I was speaking with a client during an executive coaching session about the book “Turn The Ship Around” by David Marquet. The book details how Marquet took over the captaincy of the worst-performing nuclear submarine in the US Navy, and within a year turned the crew into one of the best by replacing the “leader-follower” (command-and-control) structure with a “leader-leader” model.
My client realized he was becoming a decision-making bottleneck, where direct reports were in the habit of bringing problems to solve, or ideas for approval and asking, “What do you think I should do?”.
The “leader-leader” model Captain Marquet writes about in his book is a similar approach and has much to recommend about it. However, I have caveats when applying this military solution directly into a business environment, which I detail below.
Marquet’s leadership philosophy covers 3 main themes, all of which I agree with:
- Control: Delegate decision-making authority down to where the information originated
- Competence: Increase the crew’s technical competence and knowledge so they can make good decisions
- Clarity: Ensure the crew are clear on the organization’s goals so their decisions are aligned with these
Marquet asked his crew to start conversations with the phrase “I intend to…” instead of asking for permission to do something.
He encouraged his “Chiefs” (managers) to resist the impulse to jump in with solutions and instead ask their crew members to think out loud and explain what they intend to do (in essence, encourage the crew to recommend a decision to the manager)
Previously, the crew would ask permission to do things, using “follower” phrases such as: “I’d like to,” or “What should I do about…?” Instead, Marquet wanted all crew to state their intentions rather than ask permission, and have the supervisor respond, “Good. Go ahead”, or suggest alternative options if they had any concerns.
Even if the supervisor did propose alternative options, they would still encourage the crew member to recommend a decision after considering these new options.
Marquet maintains (and I agree) that decentralized control only works when people have the technical competence and strategic context to make good decisions.
And this is my main concern with “Turn the Ship Around”. Business leaders and motivational speakers seem to gloss over this vital piece of information when they come across this book and think, “This is how enlightened managers should operate”.
A superficial level of thinking suggests all managers need to do is transfer Marquet’s, “Tell me what you intend to do” approach directly into a business environment.
They overlook the fact that each role in the military is highly specialized, with specific training and certification required before you even step on the boat. When every crew member is certified in their role, it’s much easier to delegate decision-making authority, because each crew member possesses a high baseline level of role competency (whether they are the chef or the nuclear reactor technician).
Yes, I do recommend that managers ask direct reports to state what they “intend” to do instead of reactively giving an answer to the employee’s problem. (My version of this approach when coaching clients to solve problems is to ask, “What would you recommend?”)
But, my experience is that the average civilian business does not possess such a high baseline level of role competency in every role, and civilian managers typically need to spend more time exploring options with their employees (e.g. “Here’s another option for you to consider”) before pushing the decision-making authority back to the employee (see the GROW model).
This is my bread and butter as a strategy coach. Companies need a clear strategic plan (e.g. BHAG, Long-term Strategic Moves, Numerical Targets, and Short-term Projects as a starting point) and a clear set of performance standards (e.g. Core Values and Metrics) to provide a solid foundation before decision-making can be successfully delegated.
Who are we? Where we are going? How do we plan to get there? Employees need to know the answers to these questions so they have the context to make good day-to-day decisions in their individual roles.
Then you need to hire people who are a good fit for your company’s strategy and culture. Your strategy dictates the type of people you need. My approach of “first what – then who” runs counter to Jim Collins’ “first who – then what” sequence. I never liked the Jim Collins bus analogy. (Don’t even get me started on Simon Sinek).
Yes, I agree with the principle of delegating decision-making down to the level of each individual role, but in my experience, the onus is on the manager to first ensure:
- The organization provides the proper context in terms of clear strategic direction and performance standards
- Employees are hired who are the right fit for the company strategy and culture, and they are properly trained in the technical competencies to excel in their role
- Alternative options are explored with the employee (where relevant), before encouraging the employee to recommend a decision
Until next time…