soldiers were getting healthy raises – one year about 9 per cent. “In six months, we were all complaining about our pay again,” he says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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