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Where There’s Smoke (Business Lessons from ROTC)

May 14, 2013

1. Reward the right things.

Wildfires in Utah are a pretty big deal. I live in a desert state. Just about everything revolves around water. In the winter, we worry we won’t get enough to carry us through the next Summer. In the Spring we worry that we’ll get too much if the snow pack melts too fast and we’ll get flooding. In the summer, though is when it gets really bad. The state dries out, the tall grass of Spring turns into the bone dry fields of August. A spark, a hot car, sometimes even a stray bullet can start a fire.

The summer of 1990 was no exception. While a member of BYU’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps our unit got a chance to go to Camp Williams to see how the real soldiers train. It was late August. We were divided into groups of underclassmen, and upperclassmen. We rotated through the various activities. Rappelling off a 60 foot tower was fun, but the coolest event was the firing range. We fired M16 assault rifles and an M60 machine gun.

If you’ve never fired a machine gun, it’s different than a rifle in that you don’t “sight” a machine gun to aim like you do a rifle. Instead, you point it in the general direction you want to shoot and you use the phosphorescent tracer rounds to “walk” your shots to your target. If you’ve ever seen a film of a dogfight between two airplanes and you can literally see the bullets, those are tracers. . .and they are on fire. That’s why you can see them.

The instructors didn’t want us to burn down the camp, so they told us if we wanted to shoot the M60, we had to “break” out the ammunition and remove the tracer rounds and then put the belts back to together without the tracers. After removing just a few dozen rounds this way, our fingers were incredibly sore. I think my M60 turn was about 8 seconds.

As we rotated off to another station, the upperclassman rotated into the firing range. These men and women would soon be graduating and joining the ranks of the military full time. A group of them decided that it was too tedious to break out the tracer rounds. They decided to fire the M60 with the phosphorescent rounds.

They started a fire. The firing line was immediately shut down and the cadets were sent down range to stomp out the fire before it could spread.

The following week we were all called into formation and these upperclassman were called to the front of the unit.

“Oh boy,” I thought. “They are going to get chewed out in front the entire company for disobeying orders and putting the Camp Williams exercise at risk.” (The military readers have already figured out how wrong I was.)

“For their quick thinking and fast actions, we would like to present these cadets with COMMENDATIONS for containing the fire.”

So, they caused a problem, but because they were heroic in solving that problem, they got rewarded.

I’ve worked for many organizations like this. The guy who pulls an all nighter to solve a problem. . .caused by his slopping engineering. The woman who goes to great lengths to win back a key account. . . which left because she missed their deadlines.

I’ve always tried to make sure I’m rewarding the engineers or developers, or marketers who do their jobs so well that they don’t cause fire drills. It’s a lot harder to recognize the employee who is so good at their job that they make it look easy. The next time you are tempted to hand a STAR card to a employee who went to extraordinary lengths to solve a problem, make sure you aren’t rewarding them for their own poor planning.

This is the second in a five part series on business and leadership lessons I learned while taking ROTC classes at BYU for a single semester in the fall of 1990.

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