Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Over the last several months, we’ve seen one client use this tool to great effect. Brief-Backs are rather simple management tools that are still in favor in some parts of the military. Essentially, they are employee visits to their senior management or leadership to brief them back on their operational status. Here are some guidelines regarding Brief-Backs.

  • Use them sparingly. Only do them for the most important events such as when a big regulatory inspection is about to occur. Frequent use destroys their gravitas.
  • Do them to understand the ‘readiness’ of the inspectable team/department/division.
  • The higher the better. What we have found is that the greater the ‘status’ difference between the parties, the more effective they are. For instance, we witnessed a Site Vice President call in the front-line supervisors of a large maintenance department. The impact would have been muted if it were a Brief-Back to a Manager as opposed to the Site Vice President.
  • Keep them formal, short, and HIGHLY intrusive. Brief-Backs should have some level of formality. We’ve seen examples where the reporting group stands, and the senior executive/leader sits. Maybe the most important characteristic of a strong Brief-Back is asking highly engaged and intrusive questions as in the following examples.
    • Where will this inspection fail?
    • What question am I not asking?
    • What should keep me up at night about the visit that is about to happen to your team?
    • What aren’t you telling me that I should know?
    • What does success look like? Do you know what ‘good’ looks like?
    • Before you leave, give me one thing that you will do differently or better for this upcoming visit or inspection.
    • How do you know you are ready?
    • Have you done a rehearsal?
    • Does everyone know how important this is? How do you know?

Brief-Backs are a good way to communicate the essence of accountability. When used properly, they can serve as tune-up before some big event such as a regulatory inspection. For more on Brief-Backs and other simple, high-impact management tools, reach out to Robin Bichy, one of ELP’s original partners at 703.999.5676 or at

About every three or four months, this question surfaces during one of our engagements. Most would be hesitant to take a stand on this topic but not us. And since we spend much of our time in high-hazard/high-risk industries, let’s approach it from that vantage point.

In short, when a leader becomes friends with a subordinate, he is injecting more risk into the relationship and, by extension, into the organization. You see, when we truly become friends with those that we are charged to lead, we are hurting our ability and our capacity to lead. Specifically, the research is rather conclusive. Our ability to hold subordinates to high standards and to hold them accountable to the highest levels of performance is in jeopardy when we become friends with those we lead. Some clever subordinates either implicitly or explicitly get this. Toward that end, to help with their job security and safety, they will attempt to become friends with their leaders knowing that friendship is about safety and security—not about standards. If we were to be real for a second, asking ourselves, “When was the last time we held our friends truly accountable?” We don’t. That’s because they are friends. There’s a level of unconditional acceptance contained within friendship. That doesn’t always translate into top shelf performance.

We offer two possibilities below. When emotional maturity is incredibly high—you know it…are sure of it—you may go ahead and enter into a friendship with subordinates. In our studies and other research on elite military organizations—think Lone Survivor or Black Hawk Down—deep connections of loyalty can actually spur incredibly honest feedback. Don’t think about just any friend. Instead, think of your best friend. In these relationships, we can be brutally honest and know that the person is looking out for our well-being. Those types of intimate friendships are few and far between, though. Another approach that we recommend is to be friendly, as opposed to being friends, with subordinates. Being friendly is a communicative style that still allows for some social distance. Being a friend is more. It is about cultivating a relationship. The best leaders can be friendly, but firm, with their subordinates. Especially in a high-hazard, high-risk organization, this seems like the way to go.

Call Robin Bichy, an ELP founder and principal, at 703.999.5676 to learn more on how you can further refine your leadership to drive your team and organization to excellence.

Several years ago, we were lucky enough to work with an unparalleled leader. The type that others point to and say, “I want to be like him.” The three ELP partners studied his behavior and noticed a special and simple tool that this leader deployed to unlock tremendous performance gains and organizational learning. Actually, its simplicity might appear too good to be true. It isn’t. We saw his gift work without fail time and again—guaranteed.

When one of his followers would convey some data or information to him, he would simply ask, “How do you know?” It was beautiful and elegant in its simplicity. At its core, he was testing for the depth and range of knowledge about the situation. And he was using some of our five senses to arrive at his conclusion. People responded in a variety of ways. Mostly, leaders would respond that they were told these ‘truths’ by their ‘people’, and that’s how they knew. That response usually failed to meet the desired standard, as it wasn’t verifiable fact. Rather, it was just hearsay. The best form of knowing, and which his followers quickly learned, was to see it and maybe even feel it.

One time, he asked a Maintenance Manager if there was an extra set of fittings. The Maintenance Manager replied, ‘Yes’. Our leader-in-the-spotlight then asked, “How do you know?” Early on the Maintenance Manager replied, “That’s what corporate told me….” Or, “That’s what Rick said when I saw him in the hall.” Or “That’s what the computer said.” Two months later, the answer offered much more validity. When asked the question, the Maintenance Manager remarked that he had been to the warehouse and saw and felt the spare fittings—and that there were two more sets of spares!

This remarkable leader didn’t always ask this question because you don’t want your subordinate leaders always walking to the warehouse. Not only is it not efficient, it isn’t even feasible. So, he asked this question when it counted.

Try it out. It works. When you want a more engaged, intrusive set of followers, ask them the occasional, “How do you know?” That four word question will cause a variety of positive and exacting behaviors.

By the way, “How do you know that ELP can make an immediate difference in your organization?” Call Robin Bichy today at 703.999.5676.