3 things IT leaders can learn from the military

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Hiring slowdowns and layoffs have swept across the tech industry in recent months. This is a response to inflation, events occurring at Twitter and Meta and the prospect of a prolonged recession. 

Today’s economic uncertainty is unusually confusing. Overall, 80% of employees say they fear for their job security should a recession occur. 

Being an IT leader today means being engaged in harsh workplace battles. Whether a recession materializes and how deep it might grow remains to be seen. However, the C-Suite must keep the muscle exercised and start leading like the military to win a world war for talent retention, boosting employee engagement and company resilience.

Also, this is half the reason we need wargame exercises. That’s when we suddenly or randomly increase quotas or initiate surges in activity, to “stress test” the system.

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So what can you learn from the military to become successful at people management in times of uncertainty?

Reacting fast to emerging threats

Before the Russian invasion, my company had a dilemma: Work with local markets, or enter the global ones. The local market is much smaller but noticeably more affordable. The global one is very attractive, but its entrance threshold is much higher.

When the war started, I understood that we no longer had such a dilemma. In turn, our competitors, who have decided to hold expansion into new markets and start waiting for a better moment, are forced to react to current conditions amidst budget and staff cuts.

To stay on board, you should find the right way to react fast to emerging threats. 

First and foremost, no one person is bigger than the team. Involve the team in the decision-making process. Leaders are not isolated. Especially in IT, even quiet times demand fast reaction, but before you make a decision, ensure that you have a team with whom to engage in a new battle. If generals decide to start a battle, they first deliver this information to their soldiers.

Second, take time to evaluate the situation. In the military, before reacting, they take 15 to 20 seconds to assess the impact of their next move. Stay calm, but move with purpose. If you act calmly and appear to have a sense, it steadies people around you. Move quickly but confidently to get things done, and they will. To ensure everyone is on the same page, have a clear mission statement that everybody understands. Don’t try to do everything in a single day. Break things down into chunks and focus on one piece at a time. Stick to the facts.

Third, never put the business on hold, even if the situation is horrible. If you understand that something has to be changed, start doing it immediately so that you at least have time to load the gun. When you don’t move a needle, someone does. Consider that as a total capitulation.

Invest in your and your employees’ mental health

Besides, IT is not a military organization. Still, leaders should ensure their safety and mental stability to think soberly at the corporate level. Crises, thankfully, are rare, but that also means people often need more knowledge to handle loads of unusual information they’re bombarded with in such situations.

One may compare it to a case of an airborne emergency: A parent first puts on a mask for themselves and then for their children. Here is the same: Find time for self-reflection. Think about a big mission the company and you personally have, or consult a psychologist who will help you cope more effectively with work and life issues.

“Being a Marine Corps fighter pilot taught me that taking care of your people allows them to take care of their work. No one goes it alone in the military, and the same holds true for business. Teamwork builds successful companies.” —Ted Fienning (U.S. Marine Corps), co-founder of Babiators.

To maintain the team’s mental health during turbulent times, you should share your troops’ lifestyles and establish communication with each employee. People who don’t know about a company’s plans create a vacuum filled with rumors or distorted news. Develop an anti-crisis plan and communicate it to the team, showing them the company has a plan for their future. Set up meetings with top managers, where they share news about the company’s activities with employees and comprehensive firsthand information regarding the current situation in the company.

Lack of stress is stressful to many. Keep the muscle exercised. This is half the reason why we need wargame exercises. This is why we suddenly or randomly increase quotas or initiate surges in activity, to “stress test” the system.

Educate people by conducting special training with the help of experts. Training to manage stress, anxiety and personal finance will help your employees build the needed knowledge and respond to challenging situations. 

Make operational agility a top priority

Rotation is widely spread in the military and is also applicable in business. It may be one of the best solutions in a time of turbulence.

According to William G. Bliss, president of Bliss and Associates Inc, replacing an employee who earns $50,000 a year will cost the company $75,000 in operating and indirect costs.

To save jobs and determine layoffs, the company can change planning terms, the approach to team formation and the team’s interaction with management. For example, if a talented employee doesn’t have suitable tasks in their current position, rotate them to other roles within the team or even departments. Employees can even be redistributed between companies if a group of companies/holdings exists.

Organizational agility should be a top priority, since it needs to be clarified whether companies need to change business models, add new skills, or do both

Upskilling and reskilling is a key. You will always be able to fire people, but are you sure you won’t have to ask them to return? The best option is to offer them to reskill or upskill their knowledge to suit company needs during turbulent times. For that, invest in AI or other tech solutions to automate routine tasks to release the team’s energy for fulfilling more complex and mentally demanding assignments.

Living in today’s world teaches us to learn something new and be brave and resilient. Also, it requires us to be good people and care about others.

Your team is your foundation — don’t be a bag guy who fires everyone when things get tough. Layoffs are not a way out of the situation. Sooner or later, you will have to hire new people and spend a lot of time and money doing so.

Vladimir Polo is CEO and founder of AcademyOcean.

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