Tag Archives: Navy

Your team plays bingo. They really do.

Who doesn't love Bingo?

As I look around the leadership blogosphere, I was reminded of a game we used to play during senior officer pep talks.  Now, by sharing the secrets of senior officer bingo, I’m probably only ensuring that it happens to me, but it’ll help me make a point about the pitfalls of motivating groups.  Here’s how the game works – you and your wingers sit down ahead of the meeting and make a list of all the tried and true motivational one liners of your organization.  Once you have a good selection, you make bingo cards.  As you sit through the meeting, check ’em off until you get a full line.  What to do if you win?  Easy, put your hand up and ask a question.  Just be sure to use the word “bingo” so all your friends know that you won…

Here’s a shopping list of the types of phrases I mean:

  • “Ton for ton, the best ships in the world”
  • “What’s  your job?  Best one I ever had.”
  • “Pound for pound, the best sailors in the world.”
  • “World-class (insert noun here)”

See what I mean?  Everyone of us who’ve ever worked in a large organization can probably sit down and make a bingo card right now.

Here’s the thing.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with engaging with your team.  There’s nothing wrong with motivation.  And there’s certainly nothing wrong with fostering pride in your folks.  So why does this bring out cynicism?  It’s because our tried and true one-liners of motivation are vague.  They lack concrete terms and aren’t linked to specific, sticky things that people can touch, feel, taste or smell.  For further guidance on concrete and sticky messaging, have a look at the Heath Brothers book, Made to Stick.

The way ahead?  Think carefully about the message you send when trying to motivate you folks.  Does it fit with the organizational culture?  If you’re trying to change the culture, will your message help move in the right direction?  Is you message sticky?  Is it concrete?  Can everyone touch, feel, taste, or smell what you’re trying to say?

For me, a successful motivational talk would be one where the bingo game has no winner…

Anyone care to share the organizational one-liners that they love to hate?

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Want to live outside your comfort zone? Try being in charge.

Have you ever looked at someone in charge of a team working under pressure and wondered, how can he or she be that confident?  How can they remain so calm when all they seem to be getting right now is bad news?  How do they know which decision is the right one?  They seem to – after all they give clear instructions, smile, and move on to the next problem without ever looking back.

Or do they?

As someone who makes a career out of leading teams, I can tell you that most displays of confidence under pressure are the product of high school drama classes.  Every one of us suffers from moments of self-doubt, usually found gnawing away at the deepest part of the stomach.  Every one of us actually develops eyes in the back of our heads to allow us to look back as we move to the next problem; that’s how the stomach knows when to act up.

A few weeks back I was talking with a friend of mine who worked with me at sea during a huge international navy exercise off of Hawaii.  He and another officer had just joined our ship, fresh from a year-long course designed to make them into warfare leaders, known as Operations Room Officers or OROs.  Being an ORO can be a tough job – you are responsible to the skipper for almost everything and have to coordinate a huge network of sub-teams and equipment.  On top of this, add being responsible for aircraft and other warships assigned to you for the current activity and now, as they say, we are in business.  My point?  Many people look to the ORO for guidance and direction.  He or she is expected to wade through mountains of information to seize clarity in order to provide sane instructions to everyone else.  In other words – a busy job with periods of impossible requirements.  The key to success?  Confidence and experience.  And if you have just arrived and don’t have much experience?  That leaves confidence…  In fact, my shipmates had the same conversation at watch turnover for almost two weeks  – “Figured out this job yet?”  Pause.  “Nope.”

Imagine sitting in a room without windows and coordinating this... Pressure.

The take away?  It’s OK to be human and feel like you’ve left your safe zone because leading under pressure is uncomfortable.  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or doesn’t understand the question.

Want to Avoid Mission Creep? Practice.

One of the hallmarks of leadership under pressure is the ability to generate strong, actionable plans without the luxury of either time or all of the facts.  How do you make sure that your team can do this?  Practice.  Followed by more practice.

The Canadian navy uses search and rescue (SAR) response exercises to test this very thing.  Consider this example – a warship at sea off the west coast of Vancouver Island receives a distress call from a sinking fisherman approximately one hour away.  Several things need to happen and they need to happen quickly.  First, the obvious step – move to the scene.  Second, gather all of your expertise (in this case, representatives of all departments in order to blend situational awareness, logistics, medical and technical knowledge all in one place) and assess all of the factors in order to create a plan.  Because the situations are never the same, each plan differs slightly from what could be considered standard operating procedures.  After all, there is nothing standard about a burning fishing vessel in five-metre waves during the dead of night, is there?

Good time to discuss the group dental plan? Mission creep.

My point?  If you place this problem in front of five ship’s teams, they will construct five different plans.  One or two will be outstanding, two more will be realistically achievable and one could be a complete “disasterpiece” in the making.  What causes the difference?  Excellent question; after all, although our teams are made up of different individuals, they all have similar training and experience.  In theory, they should all come up with realistically achievable plans, shouldn’t they?  One direct cause of this difference is something known as “mission creep.”

Mission creep can affect even the strongest of teams.  Wikipedia defines it as “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes.”  It occurs when our team of heroic leaders are drawn off track by needless details or dead ends within the plan.  In extreme cases, mission creep occurs when we add so much detail to a plan that it literally collapses under its own weight.  Although the term is a fairly modern one, the actual concept has been affecting organizations for hundreds of years.  For example, Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition grew by a factor of five from plan inception to execution.  Definite mission creep…

The SAR response example allows us to see mission creep in action.  What should the priority of search and rescue be?  It should be just that – search and rescue, or more simply put saving lives. Therefore any discussion (and believe me, it comes up every time) about saving the stricken vessel (remember, it’s sinking and people need to get off) is quite clearly mission creep.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t consider saving the vessel if possible, but with an hour to sort ourselves out while positioning at speed to the scene, an animated discussion of what pumps we need or how many damage control folks to send over by the same boat that should be transporting victims is… you guessed it, mission creep.

Avoiding mission creep can be challenging.  After all, you don’t necessarily want to shut down the bright folks on your team by harshly snapping them back to your mission – they are subject matter experts and bring skills to the table that you don’t have.  My two cents?  Try some team problem-solving exercises when you have the time.  Not only can you streamline your processes, you can tease out mission creep in a smiling environment vice a pressure-charged frowning one.

The Elusive Command Presence

Edward Fox as Lt. Gen Horrocks in "A Bridge Too Far"

Over the last 20 years, I have been assessed on my command presence.  I have been given vague guidance about what this elusive presence is.  I’ve even been told a few times that I don’t have it.  Other times I have been complimented on it.  But what is this thing, this so called “command presence?”

It’s one of those nebulous concept that doesn’t really have a concrete definition.  Command itself refers to concepts like coordination, direction and control.  Presence, in this case, refers to one’s force of personality.  When I combine these two concepts in my mind, my imagination produces someone 12 feet tall.  Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any of these commanding behemoths in my travels, so I guess it’s back to the drawing board. Or is it?

John Baldoni’s recent blog for the Harvard Business Review was all about this very thing – leadership presence.  He breaks it down nicely into manageable chunks that serve to reduce my mental image down to a human of average height.  He concentrates on some broad areas: situational awareness, confidence, humility, and hope.

Have a read of John’s post.  Close your eyes and see if you can conjure up a mental image.  Let me know what you see.

Coaching = Mentorship

Successful leaders grow their own replacements by coaching them along the way.  Think of it as your own organic garden; you plant the seeds, water when required and take a great deal of care to make sure all your plants grow up straight and healthy.  Your organization, be it big or small, deserves the same care and attention.


As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Navy recognizes mentorship as a critical component to effective force development.  A healthy attitude, considering internal promotions are the norm for military forces due to their specialized nature and organizational cultures.

Future Navigators working together to learn.

The business world calls it coaching.  Candice Francovelgia does a great job of outlining some of the basic principles that should help us train tomorrow’s leaders.   The emphasis is on creating self-starters that have the independent thought and emotional intelligence to succeed.  This means that we don’t lecture; we ask thought provoking questions.  We don’t hand deliver solutions, but patiently guide people in the right direction.  We don’t solve their problems, we listen to their solutions and help them find the way.  After all, we want to provide opportunities to develop and flex muscles, not a crutch with which to limp along to mediocrity.

Interesting fact: 63 per cent of companies indicate that they engage in mentoring while remainder say they plan to.  Ask yourself the simple question – are you growing your leaders or are you with the 37 per cent non-starter crowd?  Either way, food for thought.

Powerpoint Doesn’t Equal Command

Senior U.S. military commanders have come to the conclusion that Powerpoint represents an internal threat to successful warfighting.  As reported by Elizabeth Bumiller in an article in the New York Times, senior officers have been banning the use of Microsoft’s famous presentation software in military operations because, counter-intuitively, the use of bullet points does not lead to understanding.

This false sense of concreteness has been noted before.  After all, as Seth Godin reminded us today, he wrote a book about this seven years ago.  So why the time lag between smart people noticing the issue and smart people fixing it?  Simple: the military culture is a slow-changing animal.  After all, I can tell you from experience that we have spent countless hours perfecting these mammoth bullet-pointed briefings designed to provide information to our teams.  Problem is they don’t.  And they don’t for a reason that I haven’t seen pointed out yet.  These well-tuned forays into PowerPoint warfare fail to yield results because they are repetitive, recycled and non-interactive.

Let me explain further.  Take the team briefing conducted by a warship about to enter a harbour.  Usually held just before the event, it is designed to provide detailed situational awareness and coordinating instructions to the entire team.  It covers everything from navigation hazards to use of mooring lines.  It zigzags from current weather conditions to self-defence.  It may even include what hat to wear.  It seems to be complete; it certainly provides information.  But it fails to engage anyone but the person giving the presentation.  Let’s get out the good old bullets and see why:

  • Repetition – They’ve seen it before.  These briefings follow the same format every time in order to cover all of the bases.  Meaning the card board cut-outs we’ll call the audience are not the least bit interested.  This becomes even more dangerously true if you are operating in and out of your home port.  After all, don’t most accidents happen within something like 2 km of your house?  Repetition breeds complacency
  • Recycled – Because the presentation is always the same, even its preparation by the briefer can fall into the complacency trap.  This one is tricky – most people in an operational military setting don’t have enough time in the day to re-create the wheel over and over again.  But they certainly need to be aware of the dangers involved.
  • Non-interactive – This briefing can’t help but be one way because of the first two factors.  We love to think it’s interactive; we even ask questions afterward in a rehearsed fashion in order to confirm the critical information points have made it out to the team.  Please don’t confuse confirmation questions with engagement; they may answer enthusiastically but, trust me, they are nowhere near engaged!

The only interactive slide in most presentations

Don’t get me wrong – computer-based presentations have their place in broadcasting information.  Just don’t confuse PowerPoint with exercising command.

Mentorship: Key to Organizational Success

While a lot of companies can draw on outside expertise to fill positions, the navy can’t really do that.  We’ve had to, for obvious reasons, create a system that promotes from within.  Our system has to grow its future leadership.  This means that we’re always in the business of training our successors.  Or if not, we should be.

A year or two ago, I had the great fortune to work for a boss who really believed in mentorship as a key process in developing future leaders in the organization.  At the time I was a department head in a warship; my next job at sea (if I am privileged enough to be selected) will be as the second-in-command, known as the Executive Officer.  Recognizing this, my boss spent considerable time in preparing me to do his job.  How?  By exposing me to all aspects of his role, seeking my input on problems he was facing (in most cases he had already put resolution into motion, but wanted to make me analyze the issue) and offering me numerous opportunities to actually do his job.  The benefit?  I will avoid arriving at the actual job like Kramer entering Seinfeld’s apartment; instead, I’ll actually be prepared.  Imagine that.

Organizationally, we’ve rounded the corner on mentorship.   Example?  Naval officers aspiring to command in the Canadian navy need to gain a professional certification known as the Command Qualification.  This involves a series of exams and culminates in a professional board examination by serving commanding officers.  In the “bad old days” preparing for this process was an individual responsibility – it was approached with viewpoint of “I struggled with this, so should you.”  Recent years have seen a great change to this process, with commanding officers working to mentor future leaders.  Specific events are organized to bring experience together with learners.  Retired commanding officers have been brought in to teach those aspiring to reach command.  And the benefits are clear – success rates have increased and, in my opinion, the calibre of our leaders has improved.

Look around your organization – are you growing your own successor?  If the answer is no, why not?

Mentorship stories welcome!