Prompted by some discussions at work, I recently read Turn the Ship Around! I enjoyed it. Here are my notes.
I had previously seen a talk about the concepts by the author, L. David Marquet. Recently, one of my team shared a link to this short video (10 min) when we were having a discussion about how to take more ownership, and I thought I would read the book to get the practical steps.
The context is fascinating, because being a leader at all levels rather than following orders, is expressly something I do not associate with the military.
The book is essentially a case study of what L. David Marquet and his team aboard a nuclear submarine did to move from a “leader-follower” approach to a “leader-leader” approach.
Each chapter illustrates an idea with an example, which makes it very easy to read, and then supplements it with questions you can use to think about how this idea could work in your own organisation. I always find it much more powerful when a business book is written by someone who actually has the experience of implementing the ideas they write about (like High Output Management, my favourite).
The end result was a submarine where each crew member took responsibility for their own area. Instead of the Captain making decisions, crew members would come to him and say “Captain, I intend to…” and he would say “very well”.
And this was just the decisions he needed to know about. 95% of the decisions on board were taken without his input.
The fact that they had leadership at all levels also meant they were more resilient. They had a wide pool of talent. He gives an example of wanting to let two senior people have extended leave for personal reasons at the same time, which he was able to do because there were others able to do those roles.
He was in an interesting position in that he had trained for a different type of submarine, so when he joined this post he was not as technically competent as he was used to being (and ask the Navy traditionally expect leadership to be).
This meant when he asked the crew questions about the equipment it wasn’t to test them on their knowledge but because he genuinely did not know. Eventually he became fully technically competent on the ship but by then the patterns of interaction had been set.
He talked about his own struggles with wanting to be the smartest person in the room, and I found this very insightful; one of the challenges with a “leader-leader” approach is having to let go of your idea of yourself as someone who has all the answers, and this can be very hard.
I liked this, because it ties into my experience joining as Technical Director of a product that I didn’t build, so could not hope to be anywhere near as technically competent with as the people who built it and work on it every day.
One of the questions he poses at the end of the section on this is “Is technical competence personal or organisational?”
One of the first things he did when taking command of the submarine was meet with each crew member and ask them a set of questions very similar to the ones I asked my team when I joined. (One question I might add for next time is “What is the best thing I can do for you?”)
I found that very interesting, because that idea was recommended to me by a previous mentor; he had been recommended it by a mentor of his, who was a Rear Admiral in the Navy, so I wonder if there was a direct connection here!
He talks a lot about how “empowerment” doesn’t work. It’s the leader allowing the crew to be empowered; so it’s still “leader-follower”, which drowns out the message. Instead, he talks about “emancipation”.
He says he wanted to make sure his team deliberately decided to take charge. “It wouldn’t be any good if I directed them. You can’t invoke leader-follower rules to direct a shift from leader-follower to leader-leader.”
When it’s going well you no longer have the ability to empower your staff, because they are no longer relying on you for their source of power.
He then defines leadership as communicating people’s worth and potential to people so well they are inspired to see it themselves.
He started small, with each department head in charge of authorising leave. But then they weren’t in charge of the consequences, e.g. if too many people were on leave at once and there weren’t enough people to cover the watch. So then each department head was in charge of leave and the watch rota; i.e. the consequences of their decisions.
This became: each department head monitors their own departments and are responsible for getting the work done. (This works well when there are clear domains; one challenge we have on our team is that we share responsibility for a large domain rather than being able to split it clearly by area. This is something we’ll have to figure out.)
He requires each department head – and eventually, each crew member – to own both problems and the solutions to them.
Delegating authority in this way means always leaving room to question orders, and also people being able to tell him he is wrong. He recounts a story of when an officer much junior to him tells him, in response to an order, “No, Captain, you’re wrong.” The junior officer was correct, and had they instead followed the Captain’s orders, they would not have achieved their mission.
Initially, they would come to him and say “I intend to…” and he would ask questions, for example, have you considered this safety aspect. Then he started asking them what he was thinking. Ultimately, instead of him asking questions, his crew would give enough information so that he just needs to assent.
In order to do this, you need to think like your boss to understand what questions they may have. He says on his submarine, they had no need of leadership development programmes – the way they ran the ship was a leadership development programme.
While reading this I wondered how we could apply it. My aim is to have the principal engineers on my team running the team without me, so something like this would be good. One of the challenges is that the tasks are much larger or longer-lived: it’s not “I intend to submerge the ship”, it’s more like “I intend to spend three weeks working on a proposal for how to make our content stores more consistent and cost-effective” and so would have to involve information about why that was a priority compared to other tasks.
It also made me think about the importance of clarity around what done looks like. In the first case, ‘done’ is the ship is safely suberged. What is ‘done’ in the second case? A case study? A recommendation? The actual work – consistency among our content stores?
However we do it, this proactive communication is really valuable. Rather than the leader holding all the threads and chasing for updates, each person owns the thread and proactively communicates the progress and goals.
He suggests thinking specifically about what mechanisms/processes can be changed to delegate authority further. What information, context, understanding, tools do people at each level need in order to have authority?
He describes an exercise. Identify where excellence is created in your company, e.g. at interfaces with the customer. Figure out what decisions the people at that interface need in order to achieve excellence. Finally, understand what it would take to get those employees to be able to take those decisions. Generally, this will be technical competence, thorough understanding of the organisation’s goals, authority, and responsibility for the consequences of the decisions made.
I like the idea of asking people, what would you need in order to be able to make this decision rather than passing it up the chain? And then figuring out what we can change so that they have that.
He also asks you to think about: what do I, as a proponent of the leader-leader approach need to delegate to show I am willing to walk the talk? Good question. It reminds me of some excellent advice I got years ago on first taking on a leadership role: “Delegate everything. Far more than feels comfortable.”
If people need to make their own decisions, they need to be technically competent in their area.
They created a creed – ultimately, it was about learning (not ‘training’, they felt that was too passive).
I loved this bit of their creed: “Our vision of our command is a learning and competence factory. The raw materials are the new personnel reporting aboard each week, new equipment, and tactics. The product is well-qualified, experienced sailors who, upon detaching from the command, carry their competence throughout the Navy. Each of you, then, is both a product of the factory (when you learn) and a machine in the factory (when you help others learn).”
It is about learning while doing. “Instead of looking at a task as just a chore, look at it as an opportunity to learn more about the associated piece of equipment, the procedure, or if nothing else, about how to delegate or accomplish tasks.”
Finally, to each crew member’s question, ‘what do you expect me to do?’: “I expect you to be a better submariner each day.”
Rather than passive absorbing of information, their training programme was actually an enabler that allowed them to pass decision-making authority to lower and lower levels.
His suggestion about how to apply this in your own organisation is to think about the sentence completion “Our company would be more effective if [level] management could make decisions about [subject].” (As with all his exercises, this is not you on your own, but you with your leadership team, or at a company off-site).
Then “What, technically, do the people at this level of management need to know in order to make that decision?” This leads to a list of topics for training, and “you can directly connect the training topics to increased employee decision making and control – in a word, empowerment.”
He found the learning mindset helped his perspective too, allowed him to approach inspections calmly, even eagerly, rather than anxious about the result; and this impacted the crew as well, who sensed this.
Because they created an atmosphere of learning and curiosity among the crew, inspections were welcomed rather than something to greet with defensiveness. The crew would start by handing the inspectors a list of deficiencies so that they are on the agenda and will get resources to solve them. While inspectors were looking round the ship, crew would ask things like “I’m having a problem with this. What have you seen other ships do to solve it?”
He asked how do we use outside groups, the public, social media comments and government audits to improve our organisation? What are the costs of being open about problems in your organisation?
As the level of control is divested it becomes more and more important that the team be aligned with the goal of the organisation. If clarity of purpose is misunderstood then the criteria by which a decision is made will be skewed and suboptimal decisions will be made.
Don’t move information to authority, move authority to where the information is. “If you ask people what authorities they would like in order to make their jobs easier you’ll definitely get some ideas.”
Short early conversations are useful – not telling people what to do but an opportunity for them to get early feedback on how they are tackling problems. The demand for perfect products first time see you them is a waste of subordinates’ time. The idea is to protect executive time, but it wastes more time overall.
Early conversation can unearth well-meaning but erroneous translation of intent.
He talks about this as a mechanism for sharing context both ways. On their submarine there is a constant buzz of informal communication, and he suggests you walk around to get a view of how much is communicated informally – in the current climate, I guess that would equate to paying attention in Slack.
When his crew didn’t think out loud, that was when he was tempted to step in and interfere, because he didn’t know things were heading in the right direction. When he was thinking out loud, he was both imparting useful context, and also modelling that “lack of certainty is strength and certainty is arrogance.”
The goal is to create an environment in which people express their uncertainty and fears as well as their innovative ideas and hopes.
Emergency situations require orders but few situations are actual emergencies.
Take time to let others respond to the situation. Create space for open decisions.
If issues that require decisions frequently come up on short notice, then you have a reactive organisation locked in a downward spiral. “When issues aren’t foreseen, the team doesn’t get time to think about them; a quick decision by the boss is required, which doesn’t train the team, and so on.”
He suggests a few ways to deal with it. If it’s genuinely urgent, make the decision then ask the team to “red-team” the decision and evaluate it. If it needs to be made quite soon then ask for input then make the decision. If it can be delayed, then get input from the team (though do not attempt to come to consensus: “that results in whitewashing differences and dissenting votes. Cherish the dissension. If everyone thinks like you, you don’t need them.”)
I’ve put that in capitals both because he talks about it a lot, and because I feel that urge a lot! It reminds me of one of the most important recommendations in What got you here won’t get you there – “Stop adding too much value.”
He had an interesting idea about acting as if you have the organisation you want, in the same way that if you smile, you start to feel better. “Instead of trying to change mindsets and then change the way we acted, we would start acting differently and the new thinking would follow.”
His suggestion for how to implement this: “I’d know we’d achieved this cultural change if I saw employees [doing something specific]”. Then implement the doing of the something specific.
This is an interesting idea; I’m not sure it would work in all cases but I can see the benefit of, for example, requiring that everyone is polite on pull requests as a rule, instead of waiting until everyone has the mindset that everyone is deserving of respect.
He says “begin with the end in mind” (which he notes is from the book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’).
One way he implemented this was by having mentoring meetings with his staff, where the rule was they could only talk about long term issues, not operational issues. He asked them to write their ‘end of tour awards’ (3 years out) or – if too far away to think about – then their next year’s performance evaluation.
He got them to make it specific and measurable by asking questions like “how would you know if this had been achieved?” And digging deeper: e.g. if it was “we’d have fewer critiques”, the next question is how many critiques did you have last year? In the process they often learned that they hadn’t been keeping track of appropriate data. It meant the end of year reviews had concrete data in them – instead of “reduced significantly” it would say, e.g. “reduced by 43%”.
He asks “for how far in the future are you optimising your organisation?”
Something that really resonated with me is how he talks about your legacy as a leader. He notes that a lot of ships would be described as a “good ship” but then the captain moves on and they become a “bad ship”. He correctly notes that this means the captain is the one making this happen (and gives examples of captains working really long hours, running around to make sure every job is being done the way they’d like). If you leave, and the organisation collapses behind you then you have not truly built a good organisation.
He can say his methods were successful because ten years later they can really “assess the true success of the work – continued operational excellence and implausibly high promotion rates”.
The problem for him is the same as for me: we don’t evaluate leaders’ effectiveness after they leave but while they are there, so the incentive is to focus on short-term results at the cost of long-term sustainability.
To promote long term success he had to ignore the short term reward system. He describes this as “caring but not caring – caring about subordinates and the organisation but little about the organisational consequences to yourself.”
Some points he made resonated so much! For example, he said on ship there is a “constant tension between doing things right and meeting deadlines” – I shouldn’t be surprised at these parallels but I was.
He also talked about a process that I recognise as a blameless post-mortem or retrospective, though he didn’t call it that; they created a culture where they were open about mistakes and looked for ways to prevent or mitigate them rather than one where they wasted time and effort trying to avoid problems. He found when he arrived that the crew’s actions were motivated by “avoiding problems” e.g. following a checklist, pleasing an inspector, looking good.
He also talks about replacing general terminology with clear, concise, specific directions – avoiding jargon and clarity in communication is something very close to my heart.
Unlike a lot of leadership books, he acknowledges the challenges, things that went badly, and where this may be hard for you and was hard for him.
For example, a few times, he talks about situations when he didn’t do what he knew he should. One time he says he was too tired to engage in the discussion and just gave an order. “A more enlightened apporach would have been to engage in a discussion… that’s what I wanted to do, but I just didn’t have the energy or time anymore. All day, every day, it seemed like that’s all I did. It was tiresome.”
He notes that when tired or under pressure, he fell back on bad habits. This was something I really noticed in March, at the beginning of the pandemic – I and most of my colleagues reverted to our default behaviours, which are often not the behaviours we’ve worked hard on to build our teams and good working relationships.
He points out that clear feedback is crucial: “taking care of people doesn’t mean shielding them from the consequences of their own actions” but also admits that something he struggled with all his career was “balancing the courage to hold people accountable for their actions with my compassion for their honest efforts”.
Summing up, he points out that the control you need is “the self-control to give control”, which creates leaders. He says “rejecting the impulse to take control and attract followers will be your greatest challenge and, in time, your most powerful and enduring success.”
I made A LOT of notes and have only covered some of it here; for example he talks about increased authority of chiefs increasing retention among more junior staff, about using principles effectively to guide decision-making and about “deliberate action” as a mechanism for preventing mistakes which happen on autopilot; and much more. So I really recommend reading it yourself.
It’s not just for those in a leadership position; he suggests that people at the front line might want to read it to embrace decision making, and/or challenge leaders.
I really enjoyed this book because it completely reflected what I think of as good leadership; building a strong team that can run without you, growing and developing the people who report to you, building resilience and an emancipated team who can act to get to the right outcomes without needing to wait for instruction or permission.
It offered some really practical steps to help me get there, and some good challenges to where I might think I am doing it already but have a lot of room for improvement.
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