Long before a pandemic sent companies around the globe into a rethink-everything-we-do scramble, Thayer Leadership was training corporate leaders to cope with disruption. Thayer’s mission is to inspire and build leaders of character by offering leadership and ethics education grounded in time-honored military principles and values-based leadership delivered by proven leaders. Founded in the volatile economic year of 2010, with the goal of bringing the best of military leadership principles to the private sector, Thayer Leadership designed a cutting-edge, proprietary educational experience and recruited top retired U.S. Army officers and West Point faculty who were “battle and boardroom tested” to share with corporate leaders practical applications of how to navigate during times of unprecedented and unrelenting disruption.
The concept is based on VUCA—Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous—a term the U.S. Army coined to describe characteristics of the post-Cold War world. “The military excels at training leaders to lead in a complex, volatile scenarios—things like a focus on mission and values, pushing authority and decision-making empowerment down to the lowest levels, learning from mistakes, the importance of clear communications and leading dispersed teams” explains Dan Rice, president of Thayer Leadership, a West Point graduate, combat veteran and author of West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage. “These are the same leadership principles that help companies during a crisis…and beyond.”
To aid the faculty team—like General Dennis Reimer, Brigadier General Becky Halstead and Lieutenant General Frank Kearney—in translating military leadership experiences and principles into curriculum that would resonate with, and be useful to, corporate leaders, Thayer Leadership recruited Dr. Karen Kuhla McClone, Ph.D. from GE’s legendary Crotonville corporate university to launch Thayer Leadership. “Coming from leading one of the legacy, top-tier executive education programs at Crotonville (Manager Development Course), under the direct purview of Jeff Immelt (CEO), and having other corporate and educational experiences was a great foundation for me to do justice to sharing military leadership lessons,” says Kuhla McClone. “I was able to, with the faculty team who have first-hand practice in successfully leading through VUCA, design curriculum and experientially based programs that were grounded in a strong educational underpinning and also helped executives cross the bridge between military and corporate application.”
Over the past decade, Thayer Leadership developed custom programs for more than 400 companies in diverse industries and trained more than 100,000 executives around the world. Companies like Deloitte, Mercedes-Benz, Pratt & Whitney, Synchrony and Lord Abbett & Co. (see sidebar) tapped Thayer Leadership to develop programs to address strategic planning, leading in a VUCA environment and building leaders of character. Many were hosted at Thayer’s leadership institute at the iconic Thayer Hotel, the historic property located on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Others were held at corporate headquarters or other locations around the globe, with some employees attending by video and participating online. “Clients are telling us they are much better prepared to lead during Covid due to the training they have received, which is incredibly rewarding for our team,” says Kuhla McClone.
For the first 10 years, the economy was booming and VUCA was not as significant in many industries as it is now. However, when Covid-19 hit, Thayer Leadership was uniquely positioned to continue to train leaders in helping their teams adapt to the threats it posed, as well as to change how those lessons were delivered. “Fortunately, we had been building our technology platform since 2014, with the goal of being able to deliver excellence digitally to our clients around the world,” says Rice. “We already had depth and breadth of content, from which we can now create digital programs for groups as small as 20 or as large as 500 or more.”
With in-person gatherings no longer feasible, Thayer Leadership pivoted to focus exclusively on building bespoke digital leadership development programs that incorporate virtual and online applied academics sessions, experiential activities, keynote addresses, mentoring, coaching and 360 assessments. It was the right move at a time when leaders are struggling to manage suddenly decentralized workforces through a lengthy period of upheaval and disruption.
“It’s a combination of live and prerecorded sessions that offers an immersive digital experience, which we customize for each client’s unique needs, and has some unanticipated benefits,” says Rice. “We’re finding the upside of an digital experience spread out over weeks is that people have the ability to try things they learn about and, if they fail, come back and get feedback on what to do differently.” It’s also more economical and easier from a logistics perspective. The cost of flights and hotel stays are eliminated, as are the difficulties of trying to take hundreds or thousands of employees offline for an in-person meet spanning several days.
Despite those advantages, in-person learning still trumps remote alternatives for most companies due to the highly personal interactive nature of the former, says Rice, who sees an eventual return to onsite leadership development programs or a hybrid format that combines onsite learning for designated employees with a digital program for the remainder.
Kuhla McClone agrees. “I believe digital programs will be part of how organizations will offer development now that companies have found it’s a great way to give more employees exposure to valuable learning experiences,” she says. “But I believe in-person experiences will still be embraced and valued, possibly even more so than before, when companies are ready to have people gather again—and there’s no more meaningful place to physically be for a leadership experience than the Thayer Hotel at West Point. Corporate leaders are more likely to be very selective about where they choose to gather their teams in the future, and we are uniquely positioned in the one of the most inspirational places in the world at West Point.”
Lord Abbett’s VUCA Lessons
“When I first heard about the concept of applying military leadership principles to training and development, I was apprehensive,” says Doug Sieg, managing partner of Lord Abbett & Co. “I’m not a big command-and-control guy.” Five years and dozens of engagements later, Sieg is a convert, having discovered that military leadership practices today are nothing like the obey-your-commander-without-question doctrine he imagined.
“The reality is that they do things like instilling mission and values, strategic planning, pushing decision-making down through the ranks and creating leaders really well,” says Sieg, who highlighted three practices gleaned from Lord Abbett’s leadership development work with Thayer Leadership, which Lord Abbett has internalized, embraced and institutionalized in its own way.
Clarifying Communications: Getting clear messages to your team about what’s happening and what to do about it is never more critical than in a crisis, says Sieg, who saw a huge payoff from his work with Thayer Leadership during the pandemic-induced stock market downturn. “Thayer had spent a lot of time working with us on how to communicate clearly as a leader in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment,” says Sieg. “They taught us a great saying: ‘I won’t know what I said to you until you tell me what you heard.’ When our team was operating remotely for the first time after the pandemic, these lessons in communication really paid off with communication up and down the chain of command working more efficaciously.”
Red Teaming: The military uses red teaming or assigning individuals or teams of individuals to find and highlight potential pitfalls of a plan, to vet ideas. It’s an idea that helped Lord Abbett address a cultural issue where team members were taking such challenges personally. “When we go through a strategic planning exercise now, we’ll assign someone to be the red teamer, to say, ‘what about this aspect?’” says Sieg. “It sharpens people doing the plan, and it doesn’t create conflict, because it’s not personal; it’s just this person’s job.”
After-Action Reviews: Post-mission reviews are routine practice for the U.S. Army, which has long embraced continual learning for leaders. Lord Abbett adopted the practice of regularly revisiting situations to consider what went well and what didn’t, says Sieg, who finds the exercise invaluable. “For example, you might look at how information flowed across the organization after an event; what issues did we handle well and what did we miss? We forget about rank, and it’s all done in a non-confrontational and non-judgmental way.”
It’s a philosophy that ties back to a commitment to continual learning that enables the military to turn out leaders on a consistent basis—and that companies would do well to emulate, notes Sieg. “I always say that you manage expenses, but you lead people. There aren’t a lot of people who have the history that the military has had tapping into that, particularly at West Point creating generations of leaders. It’s a unique skill that the Thayer team brings to the table for corporate executives.”