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  McKinney Rogers applies lessons learnt in the military to the business world – Mick James, our management consultancy columnist, talks to the firm’s chief of staff Richard Watts.

Campaign planning

Last year I reviewed a very interesting book: The Commando Way: Extraordinary Business Execution. Its author, Damian McKinney, is the founder of consultancy McKinney Rogers. If you haven’t read the book you can probably guess it focuses around the application of military principles to the business world and, as I’m always quite intrigued by the success of ex-military types in business, I thought I’d investigate further.

So I recently met up with McKinney Rogers’ chief of staff Richard Watts –effectively the COO – to learn a bit more.

The entry point for a group of ex-Royal Marines into the world of business was in many ways an obvious one: running the sort of “outward bound”, team-building exercises that see out-of-condition bankers sweating their way around assault courses and building bridges out of twigs.

But while some have been happy to continue in that vein, McKinney Rogers saw that the ability to influence team performance was a door into a wider world of helping businesses deliver on the values and vision they aspired to.

“We essentially looked at all the things we learned in the military and applied them to business,” says Watts.

The reason these techniques are so effective, he points out, is that they are designed to work for the “tired and frightened”. The firm sometimes shows the battle scenes from Gladiator to show what can happen to discipline and planning as soon as you step into the darkness of woods.

“It’s about what you do when you’re in front of the competition,” he says. “Campaign planning is all about looking at the background, at the competition. There are not a lot of people who will look at the market first – they always start with themselves.”

Even when people do gather competitor intelligence they sometimes miss the point, piling up information rather than analysing it.

“Intelligence should be a process,” says Watts. “What I want to know is what the guy is going to do with his tanks.”

One of the interesting things is how little military thinking resembles what you think it is.

“There’s a belief that in the military you tell people what to do and things happen automatically,” says Watts.

That’s very far from the case – in fact that’s how most of the military disasters get under way.

“The whole language thing is very important,” he says. “Our military background has taught us that there’s a great difference between ‘could’, ‘would’ and ‘should’.”

So for McKinney Rogers the work often starts with ensuring that people are very clear, not just about what they are trying to achieve, but why. That can only stem from the vision and values of the company.

“Values are the DNA of a company,” says Watts. ”Values are very important: the key thing is to live them.”

He cites the example of Walmart – a client whose mission is to save people money so that they can live better lives, and who are quite prepared to discuss and dissect quite minor-seeming initiatives to see if they measure up to it. Other companies struggle – often years of multiple mergers and reorganisations will leave them with a legacy of dozens of potential values and visions to choose from. And if the board isn’t clear exactly which of those apply, it is likely that that lack of clarity will cascade down through the organisation.

Clarity about vision is only one part of the equation – another important part is behaviours, particularly how the leadership group work as a team.

“We’re quite hard-nosed and it’s quite painful, so not everyone is up for it,” he says. “We’re also very keen on accountability, so you can’t blame the people below you.”

This approach requires people who are capable of having the right conversations with leaders. While it by no means recruits exclusively from the military, McKinney Rogers does insist that its consultants have held leadership positions in the past.

In other respects the consultancy is sector agnostic, with clients ranging from global giants such as Walmart to much smaller companies.

“We speak the language but we don’t pretend to be an expert in your business,” says Watts. “What we will do is come in and help you with embedding and internalising an operating model.”

The firm’s main route to market is through referrals, although it has recently launched a major PR offensive.

“Our PR is great and we mainly use it to keep our network interested,” says Watts. “But recently, for example, we got a call from Burberry who’d read an article in Forbes and felt they needed to talk to us.”

Alignment is central to the McKinney Rogers approach, and its consultants will stay with clients for a long time, aligning their rewards to key client targets. That helps keep their focus on business execution real:

“We spend so much time with leaders becoming trusted advisors but always asking how are we going to deliver this – it’s always about the mission rather than the individual,” he says. “We tell people: if you won’t execute it, we’ll wave goodbye.”

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of and

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: [email protected].

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