When Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense, he often got pelted by the news media with questions about whether the Armed Forces were ready for the battles they had to fight – particularly the Iraq War.

 

Rumsfeld was unflappable, and he thought it was a waste of time to look back at what should or shouldn’t have been done – particularly when the focus needed to be on winning the battle at hand.

 

“You go to war,” he declared, “with the Army you have.”

 

This was often characterized as a shot at his forces, but I think he just meant there was no point questioning his team when they were the ones being sent into harm’s way.

 

And at that point he was right. You do go to war with the people you have, and when the fighting starts you’d better be 100 percent behind them.

 

The time to really think about your people is before the war, and that brings us to where we are now. Most of us are weeks away from going back to war. The COVID-19 lockdowns are going to end soon, and we need to be ready to execute the strategies we hope will help us bounce back from what’s happened.

 

Once things start opening again, and customers expect you to perform, you’re going to have to be 100 percent behind the team you send to fight that battle. So your chance to really think about that team is now.

 

But many business leaders don’t like to think about their people. They love to talk about strategy and execution, but unless there’s drama, the people proposition doesn’t get them too excited. That doesn’t make a lot of sense when you remember that this is the army you’re going to war with, and it’s a lot harder to change troops in the middle of the war than it is to get right in the first place.

 

Right now is the first place. A lot of companies have laid off or furloughed employees. As they get ready to ramp back up, they need to make decisions about who they’re going to bring back, and how the team will be newly restructured.

 

A serious business owner should be making sober, and sometimes difficult, decisions about the people on the team. How many of these people do you really need to win the war? And which ones?

 

Too often, business leaders don’t take these issues seriously when they should. During “normal” times, it’s easy to convince yourself your team is just fine, and to minimize the importance of any shortcoming they may have. But that becomes a problem during two different scenarios.

 

The first is when things get tough, and you find out who is unprepared to respond to the challenges. The second is when things pick up and you’ve got lots of work. You need your team to be at its best so you can reap the rewards.

 

This is when you’ve gone to war, and you have little choice at this point but to fight that war with the people you have. If the team isn’t what it should be, you’re going to wish you had been more serious about getting the people question right beforehand.

 

So what does getting serious look like?

 

It starts with an assessment of your people. There are excellent tools available that you can use for this purpose – things like top-grading, along with concepts like radical candor. This is a concept that says you don’t have to choose between rudeness and empathy. It’s focused on helping people, and it avoids empathy on the theory that empathy makes it harder for people to improve.

 

You may disagree and prefer other tools. The most important thing is that you take the people problem seriously. It’s not like a fiscal balance sheet where you have to drop or reduce expenses, or seek credit from your bank.

 

Doing a serious assessment of your people situation should be a top priority right now, and the next few weeks are crucial for getting it done.

 

And yet I find many business owners don’t really see the process through all the way to the solution. They do some assessment, take a look at what they’ve found, and they say, “Hmmm, that’s interesting information. I’ll keep this in mind.” But they don’t make the significant moves they should make as a result of what they’ve learned.

 

They’re like a baseball player who hit a double, and is so proud of himself for getting to second base he figures he’d better just stand there. There’s no point in risking getting thrown out by trying to go any farther!

 

But your team doesn’t get credit for a run if you stand on second base. You need to do whatever it takes to round third and make it home. Maybe someone will hit you in, but if your team desperately needs a run, you might need to steal third. You might even need to steal home.

 

I know that’s one of the hardest things to do in baseball (although I’ve seen it done), but I’m not sure it’s any harder than really taking the people question seriously – at least for some business leaders.

 

It’s much easier to just tell yourself your people are fine, and that they’re exactly the team you need. It makes your employees feel better, and it’s one less thing you have to spend your time on.

 

But when the war starts, you’re going to feel the pain if this isn’t the team you should have led into battle. The battle is resuming soon, so don’t just stand there on second base. Do the assessments, and then bring them home by making the moves that are necessary to get the team right.

 

Written by: Wade Wyant

Red Wagon Advisors