This article was originally shared by Ian Mathews on Forbes

David Neal spoke with Ian Mathews about his transition from his career in the military into founding his own consultancy alongside his partner Jonathan Clark.

David shares with Ian the considerations he and Jonathan explored when establishing The Eighth Mile Consulting strategy development.

They also covered these points in their conversation which can be seen in this short 8-minute video posted to Linked In.

  1. The costs of not acting on instinct
  2. The lesson on letting your ego impact your leadership
  3. Why do we fall into the trap of micromanaging?
  4. How much time do you invest in developing people who have not yet met their mark?

From Active Duty To Startup Founder: An Interview With David Neal

If you interview an executive and a military leader, many aspects of the conversation will sound remarkably similar. Both are responsible for adapting to change, leading people, thinking strategically and delivering results.

But several times during the conversation, you are reminded of just how different the stakes can be for the military leader. An executive might recall delaying the removal of a poor performer, resulting in a disruption in business. The military leader provides a similar example but with much graver consequences.

I recently met with David Neal, CEO of The Eighth Mile Consulting, to discuss his journey from the Australian Army to founding a successful business. David spent 13 years with the armed forces before leaving to build a company that helps private enterprises with change and project management, strategy and leadership consulting.

What was your first experience in business? When I was 14, I worked in a liquor store. Sweeping, stacking shelves and all that sort of stuff. I learned the value of talking to people and building rapport, particularly at a young age, because a lot of the customers were rough around the edges.

Your focus now is on leadership. What were your early influences? In my adolescence, I did Shotokan karate and worked my way up from a very young age, competing in the World Championships. That drew a lot of my time throughout my younger years. I was coached predominantly by my dad and spent time on the national team.

You mention your father as a coach. What other examples did your parents set for you? My parents worked in the tax office. That’s an interesting story by itself because my mom and dad come from pretty rough stock, a suburb called Elizabeth in Adelaide, which for many years was the highest crime rate suburb in the whole country. My dad scored a scholarship by randomly attending a school hall once. He went into the air-conditioned school hall on a very, hot Australian summer day. To stay in the air conditioning, he had to take an aptitude and IQ test. He is a brilliant man and his scores landed him an accounting scholarship funded by the government. He created a career there with my mom, working shoulder to shoulder on many of the same projects. It’s a pretty cool story when you think back to how they pulled themselves out of tough times through education.

What was your first leadership role with the military? I went to two institutes: The Australian Defence Force Academy and The Royal Military College – Duntroon, where they designate army leadership officer training. It’s a very competitive environment and you get used to being uncomfortable. I also did some infantry-specific training and deployed immediately to Afghanistan. Straight out of military school, I spent 10.5 months on combat operations in Afghanistan, as a 22-year-old in charge of up to 27 soldiers at any time.

What was that like? That was very gritty work. My role was as part of an Australian force that could support the Afghan National Army and make sure that our soldiers were getting back alive. Wherever there was trouble, we got dragged in and would get our hands dirty. That’s where I developed my close affiliation with the U.S. because we supported each other during some tough times.

What was an early observation in that role that stuck with you? One of the things I observed was a difference between the U.S. and Australian forces in style and approach. I used to talk to my soldiers on a first name basis, regardless of what rank they were, and they’d be like, “Yeah, boss,” and walk off. I had a US lieutenant struck by the casual approach to the way that we deal with our soldiers. And he was like, “How can you do that? This is your rank, and this is their rank, and we’ve got to maintain discipline.” I learned not to rely on my position because the Australian Army is less structured in our hierarchies. And so what works for one military did not necessarily work for the other. We both have the same tactics on the battlefield, but the way that we communicate with our teams is drastically different. He thought they were insulting me by calling me boss, but in our world, that was a sign of respect. If they started calling me sir, I knew I’d stuffed up.

Does that lesson apply in business? There’s a level of respect in assuming that the people who work with you can poke fun at you. It shows that we trust your ability to deal with it. And if we don’t talk to that person or we don’t want to offend them or whatever, then that’s probably a more concerning sign in our culture.

Tell me about a mistake you made as a new leader in the field. I did not make the hard decisions early enough. An example of that, I had someone in mid-level leadership that was in charge of other people. I was easily influenced and didn’t want to break up the team just before we deployed. I thought that I could change or educate that person in time, and I was wrong. We had a gunfight, and this person froze at a time that I needed them not to freeze. And I now look back and know I could’ve done something about that.

Why didn’t you act on your gut sense? I didn’t want to ruffle feathers, and I didn’t want to upset the status quo. I paid the price for that at the gritty end. If I had groomed someone else, I wouldn’t have risked people’s lives. So for me, have those hard discussions early and be willing to justify the reasoning behind that.

I went through the same thing as a new leader. My naive way of thinking was, “I can change everybody.” It was my ego saying, “I’m a good enough leader to overcome this.” Absolutely. The lead up to that, we’ve gone through four years of relatively intense training where everything is graded, marked and assessed. You’re compared against your peers. The day you graduate, you’re rated from one to whoever is left in the class. You know where you sit in terms of your cohort, your peers, and these are arguably the best leaders in the country. And you’re getting rated against those people. I mean, that’s always in the back of your mind. There’s a competition about who is the best. I’ve got to be the fastest, and I can’t be the weakest — all these really kind of misaligned perceptions.

How did those rankings impact your judgment? I didn’t want to be the one with the weaker team. I didn’t want to cause problems for my headquarters. I didn’t want to be that guy. I wanted to be the guy with solutions. I’ll fix it. And really what I was doing was slapping more band-aids on the problem but not curing the infection underneath. And ultimately, I paid the price for that. And then I had to endure the rest of the tour with that individual. And it hurt me. I had to micromanage to make sure that my soldiers were safe and this came at the expense of the overall operation. With a few hard discussions early, we could have fixed that entire thing.

What were the consequences as you got dragged down to a lower pay grade? The soldiers see that, and they’re like, “Well, why is the boss mucking around at our level? Why is this, why is that?” And I’m trying to work behind the scenes to make sure that everyone’s safe and we all get back alive. That weighs heavy on your conscience. You’re trying to make sure that we’re all going to get back. The other thing I learned, and I think it relates to corporate, military, and personal life is the value of context.

The times when my staff were most frustrated with me were when they didn’t know how or why we were doing something.

If I could talk to a younger version of me, I would say spend that extra 60 seconds on every engagement you have with people to explain the context about how and why you’re doing something. If you can cover both of those things, it will prevent 90% of the problems before they start.

What happens when a leader isn’t transparent enough? It always creeps out anyway. Whatever you say to one person will get back to the original person. It builds strong rapport and trust when you go up to another human and say, “I have a lot of respect for you, and I’m not going to talk behind your back. I’m going to say these things to your face because I believe that you can deal with it.” If you can frame conversations in that way, people will take it positively. One thing that took me a long time to figure out is that the more vulnerable I am, the stronger I am.

Can you elaborate on the importance of being vulnerable? It is counter-intuitive for someone trained to protect their reputation. The more I share about my vulnerabilities, the stronger the rapport I have with people. And I am able to leverage my network to achieve a disproportionate impact.

I find that the most productive people simply have more people willing to do them a favour. Absolutely. And what that looked like was, “Hey Bill, could I borrow some of your trucks? Could you give me a drop 20 km down the road with your helicopter, Harry? Because that would be a great asset for us not to walk that far.” These were favours, not orders or demands. This was over a mobile phone going, “Hook a brother up, and I’ll do you a favour later.”

How do you share vulnerability in a business context? When we meet someone, we tell them how bad we are at some things. We put those knives on the table before we start. We approached two-star generals with, “Hey look, this is where we’ve personally let you down. Let me explain where we’re weak. We haven’t hit the mark on this particular project.” The more we did that, the more those people protected us because they were like, “I can trust this person. I don’t need to hunt for the negative things. They just tell it to me straight away.”

As you approached the end of your term, how did you decide to start this company? I had no intention of creating a business. I jumped into a project manager role in a large not-for-profit organization to roll out an enterprise project. It was similar to some of the projects I worked on within defence. But while I was in that organization, I observed what I thought were Leadership 101 problems. It was a toxic environment, and I was like, “How can this business run when leaders can’t even talk to their staff? They can’t say one thing without bullying them.

So, you saw a problem first-hand and decided to build a solution? Yes. I started taking notes in the background with my friend Jonathan, as we were working on this project together. We got to the end of our contracts, and I said, “Do you think there’s merit in us starting a business where we can help people based on our lessons learned?” We got so comfortable working in high-performing teams, and there seems to be a complete vacuum of it. And working with high-performing teams is addictive. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re on a humming team, and everyone knows their place, and everyone’s getting stuff done. I thought, “Why don’t we start a business helping companies create great teams?”

Your company’s motto is, “Good people helping good people.” What does that mean to you? We look at projects and change initiatives holistically, but with a lens of, “How do you engage with people?” Because so many problems are disguised as something else. Most of what we deal with is people. What looks like a technical problem is often one person won’t talk to another because they don’t like them, and the company is trying to patch it with a new system that costs a million dollars. We ask why they don’t get the two talking to each other or get rid of the offender.

You started Eighth Mile Consulting with your longtime friend, Jonathan Clark. How important has it been for you to start this business with a partner? It’s massive. We made a deliberate choice that we would fulfil two roles, as we have two different styles. Behind the scenes, we do very different things. I’ve adopted the part of the gap-finder, forward-leaner, opportunity-finder, relationship-builder. Jonathan has adopted the systems, processes, structure, design, organization, management and operational side. Knowing your place in the team and defining it is crucial. We hold each other accountable, and I think our team thrives on that.

How did you think about positioning for Eighth Mile? In true military fashion, the first thing we did was purchase a whiteboard and a big marker. Jonathan and I sat there over bourbon and wrote about where you might not see two knuckle-dragging ex-infantry consultants. Where can we be a point of difference? And we focused on not-for-profits, clinical care, medical and education. We’re going to lean into these areas where we are a point of difference.

What was your marketing plan? We tried LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with different messaging. I aimed at these various industries to see where we might provide value. LinkedIn quickly rose to the top, and I developed a few tactile skills on that platform. So we started building our personal brands concurrently while we were making the company brand. Our messaging slowly switched to, “Well, if you like me as a human, you should see the rest of my team, because they’re incredible.” Since our business has been running, we’ve spent less than $500 on advertising.

What advice would you give to someone starting a company today? In the small business world, you do everything for a while. You don’t have the capital, and you don’t have the revenue coming in. Your margins might be small. Write down your strategy. It’s a contract with yourself and that should incorporate a linkage to your personal life. Do not commit to starting a new enterprise or a new business if you think that it will not affect your home life.

You can read the full article here

In this 50-minute workshop, we discuss the relationship between offensive and defensive business strategies.

Topics We Discussed In this workshop

  1. Personalities, biases and decision making
  2. Running concurrent offensive and defensive initiatives
  3. Understanding the relationship between strategy and risk
  4. Leadership considerations

SMART BUSINESS REQUIRES SMART STRATEGY

Strategy development is fundamental to creating and running your organisation. Where do you want your business to be in five years? Where are you now? How big is the gap between where you are now, and where you want to be? The Eighth Mile Consulting can help you build a strategic outlook and implementation plan to deliver business and people outcomes.

For more helpful videos to help you grow your people and your organisation subscribe to our YouTube channel.

What are your thoughts or learnings when it comes to deploying the right strategy in business? Are you leaning towards an offensive business strategy or a more defensive one? Let us know in the comments below!

There is some genuine concern and trepidation about taking the first step. My question is, is it actually the first step that you are stalled on? Surely we are continuing something that has already begun. The action is the next step after the idea. The ‘how’ is the next step after the ‘why.’ In that case, the first step has been taken and now we have momentum.

In any project or change there is a slight pause at the beginning, followed by, “how does this thing start?” The thought alone strikes fear into a project or change manager. Especially, if there are tight dead lines. (Aren’t there always?) With your permission, let me share some simple tips and tricks for getting passed the first (next) hurdle.

1. Think of everything as a next step, not your first. The first step is always the hardest right? So… take the next step. It implies momentum and movement. Try re-framing your thoughts from “how do I start this thing,” to “what’s next?”

 2. Focus on the ‘Why.’ If you don’t know the reason for doing something, try and find it. Whenever there is an absence of what to do and how to do it, refer back to the reason why. This will guide your decision making and give your team a context for their own. For example, if I am analysing a next step, I filter it with ‘Good people, helping good people.’ That is my ‘why,’ what is yours?

 3. Establish a timeline with key timings and dead-lines. Building in boundaries and times for delivery, keeps us accountable to something. We know that something must be delivered at a certain time. This focuses our energy and allows us to prioritise what is important at a point in time. This way, we are less likely to get lost in things that don’t matter.

 4. Keep a project/ change notebook (log) – when in doubt refer to it and regain momentum. Ever lost track of what you were saying and couldn’t remember the point you were about to make? Keep a log/ diary of actions and information (mostly to reaffirm the ‘why’) and when in doubt, refer to it. This will allow a systematic and logic method of back tracking to then regain your momentum.

 5. Have a sounding board or mentor that is outside the project – they will provide logical and object perspective. A fresh set of eyes on a problem set is worth its wait in gold. Have you ever heard the saying:

Can’t see the forest for the trees

It means, that we are so buried in the details that we cannot see the whole situation. Take some time to detach from the details and re-orientate on the holistic picture. A new perspective will reveal information that can be extremely useful. Also, refer to point 2.

 6. You aren’t alone, invest in the team. How often have we heard of the best ideas coming from left field, somewhere we had not considered. This starts with the team. Teams that solve problems together are inherently stronger. Invest in that and the team will not only help with the solution but own the outcome.

6. Solve a problem, Then another and one more. Once we have solved enough problems, we are back on track. The biggest threat to delivery is no action at all. We will talk about wasting time and ‘what is the wrong action,’ in a later article.

There it is, some thoughts that might help you through a sticking point and allow you to gain some momentum. I would really enjoy your ideas and comments. 

What gets you through a ‘freeze’ moment? Let us know in the comments below.

When I joined the Australian Army as an Officer Cadet in 2006, my goals were to:

  • Lead soldiers into battle,
  • Positively influence their lives, and
  • Make a positive difference in the world.

Throughout my time in the military my understanding of successful leadership techniques has dramatically evolved from a rigid, authoritative and top-down approach to a more inclusive, group-influenced and adaptive approach. But more importantly my approach to problem solving and decision making is what has potentially evolved the most, and that is what I would like to discuss in this paper.

I once read a book by a late Chinese militarist and philosopher named Sun Tzu, his most famous work being ‘The Art of War’, written to provide context to war and conflict. Originally written to consolidate some of the constants that define war, a large number of its themes can be applied to modern environments, organisations and situations. I found that one particular selection of his quotes stood apart from the rest:

“Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

Sun Tzu

This collection of references has colloquially been referred to, or summarised, as Sun Tzu’s ‘flow like water’ and is often loosely referred to in conversations everywhere. What is of particular relevance from this quote is its application to problem solving.

Throughout my life, I have observed leaders, managers and decision makers preach and assess others against throw away terms such as: flexibility, adaptability, initiative and effectiveness, however I personally do not believe that many individuals fully reach their potential in these areas, not through a lack of trying, but through a lack of awareness.

BYPASS OBSTRUCTIONISM

To apply Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘flow like water’ to problem solving we must first apply its relevance to our modern context by drawing a number of constants. Suppose, that an obstacle, hurdle or obstruction (or worse yet an obstructionist!) is likened to a rock within a flowing stream. Suppose further, that water (under Sun Tzu’s concept) is ever moving, constantly changing and reshaping, and is heading in one direction.

Every one of us has encountered a number of obstructionists throughout our own experiences. Characterised as that one irritable individual who has an inability to think laterally, who begins group conversations with ‘that can’t be done’, and lives happily in a world self-defined by boundaries and corporate governance. In the past I have likened such individuals to the’ Vogon Constructor Fleet’ from Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy;’ an officious group of aliens responsible for maintaining the bureaucratic processes of the universe, with no regard for innovation. Please note, when I refer to obstructionists, I do not refer to bureaucratic styled professions, in fact, adaptive thinkers within such job categories have the ability to transform whole organisations by streamlining processes and cutting red tape. I refer primarily to individuals who have turned to the dark side. A team of obstructionists can often lead to toxic relationships, and without fail will hamper an organisation or team’s competitive edge, particularly when delivering projects.

Leaders must be able to identify obstructionists, acknowledge their concerns, and then bypass them in order to ensure that momentum is maintained on overall task/project success. Many a leader has become unstuck by becoming bogged down in obstructionist detail, whilst losing oversight of the original task and purpose. In the Army a term known as ‘marking and bypassing’ is used to explain a procedure by which a team identifies an issue on the battlefield which is outside their scope and capability. This team will then promptly mark it and pass the responsibility to other more specialist teams in depth as opposed to dwelling on the problem. This term can also be applied to explain the process of identifying an obstacle in the workplace, marking its existence and then bypassing it in order to complete the task in time, on budget, and within specifications.

DEVELOP A POSITIVE CULTURE WHICH REJECTS OBSTRUCTIONISM

It is one thing to be able to apply Sun Tzu’s, ‘flow like water’ to your own practices, but how does one influence a team to apply the same forward-leaning, positive approach to problem solving?

Employ the right type of people

If organisations intend to recruit individuals long-term then employ those people that are right for ‘a task’, not necessarily ‘the task’. This meaning, that organisations need to ensure the longevity of their investment (their people), and ensure that when Project A is finalised, the same person might be able to easily transition onto Project B which might have an entirely different scope, stakeholder contribution and design. This is the true meaning of ‘flexibility’ when referring to planning. In practical terms, this might mean that organisations make an assessment on an individual’s potential as opposed to their qualifications. This might also mean that individuals are assessed on whether they are likely to fit the culture of the organisation based on personality, approach to problem solving, and their work ethic. If you have obstructionists in your team, find a way to negate their effects, re-train them, re-assign them (to a better suited role), or worse case remove them completely.

Publicly encourage adaptive and ‘out of the box’ thinking

Leaders must always encourage adaptive thinking by individuals who demonstrate initiative. Ideas and concepts from staff are simply that, nothing more, nothing less – it’s not personal! Furthermore, leaders must be able to identify those contributions that are obstructionist versus those that are complimentary or constructive to the planning process. Positive contributions must be acknowledged publicly to the entire team, and similarly, obstructionism must be identified and as such bypassed or negated. Just remember, you do not need to use everyone’s contributions, but you do need to acknowledge its existence and intent.

Leaders must take risks and accept responsibility

Leaders must apply the principle of ‘risk versus return’. A team which consistently adapts, evolves and adjusts to changing conditions needs to take risks in order to maintain pace with competitors. This ultimately results in higher risk for mistakes. Good leaders must accept the full responsibility for their team’s mistakes, and in return they will receive greater followership and continued involvement from their team. Remember, never blame your team! Also, a successful leader does not blame other areas or departments in order to shift blame and make a common enemy. The most successful leaders I have seen have demonstrated humility and have gone to extensive efforts to provide context as to why other teams within their organisation have made their decisions. Word travels quickly, and this positive gesture may be returned to your team at a later date.

Train your team to be able to plan in the absence of information

Successful and adaptive teams are those that get ahead of the game. They demonstrate the ability to plan in the absence of all the information. They make experience based assumptions that allow them to get to further stages of planning. These assumptions are then either confirmed or denied concurrently, or in subsequent stages of planning. In any case, the team maintains its momentum in the correct general direction. Obstructionists by their nature, feel extremely uncomfortable planning without all the information, and can be seen using it as a means to hamper/halt the planning process – do not let this happen!

In summary, do not be a Vogon! If people provide you with constructive ideas, first think how that information may practicably be utilised to better your cause, or your organisation. If you identify obstructionists, mark and bypass them, to find another way to win, and do not get caught in their detail. Remember, there is always a way to reach an end-state, it might just take a zig-zag path around multiple obstacles to reach it.

Flow like water – Avoiding obstructionism

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.