Tags: D-Day | invasion | business | leaders

The Hidden Business Lessons of the D-Day Invasion

By    |   Thursday, 05 June 2014 01:16 PM

Every year on June 6, I have a shiver run down my spine. As a retired U.S. Army Special Forces ("Green Beret") officer and combat veteran, I can't help but remember in awe the tens of thousands of soldiers that executed a simultaneous amphibious and air invasion of Europe.

On the night of June 5 and the morning of June 6, paratroopers and glider infantry followed by a sweeping amphibious assault began the invasion of Europe — a military feat that remains without equal in the rest of history. That historic day in 1944 signaled more than any other the end of World War II and the Nazi regime. Today, the D-Day Invasion holds many lessons for us in areas that we do not realize.

The first lesson is identifying what success is remains far more important that identifying how to achieve success. In the preparation for the invasion, the parachute and glider forces trained relentlessly how to achieve their mission objectives of securing key bridges, cross roads and other key terrain following their midnight parachute assault.

However, when the invasion came, the airborne infiltration was a disaster. Different airborne forces were miss-dropped and scattered throughout the French countryside — it appeared the invasion was off to a disastrous start. What saved the day was a military concept called "Commander's Intent," where the military commander identifies what success is, so when a plan has to be adapted, everyone acts with initiative and determination to achieve the mission objectives.

That is precisely what happened that early morning and day of June 6 in Normandy. Different airborne units joined together, determined their location and successfully accomplished their mission.

The business lesson is that we need to let employees know what we want then to achieve and why. This way, the enterprise can quickly adapt to plan changes as well as a dynamic competitor and still achieve the business objectives.

The second lesson is that leadership at all levels matter a lot. Normally, we read about how the real architects of victory were the Generals and Admirals responsible for the planning and executing the invasion. True, but for successful combat operations, like business, success happens on the front lines. We seldom hear of the USS McCook, a Navy destroyer led by Lieutenant Commander Ralph Ramey assigned to provide gunfire support of the Omaha landing beaches. The USS McCook steamed close in and parallel to the invasion beaches providing devastating fire on German positions, but also providing a perfect target for German gunners. The sailors of the USS McCook never touched the sand of France that day, but were critical to the invasion.

For business, those frontline leaders that meet with customers, ensure safe business environments, create new products and find ways to reduce costs are your frontline leaders. They are the ones that beat the competition.

The third lesson is that innovation has to be tested before the battle. During the D-Day invasion, there were several "great" new ideas that failed miserably under the conditions of combat. During the invasion, paratroopers were given the famous "leg bag" to take extra ammunition, which ripped off in the high winds when they jumped from their airplanes. Tanks, which play a critical role in establishing a beachhead, were fitted with waterproof "skirts" and other flotation devices so they could swim in to the invasion beaches on their own. Many of the skirts failed and the tanks sank even before reaching the beaches.

The business lesson is that innovation is critical to delighting customers, but new ideas have to be rigorously tested and improved prior to customer delivery so they do not fail at the moment of truth.

The fourth lesson is that small, effective teams at the right place can change everything. For the Allies, the small Jedburgh teams were a silent and essential element. The Jedburghs, or Jeds, were small teams trained in espionage, communications, explosives and ambush and dropped behind enemy lines months before the invasion. These teams made contact with the French Resistance, scouted German positions and made their own plans to sabotage German rail lines and troop areas on the nights leading to the invasion.

The Jeds made a huge contribution to distracting the Germans in their logistical areas, which provided the invasion forces critical breathing space. The business lesson is to dedicate resources to teams and technology that can decisively change the game to help your customers — helping your customers succeed more is the best way to defeat the competition.

The final lesson is that training and rehearsal made the difference in the success of the D-Day Invasion. Individual soldiers, sailors and airmen were all trained so that they knew how to do their job, but also fulfill the critical responsibilities of their comrades. More importantly, military formations of large groups of people rehearsed day and night, so vital functions of resupply, vehicle repair and casualty evacuation could be accomplished.

The high levels of individual and unit training were critical to reversing the impending signs of disaster on Omaha beach in the early hours of the invasion. The business lesson is that training and rehearsals that show how business can do things safer, more cost effective, and with fewer defects will make the business great.

Businesses face enormous challenges in terms of creativity, customer satisfaction, innovation, profitability, cost and other critical challenges to operating a successful enterprise. Businesses of all sizes can achieve success when they remember those critical hidden lessons of the D-Day Invasion of identifying success, the value of leadership, testing innovative ideas, creating small teams and training their teams to meet the demands of the marketplace. On June 6, remember those brave individuals who faced impossible odds and then apply their lessons of success to your organization.

Chad Storlie is the author of the Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and the Battlefield to Business Success. Both books teach how to translate and apply military skills to business. An adjunct lecturer of marketing at Creighton University and Bellevue University in Omaha, Neb., Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer with 20+ years of active and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab and the Ranger Tab. In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive at Union Pacific Railroad and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including General Electric, Comcast and Manugistics. He has been published in The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online and the Oxford Leadership Journal. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.

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Every year on June 6, I have a shiver run down my spine. As a retired U.S. Army Special Forces ("Green Beret") officer and combat veteran, I can't help but remember in awe the tens of thousands of soldiers that executed a simultaneous amphibious and air invasion of Europe.
D-Day, invasion, business, leaders
Thursday, 05 June 2014 01:16 PM
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