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Credibility: A leader’s centre of gravity

Still fit and trim in retirement, Rick Hillier strides into an Ottawa boardroom overlooking the twin towers of National Defence headquarters. In the year since he stepped down as Chief of the Defence Staff, Hillier’s peripatetic lifestyle has changed little – he still spends more time in airplanes and hotels than at home, though his wife now frequently travels with him. Always passionate, he serves as chair of Memorial University and contributes his time to numerous charities – including the Military Families Fund that he initiated while CDS. He also holds positions with several companies, serving as a leadership advisor.

His practical approach to leadership – an aspect of his career for which he was widely recognized – has made him a keynote draw for organizations across the country and has prompted him to begin distilling his thoughts into a book on the subject, likely to be published in 2010. (He is currently putting the finishing touches to his memoir, due in October.) In June, Hillier sat down with senior Vanguard staff to discuss leadership and his thoughts on how government and industry might better collaborate.

What does leadership mean for you? What have been your guiding principles?

I believe that leadership is getting a collective group of individuals – all with unique characteristics, aspirations and goals – functioning as a single cohesive team in the most effective way possible to achieve something. As a leader you must bring the vision. Without a vision, you might be a manager but you won’t be a leader, you won’t be offering your team the goal they all seek. But you also have to offer a path to help them realize the vision. Then you have to inspire and motivate them and ensure that they are focused, trained, experienced and enabled to implement that vision. So principle number one is: it is all about people. If you ever forget that as a leader, you are on your way to failure.

Second, your centre of gravity is always your credibility. I was very cognizant of that and kept it first and foremost in my thoughts. Every action that I took, every word that I said, were all intended to make sure I retained credibility with the people that I led, with the people that I worked for, and with the people that supported us – thirty-three million Canadians. The first principle of credibility is integrity/honesty.

I often talk about communications being an important, fundamental tool for a leader. When I talked to our soldiers, whether at home or abroad, they already knew ninety-eight percent of what I was going to say. What they were watching for was how I was going to say it; if I tried to round off the corners or smooth out the burrs, my integrity would have been questioned instantly and I would have been less effective as a leader. I believe that credibility is your centre of gravity, and within credibility your honesty and integrity must be unimpeachable.

Was there a formative moment in your career, one that shaped your thoughts on leading others, or was it more incremental?

It was incremental but there were several defining moments. When I first joined the regiment I looked around at some of the folks who were pretending to be leaders and honesty and integrity wasn’t there. If there was a focus on people, it wasn’t evident; if there was a vision, it was unclear to me. Numerous times I wondered whether this was what I wanted to be part of for the rest of my life? A short while after, though, a guy arrived at the regiment named Colonel Bob Billings – he was a leader. He had integrity, he was honest, he talked to every single person in his command, he looked after their families, and he followed up words with actions. He established credibility with his soldiers and with the families of those soldiers that came about almost over night and was incredible. The actions of the previous commanders took as much energy and as much hard work as this, but this was far more effective. Later, as a regimental commander, I worked for a brigade commander named Ray Crabbe, who operated in much the same way. He called it as he saw it, he looked after his soldiers, and that didn’t mean coddling. He led by example, and he accepted responsibility.

The Somalia inquiry and immediate post-Somali time was, however, the defining event for the rest of my career in uniform, and the most appalling time I ever had. The lessons arising from it were a defining factor. Those who stayed said, “Never again!” Things had to change. We were not viewed as Canada’s armed forces, had no relationship with Canadians, who were quite willing to push us away and throw figurative rocks at us; morale of those in uniform was lower than whales poop and we had lost pride in our profession. Tellingly, we even avoided wearing our uniforms in public. We had to have a national approach to our armed forces; those armed forces had to reconnect with the Canadian population so we would be viewed as their own and we had to restore the pride in being soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen. In short, we had to restore pride in who we were. Although it was negative, the appalling treatment that people in uniform received during the Somalia period became a defining moment for all of us.

Not many organizations are as large or as dispersed as the military. You rely on the ability of soldiers to interpret and implement the commander’s intent. What are the biggest challenges in ensuring this happens the way in which you intend?

It’s always a challenge. The bigger the organization, the more difficult it is because you don’t have immediate direct oversight. But that’s no excuse for not having oversight. You must have a vision – without it you are wasting your time – people won’t know what they are trying to achieve and you will never see the results you want. Any organization, big or small, will be all over the place, unfocused, without that vision.

As CDS, you have to lay out that vision, then the route to it in strategic terms, and then ensure that people understand both – communications is fundamental. Then you empower leaders at every level to say, this is our vision, this is our strategic approach and here is how we are all going to do it. Open two-way communication up and down the chain of command is critical. Finally, the leader must be out and about. Walking around and talking to the troops is a leadership technique that is frequently underestimated. If there is a disconnect between your vision and the strategy, that is how you will determine it and get an opportunity to fix it – to ensure all understand the commander’s intent.

But we also utilize an educational and training system to build a commonality of approach, which helps implement in a way that you, as the leader, can be comfortable with. Training, discussing and dissecting things together leads to a thorough understanding of what each individual brings. That is to say, you have a “mind meld,” where “implicit leadership” carries great weight. People know how you think, use their immense abilities to achieve things in accordance with that understanding and accomplish so much more because they are not waiting for your specific direction. This is one of the most exhilarating and challenging parts of being the leader of that large and disparate organization. It also requires much trust up and down the chain of command and, hence, back to my principle: your credibility is your centre of gravity.

Did you have a system to ensure that feedback loop not only brought information back up the chain to you but also ensured your “corrections” reached back down so soldiers could see it?

In a huge, diverse organization like the Canadian Forces, there are dozens of methodologies to pass information up, but very few to pass it back down. Direct communication is the best by far. I think by the time I left I had spoken directly to at least 70,000 of the 90,000 men and women in uniform. All the methods for passing information may be good, but the information being passed should always be viewed with a jaundiced eye. I say this because when something intense happens and people are stressed, the first reports about that event are probably wrong, the second usually wrong and often so is the third. It’s only after that that you get accurate facts about what transpired. Unfortunately, by then, people start seeing that the info is going to the CDS or perhaps the PM so the emotion gets removed and your “feel” of what occurred is now reduced. So you have to be careful of the info coming in, validate that with direct observations and observations of trusted advisers and then ensure that, directly, the corrections are passed to those who need them, from you. Direct communications is best, augmented by formal written direction, e-mails, newsletters, changes to training manuals, etc. You, as a leader, can then see whether or not it is being implemented. Direct communication is worth its weight in gold.

Now that you are in the private sector, do you notice a change in how effective leadership is provided?

I think many private companies are afraid of leadership. They tend to rely upon management process, perhaps even more than the government bureaucracy. So when you see the leaders in private industry stand out, they stand out very, very clearly, and I have seen quite a few of those over this last several years. The smaller entrepreneurial companies thrive and become big because they focus on leadership, not process. Then, because they are successful, they grow big and develop much process which often keeps them from being even more successful. It’s a bit of Catch 22 and the challenge that CEOs face daily to prevent process from becoming an anchor is huge. Overall, I find far more similarities than differences in leaders and leadership between the military and civilian worlds – it is still all about people.

The CDS has always been a political position, but has the emphasis on a whole-of-government approach changed the way in which one leads? Did you spend more time looking at issues from the perspective of other departments than your predecessors might have?

With the whole-of-government approach, if we had ever managed to turn the number of words and meetings in Ottawa into real action, we would have already resolved Afghanistan, but unfortunately incredibly bureaucratic processes sprang up that consumed time, resources and people, but without clear and visible product. In principle, strategically, I think “whole of government” is absolutely the right approach, and it speaks poorly of us that we actually have to say that – that approach should be the default setting for how we work. But I’m finding it hard to see what we’ve achieved so far with the greater emphasis on those words, “whole-of-government,” that we were not getting before. We said back in 2005 as we were helping draft the defence policy paper that the “Team Canada” concept was absolutely the right way to go. I’m hoping to be positively convinced, by an effect that is visible, that this is working. Certainly it has not changed the communications strategy effect – I’ve talked to many Canadians in the last 12 months and all they have heard about Afghanistan is IEDs, Canadian soldiers killed and Sharia law. So from that perspective, I’m still waiting to see effect.

We need to start by building Team Canada here in Canada first. Truthfully, because of the many silos we have in Canada, organizational and regulatory, we probably work better with some international or other national agencies than we do with our Coast Guard, RCMP, CSIS or the other Canadian agencies. We need to build Team Canada here first and then be able to project it effectively internationally and, pragmatically, get real, visible effect from it.

On one hand, the CF enjoys greater profile than at any time in recent memory; on the other, there are clearly recruitment issues. Is this a leadership problem, a management problem, or a systems issue?

I believe it’s a leadership challenge always but the leaders have to build a system that supports their aims. Recruiting is not only the responsibility of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Canadian Forces. It is the responsibility of the Government of Canada. If Canada wants an armed force befitting a G8 nation, then we have got to shape the things to make that successful. That includes equipping, basing and the budgeting for operations and training, but it also includes recruiting. It means the government has to get serious about how it attracts people. Yes, the onus to lead is on the CF, and, yes, the CDS is the most visible person in uniform leading. But he has got to be surrounded by a plethora of folks who always talk about what an incredible professional service to our country is being a soldier, sailor airman or airwoman. That’s got to be the prime minister and cabinet ministers.

For years, both the military and industry have expressed concerns over the time and effort that is expended on progressing projects through the government’s procurement process. While CDS, you were able to move certain projects through the system very quickly. Are there lessons from that you think should be more broadly applied?

There are lessons from the C-17 and a few other acquisitions: if the government says we want to do something, it can happen at lightning speed. We signed a contract in February of 2007 for the C-17s and in August we delivered the first aircraft, and within months after that, the second, third and fourth aircraft. So major acquisitions can be done effectively, best price for Canada, with appropriate industrial and regional benefits (IRB).

If there is an industrial strategy for Canada – not a defence industrial strategy – I am unclear on what it is.

Nonetheless, one pillar of an industrial strategy must be a shipbuilding strategy. Sadly, we have always been boom or bust in that area with short-term decisions taken without that longer-term view that a strategy would give. When we bought and built the 12 frigates for the CF in the 90s, we invested billions in great shipyards, but then we stopped construction after number 12 and lost all of that expertise and investment. Now, when we go to replace the frigates with a new surface combatant, we will have to do it all again. We need a shipbuilding strategy that takes into account the needs of the Coast Guard, Transport Canada and the Canadian Forces: a strategy which focuses on a few shipyards and builds a sustainable, long-term capability that we can market worldwide. For example, the Navy could take one surface combatant per year for the next 50 years. After every six ships, we re-set slightly to take advantage of the latest technology and building mechanisms. We could build up the expertise and have a constant flow of high quality, modern warships.

A second pillar might be an Industrial Regional Benefit strategy that is long-term. We do not yet have one. As a result, when you do any kind of contact, 60 percent of the IRBs must be committed by the time the contract is signed. What you end up with are only short term, “analog” benefits. With a proper IRB strategy, you can work with industry – Canadian and international – and help them invest in Canada over the long term, with the understanding that this becomes part of their IRB commitment if they receive the next government contract. At present, if you’re awarded a contract worth three billion dollars, you need a 60 percent commitment on IRBs by the time its signed three months later, so companies scramble to find IRB partners. That is not an effective process.

Another pillar might be a vehicle fleet strategy. There is an opportunity right now with the downturn in the economy and the stimulus package to stimulate southern Ontario, where a lot of automotive jobs have been lost. In addition to fixing the incredible fighting vehicles that have been badly damaged in Afghanistan, or perhaps in lieu of doing that, buy a new fleet using the stimulus package – not the defence budget – and at the same time create another world-class fighting vehicle that Canada can take to world markets as was done with the Bison and LAV III. The land forces will need those vehicles and we can turn it to Canada’s advantage

There are all kinds of things you could do if you took that approach; an IRB strategy, shipbuilding, aerospace, fighting vehicles. But you have to have an industrial strategy to start. It would be so efficient and effective for Canada and would give us a leg up on the rest of the world competitively.


An interview with Gen (Ret’d) Rick Hillier


Author: Vanguard Staff

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