Important business lessons can be learned from observing how others in unrelated professions make decisions under stress. I have co-piloted planes and helicopters in the second seat next to experienced aviators, trained to race sports cars and ride motorcycles, scrubbed in to watch surgeries, and even did a stint in an emergency room just to get an up-close look at how the highly skilled function under pressure. Recently, I added a police patrol ride-along to my repertoire in order to see what else it takes to have the right stuff.
The police are trained to make decisions with limited information. When a car is dispatched to unknown trouble, the officer often has limited information about what may be encountered. It could be a man with a gun or merely a barking dog.
In business, every day, executives must make decisions that can be life-altering. These include hiring and firing as well as dealing with serious issues that could affect a business’s well-being.
During my ride-along, I asked numerous questions. Topping the list of good advice from my new temporary partner was his response to my question of, “How do you get control in a difficult situation?”
My mentor for the evening stated, “When you lose respect, you lose your authority, and bad things can happen.”
He went on to explain that, when he arrives on the scene, the first thing he must do is gain respect from everyone involved. Respect, he added, is achieved by first giving respect and not by muscling your way in and pushing people around.
Respect also comes from looking the part. That’s why officers wear uniforms, have badges, and carry scary-looking guns and handcuffs. That is also why I’m not a huge fan of everyday “business casual.” When one is attempting to wield power, if nothing else, he or she must look the part, either sitting in a squad car or at business meeting.
Most civilians think that when a police officer’s radio crackles “211 in progress” (code for armed robbery), the officer hits the siren and lights, does a U-turn with tires smoking and speeds off to save the day. I learned on my ride-along that “fast is not really always fast.” Instead, speed is about “being smooth,” and first thinking through the proper way to proceed.
In business, how many times do executives react to a situation with lightning speed but without first weighing all of the possible ramifications? The streets are littered with the resumes of executives who acted before they assessed.
Once on the scene, an officer has to size up the situation and set priorities. If the bad guy has a gun to someone’s head, the cop doesn’t walk around asking a female witness, “Just the facts ma’am.” The same applies with a corporate problem. When it occurs, the manager must triage the issue to mitigate the damage. It is equally critical in crime scene investigations and in finding a business solution to assess the situation and to do what is most important first before determining who is at fault.
Police officers depend on concise communications and teamwork when lives hang in the balance. Most times in business, lives are not at stake, but the need to ask for assistance is no different from a cop shouting over the radio “Officer needs help.” Not every patrol person is a SWAT expert, but every officer is trained to know when to seek help. Too many managers wait too long to recognize that they lack the specific skill set to fix a portion of the problem. In both professions, those involved need to know when to call for reinforcements.
As I concluded my ride-along, I asked my new cop buddy his opinion of what it will take to reduce crime. His one word response: “Consequences.” The perpetrators must know that if they do the crime, they’ll do the time. This is no different from setting guidelines for employees, contractors and suppliers. A leader must make clear what is expected and what the consequences are if someone doesn’t deliver.
I learned a lot on this ride-along, including that preparation and thinking before reacting go a long way in keeping the peace on the “mean streets,” as well as in the corporate boardroom.
Finally, in case you’re wondering … no, we didn’t stop for doughnuts.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in early 2011. Reach him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.