I was prepared but nervous. I was in a meeting with our new commander and several other senior officers for the first time and it wasn’t going exactly as expected. Colonel Wiley was asking a lot of questions about our logistically complex plan for moving hundreds of army vehicles on busy highways and through many small towns–at night. Soon it would be my turn to speak. I knew this wasn’t rocket science, but it did require detailed number crunching to determine the movement schedules and timelines for numerous convoys. Luckily, we were living in the computer age. With the help of an early 1990’s era computer loaded with (then) state-of-the-art clunky software, I was able to fill several binders with all the data anyone could ever want. I was confident I had all the answers and I’m sure I looked impressive as I sat in the meeting with jumbo sized binders stacked next to my coffee cup.
After a few hours—this was a long meeting—it was my turn. I’d rehearsed my opening and started to rattle off the pre-selected details I had thought were important when the commander asked the simplest of all questions, “When will our last convoy arrive at the training site?” This was such a softball question. Unfortunately, my internal computer crashed. My brain was in hyper-drive trying to sort through all the numbers swirling like a tornado in my head. I was suffering from data overload. The answer was right in front of me, but there was a BIG problem —it was somewhere in my highly organized, multi-tabbed, data infused binders. Maybe in Binder #1, Tab J or it could be in Binder #2, Tab B. My new boss demonstrated great patience, or he may have enjoyed watching me sweat, as he let me fumble around looking for the answer through hundreds of pages of information.
Certainly, it was an awkward moment for my first major meeting with Colonel Wiley, but I survived. More importantly, I learned. In hindsight, Colonel Wiley was coaching all of us in the meeting. His questions had been aimed at finding out how well-trained his planning team was and he was also letting everyone know what he expected from us in the future. For me specifically, he knew I’d done my homework and that I’d done the detailed planning and coordination but he expected more from me. He needed me to think at a higher level—his level. I needed to do the detailed analysis but I also had to get out of the weeds and elevate above the data. He was coaching me to See the bigger picture, Synthesize information and to Simplify things that were complicated. I call these the “3 Ss”.
As a leader, the lessons I learned in this one meeting many years ago were pivotal. Understanding and applying the 3 Ss were key to my development as a leader and they certainly helped me transition from a functional leadership role to higher organizational positions. It took some time and hard work to develop my 3 S skillset, but they proved to be invaluable for the rest of my career. Are you Seeing the big picture? Synthesizing information? Simplifying things that are complicated? Take the time to develop your 3 S skillset so that you’re informed by the data but thinking at a higher level.