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Peer Support - Learning from The Odd Couple

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

It’s lonely at the top. Depending on your organization’s structure and culture, it’s often lonely in the middle. If you run your own business, well, you know the deal.

The past two years have delivered regular upheaval, challenges, and opportunities in our work and personal lives.

At a time when we need to adapt to changes more than ever, peer interaction–even with one peer–can be key to your own processing and wellbeing.

We usually begin our working lives grouped with peers. As we climb the ladder, we have fewer peers and we’re often farther apart geographically, limiting our informal interactions, the valuable “hallway” moments to bounce ideas off each other. Remote work eliminates the hallway and water-cooler moments.

A division vice president for a Fortune 100 company recently told me that remote work and promotion had left him with “almost no one [to interact with at his level] who understands” the complexity of his job and the decisions.

A friend with twenty-five years in the same industry said now that he’d finally made it “into the room with the decision-makers,” that “I don’t feel any wiser,” just more pressure to have the answers. To his credit, he engages his peer network regularly.

Leaders must be able to make decisions alone and own the consequences. Some people thrive on working independently and enjoy the freedom. But that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from professional peer interaction. While Marines captains go through training and education levels with peers, operations might keep them working closely together or spread far apart. Counterinsurgency called for the latter. I enjoyed the circumstances. Then things changed.

Halfway into our 2007 Iraq deployment, I had been leading my company of 150+ Marines in my own territory far from higher headquarters. We enjoyed all the benefits and challenges of figuring out counterinsurgency on our own. Then my company moved to a more critical area immediately west of Fallujah–the military equivalent of being assigned a larger, more lucrative sales territory. The company we replaced had over 200 Marines. The mission quickly stretched us too thin. The battalion commander told me he’d bring in platoons from another company in a few days. Great. We needed it. Then he explained that the company commander would be coming out next week. We would divide the territory in half and share the headquarters building and combat operations center. F-me.

The rationale behind co-location concerned assets; the companies could share a forward air controller and intelligence Marines.

Imagine two regional sales managers sharing an office. They each have their own territories, branch offices, and staff, but share a main office and a couple staff. They’re also forced to live in the same apartment.

Though we’d been in the same battalion for ten months, Dave Hart and I didn’t have many conversations outside of professional coordination. We didn’t have many when his company moved in aside from shared complaints to each other.

“How would the battalion commander feel if regiment made him share a headquarters with another battalion,” we mutually griped, seeing our forced arrangement as a kind of professional insult. Our wives had become good friends and howled at the idea that Dave and I had to be housemates–a kind of combat-zone odd couple.

 Dave was prior enlisted, a former Parris Island Drill Instructor, and practiced mixed martial arts intensely as a hobby. I loved fastpacking, encouraged wearing Oakleys in formation (eye protection at all times outside in Iraq), and fully endorsed my executive officer slipping The Onion articles into the “hometown news” read board. Organizations eventually reflect the leadership’s personality and operating style. Dave’s company patrolled heavy, always combining Marines on foot with gun truck support (as the weapons company, all of his platoons had trucks). My company moved light and fast, restructured with four smaller (9-10 man) squads per platoon, swarming the countryside and villages on foot. 

Marines in both companies operated on the principle of treating Iraqis with respect and dignity first. Both of us spent significant time in the field with our platoons, only seeing each other at our shared outpost every two to three days. Briefing each other grew into sharing our thoughts on what was unfolding. As we brought more villages under our umbrella and worked with more village sheiks, we devised a strategy for cooperating with the tribe. I doubt either of us would have put as many pieces together that quickly on our own.

Regular conversations allowed me to check my thinking and sometimes borrow ideas from Dave. Sociologist and Communications Theorist Everett M. Rogers explained in Diffusion of Innovations that a key element of adult learning is the need for us to process new information and experiences with peers or near-peers. It helps us sort out our own thinking and deepens our understanding when we revisit a new idea or interpretation through another trustworthy perspective. 

The most critical peer support came in the dark moments. Dave listened when I worked my way through the death of one of my Marines to an insurgent sniper and then my own evacuation from the field for a concussion from an IED. A few weeks later, after one of his Marines was killed, he leaned in my doorway, exhausted (the man never leaned) and asked, “How do you write a condolence letter?”  He wasn’t asking about technique, but about how to handle the tangled challenge of professional duty and the emotional wringer. In those moments, nothing beats a friend who has been there.

We didn’t start as friends, but we got there. Our companies and operating styles became complimentary. The very circumstances we resisted became an asset. I don’t expect it to unfold that way for everyone, but never say never. 

We’re connected on social media, but how many of us reach out just to talk and catch up? Most leadership positions and remote work don’t foster informal peer interaction, but it’s those informal interactions that create space to share challenges and ideas. If your peers are competitors, who do you know with similar responsibilities in a different industry? Creating informal interaction in our current work environment takes effort. Don’t wait for chance to throw you the opportunity. Reach out.

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