Thank you for your service

11.11.2010 | Mary Ellen Eagan |

I protested the Gulf War.  Both of them.  But my post today is about the military, and what I think we can learn from them.

You might ask why.  Well, first of all, it’s Veteran’s Day today, and while not an official HMMH holiday, it is certainly on my mind.  So before I go any further, I’d like to acknowledge HMMH’s veterans.  They are: Nick Miller, Bob Miller, Bob Behr, and Everett Heller.  Thank you all for your service.

One of the reasons I have been thinking about “military heroes” over the last few months is because despite my tendency toward pacifism, I find myself often in the company of veterans and increasingly admire them, not only for their service, but also for some of the traits that endear them to me.  This became very clear to me this summer, when Steve Barrett and I had the pleasure of entertaining a few clients over dinner – unconsciously, it turns out that I had invited three former military helicopter pilots.  Dan Frazee from San Diego Regional Airport Authority, who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and subsequent Marine 1 helicopter pilot for Gerald Ford; Bill Willkie of CH2M HILL was a navy helicopter pilot in the post-Vietnam era, and Roy Fuhrmann of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is still an active reservist, and most recently served in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  All three flew different aircraft, different missions, and served in different conflicts but the things they share are remarkable:  to a man, they are gentle, humble, and soft-spoken.  They are thoughtful, unflappable, reliable, and relentlessly positive – I don’t know that I’ve ever heard one of them gossip or complain even the tiniest bit – somewhere along the lines I think they have just learned that life may be too short to waste time on negative “stuff”.   In any case, it seems they have their priorities in the right place and I have much to learn from them.

Harvard Business Review Cover

As it turns out, Harvard Business Review has been thinking about this as well, and this month devoted an entire issue to “Leadership Lessons from the Military”.   There are several excellent articles in this issue, and I will attempt to summarize one or two key thoughts here:

First, the notion of common mission and purpose.  What is good for the individual is not necessarily good for the company.  Mission must come first, self-interest last.  Creating company value, not the pursuit of private value, should drive leadership actions.  To that end, here’s a good opportunity to revisit HMMH’s mission statement:

HMMH solves complex problems affecting our environment. We develop and apply innovative technical tools, communicate effectively, and delight clients.

How are we doing on that mission statement?  Our diversification into areas such as renewable energy and NextGen environmental planning confirm for me that we’re on the right track.  HMMH is committed to our expansion in these areas – it is the future of the company, and we’ll continue to support our investments in these areas – they have already seen strong returns – and I am convinced that is why we have not had layoffs over the last couple of years while most of our peers in the industry have.  Over the last year or so, I’d say we’ve had mixed success in the tools department:  our new onboard sound intensity measurement system is a great example of teamwork, learning from others’ experience, and focused deployment of resources.  On the other hand, our corporate risk-aversion and too deliberate decision-making process has significantly slowed our uptake of new technology, such as cloud computing.   I believe we need to rededicate ourselves to innovation.  We still “delight clients” as evidenced not only by our improved Dun & Bradstreet Client Satisfaction survey, but also the Zweig White Best Companies to work for survey, in which HMMH staff indicated that being a client-focused organization is of extreme importance.

HBR also had a long article on how strategies for negotiation in high-risk military environments can be employed effectively in business.  We often are engaged in high-stakes conversations – with clients, in public meetings, or even within HMMH.  I found it quite interesting, and think it’s worth sharing a summary of the five strategies they identified:

1.  Get the Big Picture:  When engaged in high stakes conversation or negotiation, start by soliciting the other point of view.  What you learn will help shape objectives of the discussion.  On the client front, one step we’ve taken is to conduct a client interview at project initiation as part of our client satisfaction survey process.

2.  Uncover and collaborate:  By learning the other party’s motivation and concerns, we will be in a much stronger position to propose solutions and invite our clients and colleagues to improve upon them.  Instead of asking “What do you want?” we should be asking “Why is that important to you?”  Some of the discussion at our leadership retreat over the next couple of days will be trying to get at exactly those questions, to enable us to work more effectively as a team.

3.  Elicit Genuine Buy-in:  Use facts and the principles of fairness, rather than brute force, to persuade others.  Instead of close-mindedness, we should appeal to fairness, by asking “What should we do?”

4.  Build Trust First:  This means dealing with relationship issues head-on and making commitments to encourage trust and cooperation.  I was at the Airport Consultants Council Annual Conference this week.  Ron Peckham – C&S’s President and CEO and this year’s ACC president has a number of favorite quotations.  One of them that always resonates (and which he used on Monday) is this:  A careful conversation is a wasted conversation since it hindered a robust conversation that wanted and needed to happen.

5.  Focus on Process:  Consciously change the game by not reacting to the other side.  Take steps to shape the negotiation process as well as the outcome.  In high-stakes negotiations, we naturally want to avoid harm to ourselves or constituents; this often creates pressure to give in on critical issues.  The resulting agreement, however, may create an exposure to risk far beyond the immediate threat.

My takeaway from the military, then is this:  we need to remain true to our mission and be sure that everyone knows and understands it.  In addition, we need most importantly to stay true to our values, which have not changed through all our new initiatives:

  • Serve Clients
  • Be Honest
  • Respect Others
  • Build Value
  • Use Teams
  • Seek Growth
  • Have Fun


About the Author
Mary Ellen Eagan, President & CEO, Chief Executive Officer, Aviation, HMMH

Mary Ellen Eagan

President & CEO

As President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of HMMH, Mary Ellen is responsible for providing strategic, innovative leadership…

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