Last year, after our meeting with Lars Kolind in Copenhagen, we briefly met up with another one of our Bucket List heroes and former U.S. Navy captain David Marquet. It was with great delight that, earlier in that year, we came across David Marquet’s bestseller, ‘Turn the Ship Around!’. In his book, the former nuclear submarine commander describes the incredible transformation story of his beloved USS Santa Fe. In great detail, he shared how he managed to skyrocket the USS Santa Fe from worst to best performing in the fleet by challenging the U.S. Navy’s traditional approach. It’s an impressive case study, so let’s take a look at the lessons we can learn from how the USS Santa Fe went from ‘worst to first’?
The story of the USS Santa Fe is a great addition to our research. We are actively searching for examples of highly engaged workplaces, no matter the industry or culture. We believe those examples are out there, everywhere and in every industry. We refuse to believe the stereotypes that certain industries or groups of people aren’t able to change. We are on a mission to bust those stereotypes, and the military is another one of those stereotypes!
Successfully hacking the military culture
The story of David, an experienced Navy officer, starts when he is appointed captain of the USS Santa Fe. Suddenly he is responsible for more than one hundred sailors, deep in the sea. In the high-stress military environment, where there is no margin for error, it is crucial his men do their job and do it well. But at the start of his command the nuclear-powered submarine is flawed by very poor morale and low engagement. He experiences first-hand how the command & control environment forces his crew to do exactly as he says, even when the crew knows it’s wrong.
David witnessed that the traditional command & control model (which he prefers to call the “leader-follower model”) used by the military and the majority of the companies in the world is outdated and no longer efficient. He feels there should be a better way of operating. David starts to successfully hack into the traditional military culture while actively pushing for leadership at every level. Only with one fundamental believe in mind: a highly engaged crew is proactive, makes better decisions more rapidly, and comes up with smarter solutions faster. It worked fabulously, because eventually his crew managed to achieve the highest retention and operational standings in the US Navy.
1. Push leadership down the org chart
David Marquet believes that in the traditional command & control model there are two kinds of people: leaders and followers. On the USS Santa Fe, David was clearly the leader of the ship. His crew were followers waiting for his orders to be executed. But sadly, this model didn’t enable the sailors to fully exploit their talents, ideas and capabilities. They often just assumed that David would make every major decision anyway. It resulted in high degrees of disengagement and passive behavior.Push leadership down the org chart.Click To Tweet
David took matters into his own hands and started to push for leadership at every level. Instead of treating his crew as followers he started to treat them as leaders. He searched for the organization’s genetic code for control and started to rewrite it. He wanted everyone to feel like a leader as he started to provide his crew with increased levels of trust and responsibility. It forced them all to contribute and live up to the values of the ship. It didn’t take long before the morale among the crew took a dramatic turn. He successfully proved that the increased decision making among his employees resulted into higher rates of engagement, motivation, and initiative.
Find your organization’s genetic code for control and rewrite it
David Marquet: “The first step in changing the genetic code of any organization or system is delegating control, or decision-making authority, as much as is comfortable, and then adding a pinch more. This isn’t an empowerment program. It’s changing the way the organization controls decisions in an enduring, personal way.
Here is how you can find your organization’s genetic code for control and rewrite it:
- Identify in the organization’s policy documents where decision-making authority is specified;
- Identify decisions that are candidates for being pushed to a lower level in the organization;
- For the easiest decisions, first draft language that changes the person who will have decision-making authority. In some cases, large decisions may need to be dissaggregated.
- Next, ask each participant in the group to complete the following sentence on a card provided: “When I think about delegating this decision, I worry that…”
- Post those cards on the wall, go on a long break, and let the group mill around the comments posted on the wall.
- Last, when the group reconvenes, sort and rank the worries and begin to attack them.”
2. Be clear about the desired outcome of the mission
As you can imagine, nuclear submarines are complicated machines. That’s why David believes that the decisions made on board of his ship should be solely based on technical reasons, not on hierarchy. He leaves the traditional hierarchy in place but provides his sailors with high degrees of leadership and accountability over their own work and operations. The leadership of the submarine just explains what the ship wants to accomplish, and subsequently allows major flexibility in how the sailors want to accomplish this. As a result the people that possess the real specific technical knowledge will make most of the decisions in the daily operations.
But when you establish leadership at every level, and people are constantly making their own decisions it is important to have a common goal and principles in place. It should be crystal clear what the desired outcome of the mission should be. Not only for yourself, but also for your team and for the entire organization. It should eventually guide everyone in their daily decision making. David advocates to always ‘begin with the end in mind’.
How to begin with the end in mind
David Marquet: “Here are some things you can do to begin with the end in mind:
- With your leadership team, develop longer-term organizational goals for three or five years out.
- Go through the evaluations and look for statements that express achievement. In every case, ask “How would we know?” and ensure that you have measuring systems in place.
- Then have employees write their own evaluations one year, two years, or three years hence. The goals in the employees’ evaluations should cascade down from the organization’s goals; they needn’t necessarily be identical but they should be appropriate at an individual level.
- Have conversations with employees to make their desired achievements indisputable (How would I know?) and measurable.”
3. Establish a culture of continuous improvement
In order to keep making the best decisions possible David pushes for a culture of continuous improvement. He constantly encourages his sailors to take action and supports them if they make mistakes. He wants them to keep learning on the job, by actively learning from their mistakes. They are therefore all the time looking for ways to improve their processes and themselves. Because, without developing the necessary skills, competences and knowledge for your particular job it is impossible to comply with your responsibilities.
David Marquet made work on board of his ship fun again. He proved that even in the most traditional environments you are able to create a highly engaged workforce by simply changing the way you work. After David left the USS Santa Fe as commander, the ship kept promoting more officers than any other submarine in the fleet, including ten submarine captains. In the end, his approach seemed relatively simple and highly comparable to the stories we witnessed many times before: listen to your employees and teams, start experimenting and discover your own unique way towards an engaged workforce.Listen to your employees and teams, start experimenting and discover your own unique way towards an engaged workforce.Click To Tweet
The lessons learned from David can support everyone in their transformation towards a more engaged workplace. If you are ready to make the transformation or if you are looking for like-minded individuals on a similar journey? Join our free Slack community of fellow Rebels through this link.