Re-writing the rulebook

David Marquet on preparing your team for anything

In 1998, the USS Santa Fe, an American nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, had an abysmal reputation. Performance levels and crew satisfaction were at an all-time low. The ship re-enlisted just three sailors that year, and then its captain quit.

Captain David Marquet had been preparing for a year to command the USS Olympia when he learnt he would be switched to the Santa Fe. So after a year of studying every technical detail there was to know about one ship, he got assigned to another which he knew almost nothing about, leaving him with a profound feeling of uncertainty.

Not only was the Santa Fe, by David’s own admission, on the floor technically and operationally, the crew were emotionally deflated. Yet, this seemingly impossible task of creating an effective crew dynamic, in the six months before the ship’s next tour allowed Marquet to embark on a ‘leadership revolution’, literally re-writing the submariners rule book. Within a year the Santa Fe went from the “worst to first” performing submarine in the US fleet and continued to win numerous awards throughout the subsequent decade.

“leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.”

In his bestselling book, Turn the Ship Around, Marquet recalls how his innovative approach to leadership transformed the Santa Fe from a model of incompetency to a model of success. This concept became known as the leader-leader model, an approach to management predicated on Marquet’s belief that: “leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.”

We had the privilege of speaking with David Marquet about what he’s learned since leaving the Santa Fe and what he’s working on now.

communication, workplace, decision-making

Q: It’s been twenty years since you took control of the Santa Fe, and while the business landscape has changed dramatically in that time, the leadership lessons from the Santa Fe seem as relevant as ever. Why do you think they are still working?

As the workplace has become faster moving and arguably more chaotic, it’s become even more important to distribute power out to the people who are closest to sensing the environment.

That might be the salesman who’s in the office of the client. They have so much more contact: they’re seeing the person’s face, what pictures the client has on their desk, getting a sense of what makes them tick. In a normal chain of command, the person with the information, the person doing the coding, or running the machine, or talking to the client, has to write it down, send it up the chain and push information to authority.

“We bemoan lack of ownership, but we take actions everyday which poach the ownership from people.”

Someone who’s removed from the situation makes the decision and then it gets transmitted back. That process involves delay and also decouples the responsibility and ownership. We bemoan lack of ownership, but we take actions everyday which poach the ownership from people.

communication, workplace, decision-making

A better approach is to push the authority and decision-making out to the people who have the information. The example I use most to illustrate this is when a month into my Santa Fe command, we were running a simple drill to simulate a fault with the nuclear reactor. In this scenario, propulsion is shifted from the main engines to a smaller, electric propulsion motor called the EPM. I’d ordered, “ahead two-thirds” and as is usual, the officer on deck repeated the order to the Helmsman, “ahead two-thirds.”

But nothing happened. I noticed the Helmsman looked unsettled. So, I asked what the problem was, and he pointed out that unlike on the other submarines I was familiar with there was no two-thirds in the electric propulsion mode. I pulled the officer to one side and asked him if he knew there was no ahead two-thirds on the EPM. “Yes, Captain, I did” he answered.

Astounded, I asked why then he had repeated the order. “Because you told me to,” he answered. It reaffirmed that the leader-follower environment meant the crew would do anything I said—even if it was wrong. That my most senior, experienced officer on deck would repeat something he thought was almost certainly wrong was a giant wake-up call about the perils of top down leadership for something as complicated as a submarine. What happens when the leader is wrong in a top-down culture? Everyone goes over the cliff. I vowed from then never to give an order, any order. Instead, subordinates would say “I intend to…”

In the business environment you get so many benefits from this: speed of execution, less distortion in the signal and for the people who are out there on the front lines it’s better. They’re not cogs or sensors in the system sending information up, machines doing what their told. Instead they have to interpret, make decisions and then they own them.

Q: Given that when you work on a submarine you also live on the submarine, I imagine that once a leader-leader model gets started, the transformation will be relatively swift. What do you think the difference is for a corporate organisation with distributed teams in different offices around the world?

It’s definitely slower for distributed teams to make the transition from “leader-follower” to “leader-leader” and there are more opportunity for gaps in clarity.

communication, workplace, decision-making

One of the benefits of being on the submarine was the control centre. The control centre was a hub; there would always be a group of sailors and officers there that I would hang out with. People would come and go but everyone would hear the conversations. When they went off watch and went down to eat, they would talk to people from all over the submarine and say, “I heard the Captain telling the engineer…”. It was a very close coupled system from a human perspective and things transmitted very quickly through the organisation.

The other benefit was that almost every conversation we had was face-to-face. So, if someone was telling me “there’s a problem with the pump, it’s in the bearing”, but I was looking at the sailor’s face and they had an odd expression, I could ask “how confident are you in that?” Because I could sense that they were saying it trying to be confident and trying to be the movie image of a naval officer, not showing any vulnerability. And they would reply saying, “well, maybe 80%,” which is obviously not enough to base a decision on. If it was just a phone call, I may have missed their lack of confidence.

Q: One of the mechanisms you implemented was ‘thinking out loud’. Can teams think out loud in a distributed digital world?

I now run a consultancy where we advise organisations on how to adopt a leader-leader model. We use Slack, so every morning everyone writes in Slack their daily intentions: Here’s what I’m working on today, here’s what I’m worried about, here’s what I’m thinking about, here’s what I need help with, etc. When we started people would tend to just write out their to-do list for the day, which wasn’t what I was after.

So, to break that we would practice using empowered sentence starters like “I intend to… I plan on… I will… and We will” and discourage disempowered phrases like “Request permission to… I would like to… What should I do about… Do you think we should… Could we…”

I’m an introvert, so all day long I have stuff in my head and it would be better if I just vocalised it because then everyone would know, “oh so that’s why you’re worried about this.”

For example, when my daughter was learning to drive, she’d be driving down the road and there’d be people playing and I said, “Emily do you see them?” and she was like “Yeah Dad!” kind of annoyed at me. And I’d say: “Do you see the stop sign? Do you see the car coming? Do you see the guy backing out of his driveway?” And she got more frustrated, but I didn’t know if she could see them because she was driving in silence. So, for both our peace of mind I got her to vocalise what she was seeing as she went: “I see the family, I see the car, I see the stop sign…” And you don’t have to keep that behaviour going once you demonstrate competence. But it was her saying what she was seeing that allowed me to be quiet, which allowed her to retain control.

Corporately most people’s instinct is to create opacity in their job, because if they’re transparent about what they’re doing then it creates the opportunity for their boss to interfere, because they now have the information that would allow them to interfere.

But in a healthy, leader-leader organisation people aren’t afraid to be transparent because bosses trust them and won’t interfere. It’s recognised that the employee isn’t sharing because they need help; they are just letting their boss know that they are aware of what’s going on.

Q: I imagine it’s hard for people not to jump in to solve those problems?

It’s so hard! And sometimes we ask for it. If you walk into your office and say to your boss, “I’ve got these two options for the client. What do you think?” Your boss is going to tell you, “Go with option B.” Or you could walk in and say “I’ve got two options for the client, and we need to put one forward as the recommendation. How should I think through that?” or “What’s the most important element?” Then you get your boss telling you their thinking.

So, yes, on the one hand leaders and bosses naturally want to solve the problem, but on the other hand we ask for it in the way we approach them.

communication, workplace, decision-making

Q: That ties into something you talk about in Turn the Ship Around, which is the power of a leader saying, ‘I don’t know’. But how can you assure your team that you’re competent when you say you don’t know?

There’s a few different categories of ‘I don’t know’. If the question is “What does this button do?” Well, that’s knowable and you should probably know it. But there are things that are clearly unknowable, like “what will be the appetite for this product?” We can make a guess, but we don’t know. “What will happen with Brexit?” We can make a guess, but we don’t know.

So, because we think we need to know all the physical things, we act like we know everything, but clearly, we can’t. So, in the spirit of saying “I don’t know”, it allows other people to come forward with their ideas.

Let’s say your company has to make a decision to open a new office, and doing so hinges on Brexit. The decision is binary, but you want as much input into the decision as possible. It won’t help the company if the CEO just pretends to know which answer is definitely best. There’s no ‘right’ answer in this situation.

Q: One of the things you touch on in Turn the Ship Around is the idea that anyone can learn to lead themselves. Have you ever worked with someone who you doubted actually could?

Of course, because even though I battle against it, I have built in prejudices. For example, I worked with a guy who was really quiet. And my initial thought was, “he’s quiet so he doesn’t have anything to contribute.” But of course, he was just thinking and processing what was being said. Once he spoke up, he had so much wisdom!

communication, workplace, decision-making

Another common prejudice people have is mistaking education for intelligence. A lot of tech companies get high school graduates to man the customer service lines. So, they’re pretty low-paid people, they are given a script to follow and it’s mind-numbing work. It’s tempting to think “what do they know?” But they are just as intelligent as anybody else.

We saw this first-hand when we worked with a major US bank. The person in charge of the customer service line decided to get his people to throw out the scripts and just try to solve the caller’s problem. They went from losing 3.5 employees a month to losing 0. They also got only 10’s on their feedback scores from callers for more than ten days in a row, which is unheard of.

Initially, the call times went up, but the volume went down because people weren’t calling back a day later. Then the company’s technology team got interested. They asked the customer service representatives “what do you guys know about our product? How can we make our product better?”

So, then you have the “rule the world” software engineers asking the high school graduates how to improve their product. Everyone felt better, the product was better, and the customer was better served.

Q: What are your thoughts on how the physical environment can enhance or hinder the leader-leader model?

There’s a lot to talk about here, but I’m particularly interested in how people are arranged within their workspace. We had a client that had a small factory in Mexico who made the tube that the visor mounts on for cars. Then they would ship those, and they would be assembled and eventually they ended up on a car somewhere. It was mind-numbing work. It was mostly women and they had a U-shape table arrangement where the team of women would stand inside the table facing outward. And the first woman would take the tube and connect the wire-harness and pass it to the next person.

No one could see anyone else’s face. There was a lot of turnover, there was alcohol use – it wasn’t a good environment to work in. So we flipped it and put the women on the outside of the table so that they could see the four other women’s faces.

The factory owners were hesitant to change it because they didn’t want their workers interacting with each other, fearing they would waste time talking instead of working. So, they tested it with some tables and left the other tables the same. The tables where the women could see each other’s faces became slightly less productive, but because they didn’t quit, over time they actually became more productive. They had fewer errors in their work and they called in sick less than other tables. Overall, from a system point of view, it was a huge win.

In submarines I saw something similar; everyone sitting outward facing a panel away from each other, with their backs to each other. We decided to use this dynamic as inspiration for a VR game we run as part of our consultancy programme. First, we make everyone sit around a square table. We then measure collaboration by how much each person talks. The hypothesis is the more skewed the speaking is, the less resilient the team is. So, if the captain is saying half the words and the rest of the team is saying the rest, that’s a pretty big skew. We can measure that, dynamically represent it and come up with a number to tell the team what their skew was from even share of voice.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming book.

It’s focused on teaching leaders how to enable their team through communication. Essentially, I’m looking at the rhythm of how humans work: thinking and doing, reflection and action. And when you get the timing right you get learning. You think about something and then you do it. “I’m going to deliver training to a client,” then you reflect on how it went. That’s the rhythm: make a decision, do it, assess how it went.

“We’ve been programmed by the industrial revolution to react in certain ways in certain circumstances.”

communication, workplace, decision-making

I call these “plays,” like a set play in sports. One of these business plays we have is “obey the clock”—we clock in; we pay people’s salary; we have the saying “like clockwork.” Obeying the clock works in the action mode, but it doesn’t work in the reflective mode. You can’t say “I need you to brainstorm, you have 30 seconds.” What we need to do is control the clock.

We have all the plays that are programmed for the action, for the reduced variability, for the production line “making of the part” that comes from the industrial revolution, but we don’t yet have the plays for the thinking and reflective part of today’s dynamic, knowledge-based business.

In the old days one group did the thinking, the leaders, and the other group did the doing. We had leader-follower, thinker-doer, white collar and blue collar, salary workers and hourly workers. My new book explores what the new plays are, what they sound like and how I manage that rhythm between doing and thinking and thinking and doing.

David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around is published by penguin books and is compulsory reading for Leesman’s leadership and management team. His new book, Leadership is Language is out 4th February 2020.

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