Being succeeded by someone more talented and effective than I always punctuated any success with which I was credited or felt as I transitioned from each of the three community-destination marketing organizations that I led over my now-concluded 40-year career.
I am often reminded of a lyric Merle Haggard included in his 1981 #1 hit, My Favorite Memory, his 25th at the time: “I guess everything does change, except what you choose to recall.”
I joked once to friends as I made a transition that I would be forgotten within three months. Actually it turned out to be more like two and to me that was a tribute to good succession.
In one instance I was succeeded by someone younger than I was and in the other two my successors were older. Of course, these selections were always made by the respective governing boards of directors, but I was consulted about and provided support to their process.
Understanding that CEO succession is a process rather than just an event, in my final destination, Durham, North Carolina, the governing board shaped a “best practice” succession plan near the mid-point of my more than two-decade tenure there.
One requirement of the policy was that I hire a “second” who was not only capable of stepping into my shoes at a moment’s notice but with a proven ability to withstand special interests and who instinctively had a feel for the community.
They also insisted that the person be capable of not just succeeding me but keeping the organization on an even steeper upward-trajectory, one that would quickly transcend anything accomplished during my tenure. They wanted to ensure succession that would “hit fast forward without saying goodbye to yesterday.”
Fortunately, I was able to lure one of my closest friends over now nearly 25 years out of early retirement and back into community-destination marketing leadership. Shelly Green has met every one of those stipulations and more, as evidenced, in part, by her chairing world-wide accreditation for such organizations.
Several critics over the span of my career accused me of pushing the organizations I led like we were dealing with “life or death.” They had a point, although they certainly had a lot of other faults on which to pick.
This inclination was something that Bill Elander, my successor in the second of my three posts, certainly understood. Before he transitioned to community-destination marketing after retiring as an US Air Force Lt. Colonel, he had flown fighter jets during two tours over Vietnam.
His time in that war bookended the three tours that my uncle, George F. White flew there, racking up more than 300 flights over North Vietnam. He was later killed at age 31 while flying for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA,) becoming the 18th agent to die in the line of duty, less than a year after I graduated from college.
Between tours in Vietnam, my successor in Anchorage, had honed his skills as the #6 plane with the Thunderbirds, an elite morale-boosting demonstration team formed just as I was being I was being born, in the years following World War II.
In the same type of aircraft flown by my uncle, the F-4 Phantom, Bill had been shot down over North Vietnam just as I was graduating from college and honed his subsequent interest in the hospitality sector as a prisoner-of-war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
Bill was released just four days after my uncle was killed. Both were awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism during that war. My more-like-a-brother uncle, though he never rose above the rank of reserve captain, added two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with 26 oak leaf clusters and the Bronze Star, the nation’s fourth highest for heroism.
It turned out that Anchorage wasn’t the first, nor the last time our paths crossed. Bill’s final post was as commander at Hill Air Force Base where my uncle had been stationed, and he both graduated from high school and served in North Carolina, which would become my next post as a community-destination marketing exec.
My driving passion and sense-of-urgency often resulted in what some military leadership historians call “personnel turbulence.”
But this was actually due to fact that it wasn’t until the last quarter of my career that I learned an important lesson from a consultant and friend David Camner: to “hire slow, fire fast.” Until then, I had those in reverse, hiring fast but being very slow to fire.
An enlightening read for anyone in or preparing for organizational leadership was published a month ago by Thomas E. Ricks entitled The Generals. Ricks contrasts the “hire slow, fire fast” philosophy under General George Marshall and subordinates such as eventual-US President Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II to the failure to use those techniques by those who came later.
With the urgency caused just before and during America’s involvement in World War II, Marshall was quick to fire those who wouldn’t or couldn’t generate rapid and enduring results; and Ricks compared to a corporatized-military in the years since which, like other organizations, came to see turnover such as the need to replace generals as a failure of the system.
Marshall's time in the military began at the turn the 19th-century at Fort Douglas, Utah, near where I watch my grandsons play soccer overlooking Salt Lake City. Back then the Army had recently quadrupled in size to just under 100,000 due to the Spanish American War.
Ricks notes that Marshall’s management style stood out even then. For example, when one of his commanders, later-General Johnson Hagood was asked on an evaluation form under a question about whether he would like to have Marshall serve under him, he replied: “Yes, but I would prefer to serve under his command.”
I could have replied the same on any evaluation of Green or Elander.
As Germany invaded Poland, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the ultra-reserved Marshall, to head the entire military effort. According to Ricks, General Marshall “took over an Army of 197,000 that included the infant Air Force. Under Marshall, the Army grew in just two years to 1.4 million in the summer of 1941 and two years after that it had reached nearly 7 million, finally peaking in 1945 at 8.3 million.”
One of the lessons in the book is that failing to “hire slow, fire fast” leads to the tendency to micromanage which has plagued the military during every era and conflict following Marshall but no more so than during the Vietnam War, when Haggard, just released from prison in 1969, penned the anthem Okie from Muskogee in support of the troops.
Haggard is claimed by both liberals and conservatives because of various songs, but my bet is that he is more of a moderate and an Independent. If politicians can be blamed at all for Vietnam, it is because they, especially Republicans, didn’t listen more carefully to Eisenhower.
Democratic Presidents following Eisenhower were haunted by the ghost of insubordination by one general in particular and the debacle of the Korean War when they should have been inspired by the management style of General Marshall including his philosophies about discourse between military leaders and statesmen such as F.D.R.
Instead they fell under the spell of another general which led them to ignore pivotal caveats issued by other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The poisoned discourse and a brittle, self-fulfilling culture of military leadership development and succession have plagued every conflict up through today including four Republican Presidents.
If you are considering a career in organizational management, especially leadership in community-destination marketing, read Ricks’ book The Generals. There is hardly a page without several nuggets of wisdom that can be put to immediate use in day-to-day management and leadership.
It will also shed light on some other personnel “best practices” which it didn’t take me as long to learn, such as strategic vs. tactical thinking, risk-taking and innovation, networking outside the organization, valuing career breaks, welcoming “returners,” conducting 360-performance reviews, embedding strong policies and ethical standards, recognizing moral courage and making allowances where justified by performance for skeptics, heretics and outliers.
It is alarming that in my former profession, less than a third of my colleagues have successfully earned accreditation for their community-destination marketing organizations. To me they are lazy and complacent and their communities and governing boards are failing to hold them accountable.
Many of them resemble Ricks’ description of American generalship in the decades after Marshall when he writes that they have acted less like stewards of their profession and more like keepers of a guild, accountable only to themselves. Ricks notes that this has had “long-lasting pernicious effects on American generalship.”
As one last lesson from George Marshall, Ricks reminds us that although this incredible leader got us through World War II and literally invented the modern military, he preferred to be forgotten.
He left no memoir. There is no weapon or installation named for him. “There is no Fort Marshall!” Just as it should be with good succession.