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To Prepare to execute

by | Dec 19, 2020 | execute, Nat King Cole, Preparation

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In the ‘90s, the mode of communication was a “pager”, and by the time I had one, they at least had characters so it was very similar to the texts’ of today.  In Ops, I was paged literally 50 or 60 times a day… some were informational, some were important, but you were used to your hip being buzzed constantly.  When I went back to Development, I actually went through “pager withdrawal”… and if you talk with Ops folks, they will tell you that it is actually a “thing”.  They “love” being in the center of problems – clarifying what is real, what is not, and making decisions at light speed.  And if I am honest, I look back fondly at those days… 

There is a clarity of purpose and action that is hard to repeat.  You often hear lots of sports analogies in leadership articles, and it is similar – a group of people that have a clear target, roles, and expectations.  How, then, do we Prepare our teams to be ready to execute?  I am working with a group now that has lots of individual talent, and clearly can accomplish a lot… and yet, there is something missing.  

This year in particular, the glue that can hold teams together has been tested like no other.  I just happened to be there on another project when I got “paged” – a 5pm Zoom call with no topic, mandatory attendance.  Check. The team was asked to do some Herculean work together, and I was asked to help… and it has brought a lot of the basics back to mind.

By the mid 60’s, Nat had built a great foundation with every orchestra and songwriter he would want to work with.  He also had been a lifelong smoker – something that now was taking a toll that was unstoppable.  After recording so many landmark albums, the diagnosis of terminal cancer in June of 1964 meant there was only one left for him.  He chose an album of standards that he hadn’t gotten to yet, and penciled in sessions between hospital visits. 

He chose to go into the Capitol Studios on June 3rd of 1964, and recorded today’s song between 2 and 6 pm – only 4 hours.  He would record versions in 8 other languages in Las Vegas in August, and a few other songs in December in San Francisco.  The album was released in January 1965… one month before his death on February 15, 1965, at only 45. 

The initial Billboard magazine review from January 30, 1965, commented that it was “One of the finest Nat Cole albums to date!  He’s in great form as he breathes new life into some fine standard material…The title tune is a Cole classic!”  The irony of “breathing” is not lost on me.  You can guess that everyone in those sessions knew this was going to be his last, and they were Prepared to execute their portion – flawlessly.  They didn’t need encouragement to bring out their best – he had invested in those relationships with both the directors and players over the years. 

One of the scenes in the movie Patton I refer to most often is his army coming to the rescue of the troops during the Battle Of The Bulge.  He was able to turn his army 90 degrees, move 200,000 men and 200 tanks 100 miles in 72 hours in one of the coldest winters ever.  And – that doesn’t happen without Preparation.  He knew he could do it… because he knew them – what they could do, and what they couldn’t.  Being in the fray with them, and engaging with them he knew that when he needed them, he could call on them to execute.  And they did it, and he gave them the credit – and as a result, the war was ended within a few months.  

One key to all of these stories is that you can’t begin building the Team when you need it… they have to be Prepared in advance.  How to do that – while they are doing the “normal” work is something I became more comfortable with over the years.  I have a term for it – “Management Hygiene”.  In this year where we are reminded of what happens without good practices, it is time to take a look at your own.  Humans like predictability… so as the leader you have to provide that structure everywhere you can.  Regularly scheduled check-in meetings – 1:1’s – and regular status reports.  That foundation allows the conversations to deepen, and you actually can see what works, and what doesn’t – how you can delegate/not. 

It really is that simple.  If you put one step in front of the other, management and leadership is mostly about executing Preparation with every interaction.  With the “new” team, I established daily check-in meetings, a place where EVERYONE could come together and in 15 minutes start to work through issues, make decisions… and have a little fun.  I also helped the Team start taking minutes at their staff meeting – getting information to flow laterally around the organization, so everyone could see and be a part of all the pieces.  And I established 1-1’s with most of the key team members… not official, but I made it a point to find a way each week to have a personal conversation with each about something important to them. 

You can’t know what is around the corner, who will need your Team to move halfway across Europe, or to suddenly work seamlessly from their homes.  In this year, the Teams and leaders that have thrived were the ones that invested… and Prepared for whatever came… and then executed it.  And… they always did it with these simple steps, and letters – the title of Nat’s homage to us all for what we need more of in every vector of our lives, particularly teams… L-O-V-E.

L – is for the way you look at me
O – is for the only one I see
V – is very, very, extraordinary
E – is even more than anyone that you adore can


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