Thursday, April 17, 2008

Proactive v. Reactive and Why It Matters

As you might imagine, the post-9/11 world has seen a bumper crop of organizations, offices, and associations -- governmental and non-governmental -- dedicated to helping America prosecute the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Together, they present a dizzying array of acronyms (and sometimes acronyms within acronyms!) and they all sound great on paper. But as with anything else, they tend to range from the very useful to the very useless.

It can be hard to sort them all out, but here's the first shorthand that I use as a trouble sign: If I ask someone, "What do you do? What does your office do?" and get a vague answer that sounds something like, "Whatever you want," or "What do you want us to do?" I get very worried. Because for all the Pentagon dollars that support you, I expect an answer -- not a question in return, and not some mishmash about wearing several 'hats' or being a jack of all trades. Find a niche, fill it, and use it to support the warfighter. Tell me what you do, and let's work together to help find solutions. But if everyone just sat around being reactive all day long, nothing would ever happen.

To move to a totally private-sector hypothetical example, let's say I hired someone to help me with interior decoration. I closed on my condo almost three weeks ago, but still don't have furniture because I have absolutely no clue how to decorate the place -- I'm literally more afraid of screwing that up than I am of sleeping on the floor and stacking all my stuff in the corner. Well, if I hired someone with my own hard-earned money to help me figure this one out, I would be mortified if I brought him or her over to see the place, asked, "How can you help me?" and got a vague, reactive answer that sounded like, "You tell me."

It's no different for any other service provider, but in the public sector it's a little bit easier to get away with this type of stuff because you're aren't dependent upon customers in the same sense.

For a while, I went around asking all my friends who work in collaborative or managerial realms what they look for in employees and co-workers. The themes of proactivity and competence carried the day, greatly outweighing things like natural intelligence and likability.

Ben, who runs a social philanthropy website ( mentioned how critical one of his programmers was to his organization because he embodied the traits of proactivity and competence -- he saw what needed to be done, and did it without over-complicating things. Santosh, a Ph.D. student (and a future university faculty member) mentioned how the best people to hire for research projects were people who can task execute without excessive guidance/management.

The importance of the proactive mindset is key for me right now because of my work situation.

My Chief and I are basically starting our Department from scratch right now -- we are the first two people to do what we do for our command. We could either a) sit around on our bums waiting for some magical piece of guidance that will never come; or we could b) get out of the office, talk to the guys we work with and for, liaise with peer and subordinate commands in order to figure out what's needed and then git 'er dun. As you can imagine, we're going with option b, despite the immediate-term heartburn it may cause.

I consider myself extremely lucky to be working with this Chief, because he's smart, aware, aggressive, proactive, and competent. We share the aggressive mindset but our backgrounds and relative strengths are different enough that we complement each other without stepping on each others' toes.

So far, he's brought up tons of great ideas, points, and given the direction and bearing guidance that Junior Officers are always hoping for (but don't always admit they want) from Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs, or Sergeants and Petty Officers).

So let me conclude by saying this -- if you're in a position to hire others or to draft your starting five, so to speak, look for proactive and look for competent before you look for any other traits. Sorry for the election year cliche, but those are the traits shared by those who "make a difference" in any organization -- way more so than intelligence and/or charisma will on their own (not to say all four wouldn't be great to fact, all four together in abundance is a phenomenal mix when it happens).

And to tie it back to my lead-in, run for the hills quickly if you're ever dealing with any organization -- private, public, or non-profit -- that cannot concisely articulate its own mission statement and clearly explain how it serves its customer. When you ask what it does, and you receive another question in return (or mindless cliches about hat-wearing) make a mental note that your *business* would best be taken elsewhere.

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