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Jan 25, 2018

The systems around us are too complex for us to have all the answers for every situation. It’s important as a leader to grow and develop our team’s capabilities to make responsible decisions on their own as needed. Communication of intent is a key to that development. In this episode David Marquet shares revelations on how to achieve a cooperative and supportive environment which fosters the confidence and leadership abilities of team members.

As the Captain of a nuclear submarine, David Marquet created leadership techniques which he later developed into a system called Intent-Based Leadership™. He is a nationally recognized speaker and authored the Amazon bestseller Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. Fortune magazine called the book the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution.”
Captain Marquet retired from the Navy in 2009, and delivers the powerful Intent-Based Leadership message: that leadership is not for the select few at the top. In highly effective organizations, there are leaders at every level. David speaks to those who want to create empowering work environments that release the passion, initiative, and intellect of each person. His bold and highly effective framework is summarized as, “Give control, create leaders.”
He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Q: Tell me about the events that precipitated your book and influenced your approach to leadership.
A: Throughout my Navy career, I used what I call a knowing-telling leadership model, which is: “Know as much as possible through diligent study; and direct/tell/give orders as much as possible through clear and concise language, propelling the team forward.” It worked successfully—I was getting promoted. It was, however, exhausting. It was completely focused on me and what I know or could do, rather than activating the thinking and creative talents of those around me.
I was selected to be a submarine captain and they sent me to school for a year to learn the ways around the ship I would be assigned to… But after all that study, an abrupt vacancy elsewhere called for them to them send me to a completely different ship. It was the ship with the worst performance, morale and retention rate in the fleet. The captain had just quit. It was one of the newest ships in the fleet—completely different from where I had trained. “Knowing-telling“ was no good because I knew nothing about this ship. I tried. I messed up and gave orders that didn’t work for the ship but would have for all the other subs I had been on.
After this incident I had a meeting with my officers to figure out how we were going to proceed. They were trained to follow orders, but I couldn’t give competent orders because I didn’t know the ship. The suggestion came up: “Why don’t you just not give us orders at all? We’ll just run by you whatever we intend to do.“ I was like, “OK. Let’s try that.“ It ended up being amazing—I would not tell them what to do, and they wouldn’t ask to be told what to do, but rather they just came and told me what they intended to do.

Q: And you were in a submarine, kind of cut off from the world. Not only did you not have the knowledge, but when business owners are faced with similar circumstances, they can find some other people to do the job or offer of their employees bonuses to step up their game. You didn’t have those kind of options in your situation, right?
A: Yeah. Well, the Navy hired of the people obviously, and they’re all trained the same. A business leader would have the ability to fire people or give them financial bonuses—neither of which I had— but, when you take away all those things, what’s left is how you talk to and treat each other. Costs nothing. Instead of saying, “I need to wait for permission before I can act on this matter,” it was, “Here’s what I intend to do. Unless I hear a ‘no,’ it’s go time.” Subtle, but a huge difference. This gave the team a bias for action and had several effects:
1. Performance of the ship went way up. One year in we had an inspection, earning an unprecedented high score on submarine operations.
2. Every sailor who had an opportunity to stay in the Navy over the next 12 months, did so. That’s a record-setting 100% retention.
3. Over the next ten years, ten of that ship’s officers moved up and were selected to command their own nuclear submarines. 10 out of 15 subs. That’s a very disproportionate number of commanders originating from the same ship.

Q: Have you found an attractiveness in boss–employee relationships for the sort of top-down “Tell me what to do“ kind of relationship?
A: Well, yeah. The boss likes to feel important and like they’re doing something. They like to be the driver. Employees are reassured that they can act without thinking about it or taking ownership. “I was told to do it,“ allows people to turn their brains off and go do boneheaded things. If you want people to think for themselves—stop telling them what to do.

Q: That kind of change can be really scary for people.
A: Yeah, well, you do it in small steps. You make it safe. You give choices. It’s not an instant flip of the switch to a situation where suddenly the employee’s making a bunch of decisions. Step one: I make the decisions. Step two: I want you to provide me observation and description. Step three: I want you to provide an assessment. Step four: I want you to provide a recommendation. Step five: State what you would intend to do if I were not here. Very incremental.

Q: As you work with organizations, what are some of the foundational principles people need to know about making this kind of change?
A: I’ll give you a few:
1. What outcome are you looking for? Short-term success, or to build up leaders and thinkers around you?
2. Make it safe—don’t add stress.
3. Push the authority to where the information is, rather than pulling the information up to where the authority is.
4. When giving people authority, tune it to their level of competence and clarity.

Q: That last one is really important. On a submarine, everyone is highly trained by the Navy—you know their competence level. In the business world, that varies. Assuming that same confidence level in someone could actually be a recipe for disaster.
A: My guys had the level of training to take out the manual, follow procedure and load a torpedo. They did not have the ability of foresight to come to me and say, “I see that tomorrow we are going to need to load torpedoes,” for many reasons. But these are the hard decisions I wanted my guys to be able to make.
I gave my officers a written exam nearly each week to assess their knowledge on various subjects. In business if someone brings me credentials, I assume they know what they are doing. I’m afraid, though, to actually test it out. A leader’s job is to give people control and let them demonstrate their abilities. Trust in them and say, “I am going to give you more decision-making authority and see how that goes.“ An employee’s job is to say, “Thank you. Let me show you what I know and my thought processes. I invite your feedback and criticism.“

Q: I’d like a brief comment on a couple of concepts from your book. First: “The belief that we know something, limits our learning.”
A: When I went from my originally assigned ship to the new one I was reassigned it to, it was incredibly apparent my world had changed. I knew I didn’t know. Sometimes everything from our perspective seems the same, but the world around us has changed and we didn’t notice. “Knowing-telling” doesn’t work because you don’t know. I like to play the “opposite “game in my head. I look at an assumed truth and ask myself, “What if the opposite is true?“ Challenge the things you think you know.

Q: “Excellence is different from avoiding errors.”
A: When I got to the ship, they were not doing well, as I said—low morale, high turnover, etc.. Everybody was just trying to avoid screwing up. That was the main motivator—”Don’t mess up.” When a mindset like that permeates the team, the best way to not mess up is to do as little as possible and don’t make any decisions. It doesn’t push you toward excellence. I started talking with my crew about how we were going to exemplify operational excellence, and I stopped talking about avoiding errors. See, as we get better and achieve excellence, the mistakes will naturally reduce in severity and frequency. Strive for excellence. That has forward momentum and a bias for action. Learn from mistakes.

Q: Let’s say I’m a listener who wants to build more leadership into my organization. What’s my one takeaway today?
A: If anyone comes to you and asks, “What do you want me to do?“ or “What should we do?“ or “Should I do (x)?“ or whatever, don’t answer the question. Pause and say, “What do you think?“ “What would you do?“ or even just, “Tell me more about it.“ They’ll then give you more information to work with. Then you hit back with: “OK. So what do you think?“ In other words, don’t rush to solve their problem—let them work on the problem. That’s when you’re developing talent and they’re developing their problem-solving confidence. Do that consistently to build a team of leaders around you.

Q: How do listeners learn more about you and your system, David?
A: My book is available on Amazon, and we also just published a workbook to go along with it. Our YouTube channel features 180 one-minute videos called “Leadership Nudges” to help people become better leaders. And you can always go to the website, davidmarquet.com.

We always welcome your feedback at Modern Farm Business Podcast. Do you have suggestions for future episodes, or questions on something we’ve already covered? Drop Dean a line at dean@modernfarmbusiness.com. He’ll look at each email personally and respond as quickly as possible. Thanks for listening! See you next week!