Growing strong leaders and team champions in work, life and technology


An Interview with
Al Ryan

Director of Operations, Merck & Co. Inc., Elkton, VA
Spring 2010

Mr. Ryan is a graduate of the United States Military Academy.

Question:  As an experienced leader in both industry and the U. S. Army, what do you believe is the most important element of leadership?

RYAN:  It is all about character which is shaped by ethics and integrity.  You can’t be a leader if you have no ethics and integrity.  Without this, a leader will not be able to accomplish the organization’s goals through his people because individuals will not be lead by someone who lacks ethics and integrity.

Question:  Based on the FM 6-22 document on Army Leadership, there are three levels of leadership in the Army – Strategic, Organization and Direct.  In your experience, how does industry mirror this leadership structure?  In any way does it not?

RYAN:  Industry is very similar in that you would have a leader, i.e. CEO who would set the strategic goals or change for the company, be the sustaining sponsor for the entire corporation and be the actual change agent for his direct reports.  As a result, the next level of leaders in the organization would be organizational leaders responsible for taking the strategic goal/change set by the CEO and turning that into an actual implementable plan by setting the vision for their organization which should in turn support the strategic goal.  This organizational leader sponsors his/her vision and is the change agent for their direct reports.  In addition, this leader would set the expectations and then delegate various roles and responsibilities and empower these individuals to execute the requirements.  The direct leader would be those front line leaders actually responsible for turning all the vision into action understood by the shop floor.

Question:  Per the FM 6-22, the Army is a team, and a team of teams.  In your experience, what is the importance of teams in industry?  How is the structure and management of teams similar to that in the Army?  How is it different?

RYAN:  Team work, employee involvement and inclusion are very important in industry.  Every company can buy the same equipment.  What separate companies are the people because it is the actual people who make things happen.  Much of industry leadership is built on military teachings as many senior leaders in industry are former military leaders.  The structure and management of teams is very similar.

Question:  What approach do you suggest that a new engineer take as he or she starts a new job in relationship to the concept of serving as a responsible subordinate, or good “followership”?

RYAN:  A new engineer has to be humble to understand they do not know it all.  Regardless of what you know, everyone can always learn more.  A new engineer needs to immerse themselves in their new role and learn from others who have more experience.  This is not to say a new engineer does not have a lot to offer as they do.  However, some new engineers come into an organization and think they know it all and this immediately turns off their peers who want to teach them as well as learn from them.  It has to be a give and take and collaborative effort as in any relationship.  This all comes with time.

Question:  What advice can you offer to a new engineer in dealing with “leadership without authority” when faced with having to take “initiative to alert superiors of a potential problem or predict consequences if the organization remains on its current course?”  Can you provide an example in your career where you were faced with this?

RYAN:  If an individual is a true leader, then they have authority.  The question is to what extent does that authority go and usually the authority is within your sphere of control.  It seems to me the question is not about authority but more about a leaders ability to influence and persuade their superiors in an effort to influence the course of the organization.  One of my purposes as a leader is to remove obstacles which are prohibiting my organization from achieving its’ goals.  In order to do this, I constantly find myself having to alert my leader of an issue which needs to be addressed or a process which needs to change in order to avoid consequences to the organization.  The best way to have influence on my superior and have any chance of persuading him or even more senior leaders is to be fully prepared with all the facts and to not just bring a problem to senior leaders but to also bring alternate courses of action and a recommendation.

Question:  How do you believe the seven Army values translate to industry?

RYAN:  Although not identical, the values and leadership standards at Merck are similar so I would say the Army values translate very well to industry.  Same intent just different words.  Again, much in industry as it relates to leadership, values, etc. come directly from military and are just softened a little.

Question:  Character development is an important part of an Army career as “becoming a person of character and a leader of character is a career-long process involving day-to-day experience, education, self-development, developmental counseling, coaching and mentoring.” (4-55)  In your experience, how does industry mirror this career process?

RYAN:  It is my personal belief that character is everything and this is the difference between an exemplary leader and a person who is a leader by position only.  I have been in various organizations which mirror the Army career process very well and as a result do a very good job with Character Development.  I have been in just as many organizations where character is trivialized and results of the organization demonstrate this lack of leader character.  As previously mentioned, employees do not like to work for leaders who lack character.  They might be compliant only because they need a job but these employees will do just enough to get by.  If an organization wants to tap into employee discretionary effort and to have committed employees, the leaders of the organization must possess character.

Question:  Resilience, competence and knowledge lead to success on the battlefield (5-15).  How is this mirrored in industry on the shop floor?  Can you provide an example of an experience in your career that resounds this?

RYAN:  I couldn’t agree more that knowledge, competence and resilience lead to success as much in industry as in the military.  Employees want leaders who lead by example.  If a leader is confident, resilient and knowledgeable, employees will strive to be the same.  As the leader goes, so do most organizations.  Employees want leaders who are confident and humble in their abilities to lead the organization.  They want leaders with self insight and who know their strengths and opportunities for improvement.  Employees do not want weak or ineffective leaders.  Today, the only constant is change and this wears on an organization.  The leader must be the most resilient person on the team in order to keep everyone else focused and motivated to push through change.  The leader must understand the importance of being resilient in order to help their folks be resilient.  A leader must know the signs when an employee has reached the point where they are not being resilient in order to help them before them become an impediment to themselves and the team.  A leader does not have to be the subject matter expert.  This is why a good leader surrounds themselves with talented individuals who are the subject matter experts.  However, a leader must be proficient enough and knowledgeable enough in order to lead his team.  Employees need a leader they can go to for help or to asks questions.  They can not do this is the leader has no clue of what the employees under his command do.  I have found this to be an issue in industry in that individuals are placed in leadership positions and have absolutely no idea what their employees do or how to do the work themselves.

Question:  What are your methods for motivating and inspiring those with whom you work and lead in industry?  How do these compare to Army methods?

RYAN:  In order for individuals to be motivated or influenced, there are two basic and primary human needs which need to first be satisfied.  These are mental & physical safety.  It is my job as a leader to ensure each employee has physical safety in that the work environment is as safe as possible and individuals leave work each day in the same physical condition as they arrived.  Additionally, it is my responsibility to ensure as much as possible that employees have mental safety.  If employees don’t have mental safety, their minds wander which distracts them from their work.  Mental safety for employees is do they have some resemblance of employment security or do they constantly fear lay offs.  Obviously, there are no guarantees but as a leader I can reduce the fear to a manageable level.  As a leader, it is also my responsibility to provide employees with a sense of purpose and a sense of contribution to the organization.  I need to ensure employees feel valued and respected.  I need to ensure employees feel that I value their diversity.  I need to provide praise, recognition and rewards.  I need to provide the employee with challenging work.  If I provide all of this to an employee, I have found employees are motivated and exhibit discretionary effort in all they do.  Additionally and this is one of the biggest things I have found to motivating my employees is to talk with them and find out what motivates them.  There is nothing worse than to do something for an employee and find out you missed the target because you never sat down and found out what motivates them.  I have folks who like to get in front of senior management and make presentations.  I have folks who like to get off early to attend a child’s sport’s match.  I have others who just like a thank you note or a public announcement of how well they did.  Now that I know what motivates my folks, I am able to use these items to show how good of a job they do and in turn, I have received a lot of praise from my team because I took enough interest in them to learn what motivates them.  In reading FM 6-22, I think the Army is very similar.  I know it used to be because I learned much of leadership from the Army.

Question:  What is the most effective means of assessing the performance of a leader?

RYAN:  Merck has a set of Merck Leadership Standards (Innovate, Integrate, Impact and Inspire).  Within each of these are three sub categories.  For example within Innovate are Shape Strategy, Champion Change and Optimize Operations.  All leaders are assessed on an annual basis against these behavioral competencies and are gauge as Development Needed, Fully Performing or Outstanding.

Question:  The Army has a body of knowledge in CALL in which they document mistakes as “lessons learned”.  How important is this in industry and can you provide examples of how this is done?  Do you feel there are additional opportunities to those processes that are already in place?  How can an engineer help in such opportunities?  Can you provide an example of a lesson learned in your Army career?

RYAN:  Failure is part of the learning process and only through this learning process can the organization continue to improve.  Making all problems visible is a main principle at Merck.  As a result of Merck’s lean journey, we have what we call the Tier process.  The purpose of the tier process is to make problems visible on a daily basis and to assign resources to discover root cause and implement a permanent corrective action.  This is for all processes at Merck.  It is extremely important because if we do not learn from our mistakes or issues, we are doomed to repeat them.  Engineers play an important part especially with equipment issues because it is their responsibility for existing equipment to find root cause/point of cause for all issues and to engineer a permanent solution which sometimes means redesign of equipment or processes.  For new equipment, we expect engineers to Design for Six Sigma and bring equipment that is right the first time.

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