How putting people first strengthens your team (a Grit Project exclusive)

As one of the first women to fly Apaches in the US Army, my years in uniform leading teams and flying around the world, from Bosnia to Korea, taught me, above all, the importance of taking care of people. My first battalion commander, later to be MG John Macdonald, gave me the words to articulate that value. As he and my father pinned the silver bars of a 1st Lieutenant on my shoulders, he said “The only good use of increased power is the increased responsibility to take care of your people.” I took the lesson to heart. The Army exhorts “Mission first, people always.” It doesn’t always happen; there is good and bad leadership everywhere. But it is a lesson I pass along to every organization and group I have a chance to speak to today. Missions get done by people. If you take care of your people, the mission takes care of itself.

A Company, 1/2 Aviation in Camp Page, Korea

While stationed in Korea, the grandmother of one of my junior soldiers passed away. The regulations didn’t permit travel and leave for people other than immediate family. His grandmother didn’t qualify, but he had grown up with her. I found a way to approve leave and get him transportation home.

Transitioning from the Army through business school, a friend warned me not to expect the same values in the corporate world. “Just remember, it’s all about money out here,” he said. “You have to take care of yourself.”

Then, twelve years ago, eight months into a finance position at Microsoft, I was returning from a weekend trip when I had a phone call which would change my life. It was the police in Kaktovik, a tiny village on a barrier island off the north-east coast of Alaska. I knew that my father and stepmother were kayaking in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I had talked to them by satellite phone only the week before on Father’s Day. I knew something must have happened.

The voice on the other end asked if I were Rich and Katherine Huffman’s daughter. I said that I was. Then the voice said words I will never forget as long as I live:

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” the voice said. “But a bear came into their campsite last night, and they were both killed.”

The world stopped. I was suspended on a city street unable to hear, unable to move, inside of a new reality that has not yet, in twelve years, made sense.

Driving to the airport, I called my manager, Marc Reguera, and left a message. My words seemed almost comical: “I won’t be at work on Monday. My dad and step-mom were just killed by a bear. I have to go home.” How do you leave a message like that? How do you receive it?

The hardest week of my life

The next week was a blur of flights to Alaska, funeral homes, caskets, and church, burials. I knew I would need to empty my childhood home full of thirty years of memories and storage. I assumed I would have to quit my job. Things had to be taken care of. That was my highest duty. I had no idea what my option B might be.

The week of the funeral Marc called and left me a message. “Do whatever you need to do,” he said. “You can come back to work next week if you want, or take a few months. Your job is here when you come back.”

Marc had coordinated with other senior leaders, Paul Schmidt who ran the finance group and Hardeep Walia, my general manager, as well as others to give me what I needed. He understood about taking care of people, and he understood about family, as did Paul, Hardeep and the others. And I needed that few months. There was work to be done at home. I was too numb and in too much pain to fully process the generosity, but I received it with gratitude, especially knowing that my finance role was not a good fit for me. I was doing an adequate job, but I was far from exceptional. And despite that, despite the fact that I had been employed there less than a year, Marc, Paul and others had given me the space to do what was needed in unspeakable circumstances.

Leading a team at Microsoft, one team member came to talk to me about his wedding. He was one of my best team members, always putting in extra hours and whatever was necessary to get the sometimes thankless job done. He wanted to take a two-week honeymoon, but had only one week of leave. I told him I would work something out, and ensured he could take those two weeks.

Mission first, people always. Marc’s offering me a blank check to take care of family meant the world to me, and made the difference between the chance to stay on working and needing to find a new job. When I returned from several months away, he, Paul and Hardeep had a new role for me managing an international project and team. It was a perfect fit.

Conclusion

There is no way to predict what phone calls will come. It’s not only in the military that people make missions work. Everyone needs an Option B at some point. Helping make that a reality for people makes a team in any environment stronger.

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Shannon Huffman Polson is one of the first women to fly the Apache helicopter in the United States Army. Today, she is a leadership expert and speaker with Keppler Speakers. Her book North of Hope tells the story of her own journey to the Arctic, and her blog, “The Grit Project,” interviews other exceptional women in uniform with stories of Leadership and Grit. North of Hope is now available in paperback. This piece was first published on Huffington Post.

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