I am a big college football fan. I don’t identify with a specific team or school in part because I enjoy the pageantry and traditions that span campuses across the nation. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing big games in big venues, with my most recent being an amazing experience at Auburn University…WAR EAGLE! Auburn did beat South Carolina that day, but it’s not the game I will remember most. It’s the people, the excitement, and the sense of community. Prior to the game, I had the pleasure of speaking with a couple of recruited athletes, swimmers in this case. These individuals were highly recruited given the fact that Auburn has one of, if not the premier swimming programs in the nation. Because these young women had the abilities, character, and potential sought by many universities, they had the good fortune of choosing which school would benefit from their attendance. It’s a position in which relatively few find themselves and one I was fortunate enough to personally experience (on a much, much smaller scale) long ago. Whereas most kids their age are competing to get into a school, some premier schools specifically identified these young ladies as individuals they wanted on their team and were, in turn, competing for their attendance.

Recently, I was told that I will have the honor of serving as Commanding Officer at a Command that is a perfect match for me. As excited as I was to hear the news, my immediate thoughts migrated toward my last experience in Command and how I ought to prepare for the privilege this time around. I was pleased with my preparation last time, but looking back on it, there was one key element missing…recruiting! I lead Prior to Arrival and Upon Arrival, and we worked together to develop the Cooperative Leadership Model (links are to the books and I’m happy to provide PDFs for those interested), but this time I am deliberately recruiting my co-leaders with whom I will be Commanding Cooperatively. The intent is to begin to “recruit culture” long before arriving, as opposed to shaping culture upon arrival as I did last time.

Many attribute the success of the premier college football teams to the coach’s ability to recruit. There are many great football coaches in the world, and I would be willing to bet that the best coaches aren’t the ones winning championships; the teams winning championships are in large part doing so because of the talent they were able to recruit. It’s no secret that many elite athletes choose a school because of the coach more than any other criteria (e.g. they are counting on the coach to help them reach their potential and get drafted by the NFL). This makes a coach’s ability to serve as a talent magnet critical to the team’s success on the field. In the military, we bring in those individuals who WANT to join (e.g. enlist) the team; we train them; and we assign them to join specific teams across the Navy based on a combination of their individual skills and formally stated requirements at a given command. Sometimes the individual gets what they want and sometimes the Command gets what they need, but rarely does a Command get the opportunity to influence who they get. In Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, he talked about the importance of getting the right people on the bus, and I am a firm believer that who we bring on our team is a strong (if not the strongest) determinant of the success the team will enjoy.

I am currently 10 months away from my scheduled arrival to my Commanding Officer tour so I am not the head coach, but the coach in waiting. Knowing that I will eventually be at the helm, I am recruiting. I am reaching out to Sailors with whom I have directly served before; I am contacting Sailors I have observed from afar and would appreciate the pleasure of having them on the team; and I am asking trusted agents to help creative, curious, and persistent team players choose to get on our bus. I continue to learn much in this adventure and one of my favorite observations is the power of connection. When I departed my Command Tour, I told the team…

“Though I will no longer be your Commanding Officer, I will be your Shipmate, I will be your fan, and I will be your partner in my “do-loop of choice” (inspire, be inspired). Thank you for your inspiration, your hard work, and your commitment to being significant. Significant in the lives of those with whom we serve, significant members of the community, and significant contributors to our nation’s security. I may no longer lead the NIOC Pensacola Team, but I am forever committed to leading WITH my NIOC Pensacola Alums. Thank you for making me and us better.”

I continue to lead with valued teammates across and beyond the military, as we form a federated and informal team that I refer to as the Coalition of the Doing. We built a culture together and it binds many of us to this day. The culture at the command in which we served may or may not be any different than we left it and that need not matter. What matters is the connection that remains amongst us alums as we continue to lead together despite our current organizational affiliation. What happens when we recruit culture? That’s what I intend to explore. 

There is great power in alignment. We acknowledge the importance of aligning authorities, responsibilities, and resources. What about personality traits? What about culture? As Peter Drucker was known to say, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I attempted to deliberately recruit talent on a small scale before. I wrote a letter of recommendation to what we call our Command Screen Board. The purpose of the board is to identify Officers who are best suited to become Commanding Officers. Knowing the type of leader that the Command I would eventually turn over needed, I assessed the candidate pool and identified the individual who I thought would most effectively take the team to new heights when I departed. I felt compelled to advocate on his behalf, which was really advocating on the team’s behalf. When the results came out, he was not on the selection list. So, I did the next best thing. The Executive Officer and I looked at the list of officers who did screen and lobbied for the one we thought was best suited to the Command. Coincidence or not, the person we wanted to take the helm ultimately relieved me.  I asked him to consider putting our Command at the top of his wish list (which he had already done prior to my call) and I asked the Detailer to consider recommending to our seniors that he be detailed to our team. I am certain my involvement had nothing to do with the decision, but I wanted to minimize chance as much as I could (even if it was very little) and one does not do that by sitting on his hands.

As I prepare for a “season” that doesn’t kick off for 10 months and realizing that the team I will be coaching has a coach (who happens to be a good friend of mine, an incredible father, and a wonderful leader), I can’t help but feel a responsibility to mindfully recruit the talent, build the relationships, and solidify connections that will help the team come opening day. The strongest sports teams are built in the pre-season, the strongest combat teams are developed through training and exercises, and the strongest families are a result of repeated investment in one other. We don’t wait for the game to start, the first shots to be fired, or a family crisis to think about the team we are on; and I believe we need not wait until we formally join the team to begin thinking as though we are already a part of it. Reaching out to others we believe will make the team even stronger is a responsibility of those already on the team, those who are slated to join the team, and those who have long left but still care about the team. 

  • Is it possible to effectively begin building a team prior to arrival? 
  • Is it possible to more intimately recruit specific individuals to a team despite the current military construct?
  • Should we consider giving Commands more of a say in who joins their existing team? Should Commands demand more of a say?