Sentinels and CEOs: More lessons from crows

When crows forage, particularly if they are eating in a dangerous location (like on a highway for example), if you look above the cluster of black feathers feasting on the pavement you’ll notice a sentinel crow.

Sentinel bird

Sentinel bird

This bird acts as a lookout to warn the others of oncoming danger (CAR! Or CAW! As the case may be. Based on their accent, I strongly believe crows originated in Boston but that’s for another blog).

All joking aside you have probably never seen a crow as roadkill. That’s because they cover their blind spots. Crows form cooperative coalitions to ensure they maximize their profit (food in this case). If each individual crow had to eat and be on the lookout for danger, they would spend far more time having to survey their surroundings and perhaps miss out on their opportunity to feast before competitors (vultures, foxes, etc.) moved in. Sentinels will rotate from the watch position regularly so everyone gets a chance to eat and a chance to look out for the greater good of the group.

Division of labor among companies has long been valued as the most efficient and effective way to accomplish goals. Where most small companies and startups fail is the difficulty for one person (or even a small group of people) to operate as entire departments. Being the same person that manages marketing, production, sales, and analytics has some advantages for sure. You can be the hawk that is monopolizing and controlling every dynamic of your company, but don't be surprised when the competition coyote trots off with your reward.

Alright, so it's a red fox. "Competition coyote" just sounded better. Point being there are a bunch of competitors that could run off with that resource!

Alright, so it's a red fox. "Competition coyote" just sounded better. Point being there are a bunch of competitors that could run off with that resource!

Granted, division of labor in a company isn’t exactly a mind-blowingly novel idea - most businesses already function within this structure. However,  the crow model does hint at the possibility of something I think is highly valuable that businesses generally lack: A rotation of the trusted sentinel.

Imagine a sentinel as your CEO. This is the person you are trusting with your life or rather the company's life (ergo your livelihood). Your sentinel should be scanning. Constantly monitoring the environment for changes, positive or negative that could affect the productivity of your profit (or in this analogy, the amount of food you can shovel into your bill). Sentinels are the first to elicit warnings of potential danger, and do so with transparency and accuracy.

Imagine how inefficient you would be at obtaining the roadkill resource if there were false alarms given all the time! Then again, a false alarm would still be appreciated now and again if it was given with the honest intention that there might be danger on the horizon, lest a mistake be made of silence when a Mac truck is barreling down the road at you at 70mph.

A warning that this was approaching would be most welcomed.

A warning that this was approaching would be most welcomed.

What’s interesting to note is that all birds in the group participate in this important sentinel role. Any good CEO may tremble a bit upon reading that. Some may balk at the audacity I have at suggesting that others in the company have the ability to assume such a hefty responsibility. The good ones however, are more concerned about what that means for the safety of their employees—those with their heads down to the pavement putting in the work.

Certainly I can’t be suggesting that young guns be given free reign at the top, right? Right. But every young crow must also go through the process of learning the job of becoming a good sentinel. At first with the guidance and extra eyes of a second sentinel. And then with the cautious trust of the team on the ground who still glances about a bit more when the young bird is in the position of calling the shots. But ultimately, the development of these young sentinels allows the entire flock to forage more equally and share the brunt of the exhausting and daunting responsibility at the top of the wire (or the CEO suite).

Rotating responsibility at the top is good for the whole of the company. 

Rotating responsibility at the top is good for the whole of the company. 

The development of your entire team as potential leaders is key in running a company to its best capacity. Not only will you uncover blind spots by offering alternative perspectives to your employees, but you allow yourself as CEO to develop empathy with those whom you lead, by feasting together under the assumption the right calls are being made at the top.

What blind spots might your company uncover if they rotated positions for a while? How could a CEO develop a more efficient company by working in the trenches with each department while trusting another sentinel at least once a quarter? And what insights might other sentinels be able to provide the group about company dynamics that might otherwise have been overlooked by a single sentinel?

More on bird business sense in the next post...