By Val Prevish
June 29, 2012
If corporate America approached daily operations like the U.S. Military, the economic collapse of 2008 and the Great Recession might have been avoided, says 24-year military veteran and financial advisor Jeffery Lay.
As the author of a new book, “Topgun on Wall Street,” Lay writes the lessons he learned about honor and accountability at the U.S. Naval Academy and as an instructor at Top Gun, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, are the same lessons business leaders should heed today.
“We’ve got a problem in this country now with too many business leaders being interested only in their own personal gain,” says Lay, who grew up in Maineville and still lives there. “This is a modern day problem. Our forefathers did not think like this. It’s hurting the fabric of our nation.”
Lay, who this year earned an MBA from Xavier University, worked for a financial firm owned by now defunct Lehman Brothers just before financial markets collapsed in late 2008. He says he saw firsthand how top executives walked away from disastrous mistakes that destroyed their company, taking little, if any, responsibility.
“We reward people for making stocks soar, but we don’t punish them for allowing companies to fail miserably,” he says. “True leaders take responsibility first and credit last.”
Lay says executives who adopt standards that are taught at institutions like the U.S. Naval Academy – service before self, reverence for the institution, and absolute accountability – can avoid the catastrophes that have become common news in recent years.
“In military service, there’s no way to walk away from a disaster without being accountable. In business, the attitude seems to be, ‘Oh well. It didn’t work out here. I’ll just go somewhere else.’ They’re not held to account.”
Lay, who now works as an investment advisor, says he uses risk management skills he learned as a Navy pilot. He is still inspired by the Navy’s expectations for excellent performance at all times, and the Navy’s honor code, which he uses to keep a fiduciary promise to his customers.
“I learned that the only way you put your life into another person’s hands is when you know they have done everything they can to do the job right. That’s how I approach my work.”
He follows a business routine that includes basic military best practices: Determine your objective, plan a strategy to obtain the objective, use appropriate resources to execute the plan, and then critique the execution afterward. In military speak it’s called plan, brief, execute, debrief.
One of the keys to making this management style work, he says, is including feedback from co-workers at all levels.
“We had a saying in the Navy that you have to stand up and take your grade. Every time we landed an airplane on the deck of an aircraft carrier, we got a grade. All the personnel involved in landing the aircraft gave you a grade. The most junior staff graded the most senior staff,” he said. “You can’t have your employees afraid to speak up to senior management. That’s not how you get better.”
Paul Ghiz, managing partner of Global Cloud in downtown Cincinnati, which develops Internet fundraising software, says he has read Lay’s book and made debriefing a part of Global Cloud’s practices.
“We actively solicit employee input,” says Ghiz. “We call the debriefs postmortems. You can be too close to something and someone else can suggest an idea and the light bulb goes off. Most folks don’t do the debrief and that’s where the learning comes in. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants and be successful.”