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Kenneth W. Keller: Why every business needs a ‘sergeant’

Posted: April 21, 2009 10:26 p.m.
Updated: April 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Sergeant is a rank used in some form by most military and police forces around the world.

While businesses don't have the rank of sergeant, those organizations that have individuals performing the functions of that role are more successful than those that do not.

Without a strong sergeant, what suffers are the initial orientation and indoctrination of new employees into the organization; getting things done in a timely and efficient manner so that leaders can lead and not worry things won't get done or, that the wrong thing will be done; providing discipline to employees as necessary; maintaining the culture and mores of the organization; and keeping lines of communication open from top to bottom.

In the movie "Forrest Gump," Lieutenant Dan Taylor is the individual that greets Forrest and his friend Bubba as they arrive at camp in Vietnam. Lt. Dan gives them the lay of the land, letting them know the rules (written and unwritten) for survival. Lt. Dan fills that first role of a sergeant, which is to orient and indoctrinate those entering the organization.

The second role of the sergeant is to get things done, to make sure orders given are orders executed. In the movie "Platoon," Tom Berenger (Sergeant Barnes) and Willem Dafoe (Sergeant Elias) both have the same responsibilities and roles but approach their duties very differently. One was more focused on the tasks to be accomplished with little regard for the people or lives at stake. The other was more concerned about the people under his command, wanting them to return home safely.

One of Michael Caine's first starring movie roles ("Zulu") tells the story of how 139 British Army soldiers held off more than 4,000 Zulu warriors for more than 12 hours of bloody, hand-to-hand combat.

One of the critical roles in the movie was of Sergeant Maxwell. Sergeant Maxwell demonstrates the third role as he disciplines the men as needed throughout the battle.

It is Maxwell's stability that keeps the enlisted men focused despite the overwhelming odds against survival. At the end of the movie, Sergeant Maxwell conducts roll call and the full cost of the battle, in lost lives, comes to light. His gentle words and kind spirit holds the men together as they understand the extent of the losses.

In the late 1970s, a good friend of mine graduated from college and joined the U.S. Army as a First Lieutenant. Once Officer Candidate School was behind him, he was sent to Fort Devens, Massachusetts to lead a platoon of men. Well-educated and ready to take command on his first day, my friend was approached by the First Sergeant, a career non-commissioned officer.

The NCO asked his new commanding officer if he had been a platoon commander before. The reply was no; it was his first command. The NCO asked if he could speak openly to his new platoon commander. Permission granted was the reply. "Sir, if you will allow me to handle the men, I can assure you we won't have any problems and you will be a very satisfied commander." The First Lieutenant simply said, "Thank you, Sergeant. Please carry on." With that short exchange, the culture of a professional army was preserved and passed on.

In 1996, Edward Werder, then the chief of police of Cooper City, Florida wrote "The Great Sergeant," which includes the following:
It is the sergeant who transmits the values, standards and culture ... to the men and women under his supervision ... it is the sergeant who, based on job knowledge and experience, directs the daily work of subordinates. Clearly the work of sergeants, much like that of a symphony conductor, can either enhance or weaken the ... perception of ... professionalism. The sergeants' position demands strong leadership, self-confidence, competence, management skills and above all, an understanding of their influence upon subordinates.

Who is a sergeant in your company? Does one exist? And, why aren't there more of them?

Kenneth Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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