Expert Insight: Churchill Leadership Series
By David Schneider
Date: March 24, 2010

Supply Chain Comment: Behavior 2 - Depend on a strong and loyal support staff

Why A Strong Support Staff Is Vital For A Manager's Success

On duty almost 24/7 with Churchill was a strong and loyal support staff.  That support staff consisted of personal secretaries and typists that quickly learned the mannerisms of their boss and helped manage the details of the most busy executive of the time. This support staff clearly understood what their role was; they were not advisers - they were there to make their boss’s life easier. To be successful they knew their boss and understood his needs, entirely devoted to the mission of making their boss successful.

Clarity Of Communications Through The Written Word

From the start of his term as Prime Minister Churchill decided that every instruction, suggestion, proposal or criticism emanating from him -- and all answers in return - be in written form. He wanted to make sure that clarity and communications went hand in hand.  He had a clear understanding that if he did the writing himself with his own hand that his effectiveness as a leader would be cut at least twofold.  So during every waking hour in Churchill’s life someone was always present to, at command, put what Churchill said into writing. The typists and personal secretaries and stenographer's were always present with him, even when he was bathing and dressing, so that as his ever working fertile mind would come up with an idea someone was immediately at hand to record it into writing.

An Organized Flow Of Information

Churchill’s staff organized and managed the flow of information into and out of the Prime Minister’s office.  And that office was wherever Churchill was.  As he would move from his quarters to the War Cabinet building, make trips to Parliament, trips to see the people and troops, at least two attentive aides were present to carry important papers, provide documents to Churchill as needed, and process the flow of written information that he created as he moved.  There was always a typist or a shorthand master that could take sudden dictation without hesitation.

In his quarters when he was in London, or with him in his quarters as he traveled was a series of file boxes that the staff used to manage the flow of written information into and out of the Prime Minister's office.  The system was simple and organized, and every secretary that worked with Churchill learned the system without his instruction or intervention.  The staff developed the system based on some initial thought by Churchill, who defined the purpose of the system and left the execution to the support team.

Anticipating Churchill's Unspoken Communication

His personal staff became so attuned to their boss that a simple gesture or grunt was understood as the symbol to take action on the many different tasks. The level of unspoken communication between Churchill and his personal staff was almost clairvoyant.

The personal staff understood that as witnesses to Churchill’s intimate and private discussions in the execution of leadership of the war that there was a clear expectation of complete discretion. Churchill never feared that any of his support staff would report or lend their opinion in a public forum about the private conversations they witnessed. Many of these individuals did not maintain private diaries of the work that they did, and they understood that their role was not to inject their opinion but to be devoted and loyal instruments of execution for their boss; they understood their job to be to supporting and protecting the prime minister.

How This Applies To Today

As companies “lighten” headcount, one of the first areas that get cut are the support and clerical personnel.  While one can argue that there is too much support staff and that most managers can perform the support functions “just as easy” as having the additional headcount, this approach discounts the value of productive administrative support.  There is a fine balance between fluff and true need, and managers or leaders who discount administrative support often do not know how to recognize or deploy talented administrative support.

Churchill recognized the need, and quickly defined the talent, the mission and the purpose of his personal administrative staff.  He demonstrated a loyalty and cared for them, which they returned in kind.  In recent times leaders have not defined a clear mission and purpose for the administrative support, and when challenged to produce “proof of value” have failed to defend their staffs.  Once the administrative staff is lightened, leaders may recognize a loss of their own productivity, but more often they fail to see the loss of productivity for the rest of the team that also depended on that administrative support to help interface with the leader.

E-mail, voice mail, “crack-berries’” and mobile phones introduce the Paradox of Too Much Information, where a leader can be inundated with unfiltered information.  Successful leaders in any industry depend on “gate keepers” to help filter out and maintain peace for a leader.  The artificial sense of urgency created by the “electronic assistants” diminishes a leader’s capability.  Electronic tools can not translate a grunt or gesture into a series of actions like a human can.  And while some leaders can be effective with a remote assistant, there is a loss of unspoken communication, and a loss of verbal “short hand” that is created by a live and loyal support staff.  There is truly something to be said for “being there”; it is called “presence”.

Final Thoughts

Look to any superior Supply Chain or Logistics leader today and there is a loyal support staff standing behind, helping their boss be a successful leader.  If you look closely you will see care and attention that flows in both directions, where the boss cares for his support team as much as they care for him.  Where that support by the boss to the team is missing, loyalty is also missing.

Next time, we will look at the third of the 12 key behaviors of Churchill's leadership, "Churchill maintained a Structured routine that worked best for him."

Agree or disagree with Schneider's perspective? What would you add? Let us know your thoughts for publication in the SCDigest newsletter Feedback section, and on the website. Upon request, comments will be posted with the respondent's name or company withheld.

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About the Author
David Schneider is founder and president of David K. Schneider & Company, a supply chain and logistics consulting firm. Prior to that, he was Director of Logistics for Pep Boys Auto and a consultant at Keough.

Schneider Says:

Look to any superior Supply Chain or Logistics leader today and there is a loyal support staff standing behind, helping their boss be a successful leader.

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