Blog: Building culture, the armed forces way


Building culture, the armed forces way

The armed forces in India and even world over has incredible reputation when it comes to building culture. Organisations have a lot to learn from them.
Building culture, the armed forces way

Imagine a scenario – an armored assault is underway deep in the deserts. The width of the assault runs into many kilometers and the depth is a few kilometers deep. It includes hundreds of tanks, armored carriers, artillery, attack helicopters, engineers, air defense, signals, medical corps and supply chains for ammunition, rations, and fuel. The assault continues for two days in which the formations move many kilometers in enemy territory and most of the actions happen at night! How does an organization manage that scale of complexity? There are a few things that the armed forces have managed to do, to build a culture that supports mission focus and operational excellence and I share my thoughts here. 

The armed forces have a rich history and it would be audacious on my part to try and explain what they do in a few paragraphs. I will, however, attempt to share a glimpse of what the armed forces do which helps them build the culture that helps them almost always, take the right decisions under pressure. The attempt is to share a few thoughts and experiences which might help Business Leaders and HR/OD professionals look at the organizational processes and regimental routines which make the armed forces what they are. 

I would probably say that the armed forces build a culture at two levels i.e. the Organizational level and the Regimental level. The two are not mutually exclusive and tie in together to make the culture that they have. I will try and talk about them separately but you will see the dots connect.

Organization level

Values and purpose:  The armed forces are driven by an honor code and a core set of values. These values are drilled (literally!) into you from the time you join the Military Academies. It is something that you are expected to remember and demonstrate. Regular articulation of these values and their linkage to decision making and consequences, helps Gentlemen Cadet’s (GC’s)  clearly visualize situations in which they will be required to demonstrate it. 

Any violation of these values invites swift and punitive action. These values also help connect to a bigger purpose and give a person’s job meaning e.g. the Indian Military Academy (IMA) motto says that – the safety, honor, and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honor, welfare, and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort, and safety come last, always and every. Do you have a set of clearly articulated Values and how are they lived, measured and embedded into the organization?   

Operational excellence: Training provides the edge that the soldier needs in war. The armed forces train you from the very simple functioning of a rifle to the ability to assess, plan and change strategies in the battlefield. The training is intense, role-based and hands on; they are cross-functional, planned with multiple arms and in stress test scenarios requiring practical application of knowledge in battlefield simulations. This provides officers and men the confidence to trust each other and take decisions in the field. Operations are driven by simple processes which are interlinked and delivered with more than hundred per cent commitment. 

Mission focused: Right from the time you join the training academies till the time you hang your uniform – there is one mantra you always follow i.e. to deliver what you commit to! This mission focus and determination to deliver guarantees that each man/woman works with 100% commitment which helps build confidence and trust. 

The Organization further locks in this behavior by providing flexibility to field commanders to take decisions based on the tactical situation; however, decisions that violate the core values (and break trust) invite swift and punitive action.  How does your organization build mission focus? Are your leaders able to articulate your organization’s mission? Are they able to align their teams to get there? 

At regimental level: Behaviors mentioned above are further locked in at a regimental level. 

Regimental history: The process of induction into the unit starts with the regimental history.  It is something that the unit is proud of and highlights the values and norms that are important to the unit. The history might include battle honors, exceptional achievements, trophies, and awards won by the regiment. 

Unit members are expected to remember this history and it is something that (subtly) keep reminding them of the responsibility that they carry on their shoulders when they are taking decisions.  How would your team describe the ethos of your business/unit? What would they be proud of? Will that level of performance be sustained? 

Mentorship and induction: Every unit has its own unique sub-culture; something that it is proud of and built over the years. This unique sub-culture is hard to define but is something that each unit lives by. These are the simple routines, symbols, and stories that make that Unit special. Each unit has its own norms of induction, but they all aim for the same goal i.e. to teach new officers and soldiers the ways of the unit. Each young officer is formally mentored in the first few months by his immediate senior who is responsible for the officer’s understanding of these symbols and routines. The process builds confidence, camaraderie, and knowledge of the unit’s processes and routines. There are units where a new officer is made to live with the troops in their lines, eat their food and follow their routine for a few weeks. This builds a deep understanding of their routine, norms, and challenges and builds awareness and empathy.

Emotional Equity: The unit’s routine builds emotional equity between the officers and soldiers. The process starts with a young officer being expected to remember all details of the soldiers of his sub-unit. These details help in building empathy, a deep understanding of cultural norms and socio-economic conditions and respect. These deeper insights actually help leaders take better decisions while balancing the requirements between task and people. Formal and informal functions further cement these ties between the officers and with the troops. Sports, training, and competitions within and across Units help build camaraderie, respect and a deeper understanding of each other. All this leads to higher EQ which helps keep the team together during ambiguity and change. What is your emotional connect with your team? Do you try and connect with them at a deeper level? Would you know their strengths, weaknesses, and fears? 

I started the article by saying that it would be audacious on my part to try and explain what the armed forces do to build culture, and hence the ideas listed here are only a few and there are much more things that specific units and training institutions do to lock in culture. The objective was to introduce some of these ideas here and share them with Business Leaders/HR/OD Professionals.  

I would leave you with some questions – what is your organization and business unit’s culture? How is the culture locked in through processes, norms, symbols and routines? What is rewarded and recognized? Culture building is a slow process, requiring a clear vision, values, and norms. Equally important, it requires leaders to walk the talk and invest in leaders who are capable of carrying the organization and its culture forward.

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Topics: Culture, Leadership

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