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There is a distinct cross-over in workforce demographics between the New Zealand armed forces and the physical labour industry

Lessons from the armed forces – By Mike Ellis

Mike Ellis spent 13 years serving in the New Zealand Defence Force, and he’s using the experience he gained in that time to manage his predominantly young, male workforce.

I was in the military for 13 years and it’s fair to say that it’s had a lot of influence on the way I now lead my staff. If you believe what you see on television, you’d think that might involve a whole lot of yelling and aggression, but in real life it’s about respectful communication, clear instructions, and being willing to get stuck in.

Like most operators in the physical labour sector, the majority of our staff at Oak Tree Devanning are younger men. In this respect, and many others, there is a distinct cross-over in workforce demographics between the New Zealand armed forces and the physical labour industry. 

Despite the stereotypes that lurk within our culture about management in the armed forces, I truly believe that the private sector has much to learn from the modern management styles, culture and leadership capabilities that have evolved in our military.

Five key lessons

In particular, there are five key lessons that I have translated into civilian management from my time leading soldiers in the New Zealand Defence Force.

Establish boundaries
You must respectfully draw a line in the sand that makes the roles within a team clear. Even though it’s probably not that trendy, a clear chain of command is important. In any job, people want to know what they are responsible for and who they are responsible to. This means clearly stating this right at the beginning to new employees, and then being consistent in your expectations as you lead your team. 

It’s important to be friendly, but not overly familiar. Don’t join in or condone unacceptable behaviour, and consistently and without prejudice correct mistakes.

Lead from the front
No matter how high you are in your organisation, you must be willing to do the work that you are asking of your staff. In my line of work this means frequently turning up on a site and helping start the more difficult jobs. I find this makes a major difference down the track when offering feedback and trying to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of staff members.

Be cool

Never lose your cool and be tempted to stamp down your authority with aggression. This will not work in the long run. Allow the heat of the moment to pass and de-escalate the situation as best you can. 

Take time to look more deeply into an issue with the people involved at a later point. If you have a problem with a staff member, make a strong case beforehand and clearly communicate your information in a simple way. Let go the things said in the moment, but at a later time make clear your expectations about appropriate communication.

Give credit where credit’s due

Clear and obvious incentives for good work are important. There must be a tangible link between the quality of a staff member’s work and the quality of their reward. For example, our staff’s remuneration is directly linked to what they achieve in a given day, so more containers devanned to a high standard by a team means more pay at the end of the week.

If staff members go above and beyond, we have a budget to gift them a $50 grocery voucher to show our appreciation. It’s important to do this in smaller ways too. Notice when people put in an extra effort and pat them on the shoulder or shake their hand. It builds camaraderie and creates a positive culture.

Be a straight shooter
Before you talk to your team, gather information and be clear that you know what you are talking about. Don’t waffle or you will discredit your message. It’s also important to be genuine, call a spade a spade, and back up what you say by stating your reason or evidence. A good motto is ‘be short, sharp and respectful or don’t even bother’.

Drive to succeed

As business managers and leaders we are all too often focused on driving our companies to succeed in bigger and better ways, without realising the true cost to staff welfare and resources. Remember this: “What matters is not how fast we get to the battle, but the condition our soldiers are in when we get there.”

This is what Oak Tree Devanning moulds its success around. We drive our employees to succeed, and the business follows their success.

Mike Ellis is the South Island operations manager for Oak Tree Devanning, specialists in fast and reliable container devanning and loading in Canterbury and Auckland; for further information, visit www.oaktreedevanning.co.nz

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