“Always talk to the 18-year old with the machine gun”

May 3rd, 2010  |  Published in Musings

When I joined the National Multiple Sclerosis Society as Chief Information Officer (CIO), I had the pleasure of working directly for the CEO, General Michael Dugan (USAF, Ret.). Prior to joining the MS Society, General Dugan had served as Chief of Staff of the Air Force and was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One day Mike and I were talking about the problem executives have finding out what is really going on in their organizations. Mike asked me, “Do you know who the most important person on an Air Force base is?” He knew I didn’t know the answer, so he continued, “It is the 18-year old with the machine gun who is manning the post at the entrance to the base.”

Mike told me that, when he was in charge of a base, he made it a point to get to know the 18-year old Airmen who guarded the entrance to the base because they could tell him almost everything that was going on at the base. He learned from them what was really happening on base, what morale was really like, and what people were really concerned about. He learned things could never learn from his direct reports.

Recently, I was doing some work for a client and my teammate and I were trying to figure out how a particular business process was really working. We did what consultants are supposed to do: we interviewed the Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Operating Officer, and they told us exactly how the process worked. While I knew these people were giving us the best information they had, I had a sense that this process did not really function as smoothly as they had described, so I asked my teammate to interview the person who ran the mailroom. After all, the process we were trying to understand began when the mail was delivered each day.

My teammate spent a long time with the person who managed the mailroom, and we learned the true story of what really was going on. This individual knew exactly what was happening, what should be happening, and what she would do to the fix the problems if given the chance. The information she provided us was invaluable. She wasn’t 18 years old and she didn’t carry a machine gun (although, as a former policeman, she may have wished she could), but she had her fingers on the pulse of the organization and she knew what was going on. Her insight made our analysis useful, and we were able to share with our client some things they, perhaps, did not want to hear but had to hear.

So I relearned a lesson that day. When you are trying to figure out what is really going on, throw away the company procedure manuals and training materials. Forget about what management tells you is happening. What you have to do is spend quality time with the people that are actually doing the work; that is where you will find the facts and information you need to help your client understand their current situation and develop solutions. Or as Mike would say, “Always talk to the 18-year old with the machine gun.”

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