Earn your Oxygen: A Sea Story

Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat. They establish a culture of competency where new employees feel positive peer pressure to work hard to earn their spot in the team.

Saturday at Sea

It was Saturday night on my second patrol on the USS Tennessee and I headed up to the wardroom for supper. Saturday night was always special on a deployed nuclear submarine at sea. It was pizza night. It was a time to shake up the normal meal rotation and enjoy some tastes of home. The crew cherished pizza night. It meant another week had passed and we were one more week closer to home. I loved the tradition of pizza night, although if I’m honest, the pizza was never all that good. Still, it was nice to kick back and enjoy a casual meal with my fellow officers.

For the officers in the wardroom, Saturday night almost always included a movie and a poker game as well. It was a chance to relax and burn off some steam after a long week. Everyone enjoyed Saturday nights on patrol. That is, of course, if you were qualified and I wasn’t there yet. It takes about a year to complete the submarine qualification process and earn your Dolphins as a new officer and I was almost finished. But, almost doesn’t mean anything to a qualified submariner.

When the meal was over, I quietly listened as the officers with embroidered Dolphins on their chest debated which movie they would watch. I listened enviously to their discussion. There were great movies on board and I would have loved the chance to escape submarine life for a few hours. But, that wasn’t going to happen. Not now.

“Life is Simple: You’re Either Qualified or You’re Not” Anonymous Submariner

It’s not Easy Being a NUB

“What are you looking at NUB? Go get some signatures on your ‘qual card’ if you want to watch a movie.” There it was. I wasn’t qualified and they let me know it. It was clear I wasn’t yet a contributing member of the crew. I was a NUB. A NUB is a Non-Useful Body, a colorful term used on a submarine to denote a new officer or sailor recently out of school and not yet qualified. It’s used to keep positive peer pressure on unqualified crew members so they will work hard on their qualifications. On a submarine, life was simple, you were either qualified or you weren’t. And, without Dolphins, I was just a NUB. I wasn’t yet carrying my load which meant I was taking food and oxygen from other qualified crew members who had earned it.

To a qualified submariner, a NUB is an annoyance at best and a liability at worst. It wasn’t a lot of fun being a NUB.

The truth is, peer pressure on the boat worked. It was effective on me and everyone else who had ever been in my shoes. We all wanted to belong. We all wanted to carry our load and we certainly didn’t want to be a liability. So, despite being tired, annoyed, and sometimes overwhelmed with the process, we trudged on. We worked hard to finish our qualifications. We worked hard to join the ranks of the qualified.

Earning my Oxygen

With my notebook, a cup of black coffee, and my dog-eared qualification card, I headed down to the torpedo room to work on my torpedo systems qualifications. That night I spent close to six hours in the torpedo room and got all the signatures needed to complete my torpedo systems qualification. The sailors there were quick to teach me everything I needed to know. They showed me the location of key valves, how the torpedo display worked, and we reviewed all the various torpedo casualties. It was a long night but, while the other officers watched movies and played cards, I got one more step closer to getting qualified and earning my oxygen. And, all in all, it was a pretty good night.

“Great leaders know a team of qualified employees is hard to beat.” Jon Rennie

Enduring Lessons

The Navy taught me valuable lessons about getting qualified. I learned how uncomfortable it was to be unqualified, how I felt like an outcast, not yet part of the family. I felt the shame of not being able to stand watch and pull my own weight. But, I also saw how that pressure drove me to work hard to get qualified, to gain the knowledge and experience to become an effective submariner.

While the Navy took positive peer pressure to an extreme, there are some important lessons that can be applied to any organization. First, the goal of any leader is to build a team of experienced and competent employees. A team of qualified employees is hard to beat. Second, new employees should be given a path to “qualification.” They need to clearly understand what is expected of them to become part of the team. Finally, like the submarine Dolphins, there should be a symbol that shows an employee is qualified. Companies like Lowe’s Home Improvement, for example, make new employees complete all their training before they “earn” their red vest. The red vest is worn with pride symbolizing a qualified member of the team.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think. Does your organization have a qualification process? Is it effective?

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber

Great Leaders Look for Opportunities to Show This

Great leaders know that success is the result of extra efforts by amazing employees. These leaders look for opportunities to show their appreciation.

Looking for Opportunities

Last week, I was out in the factory and saw my company’s top mechanical engineer working on a drill press. He was modifying parts so they could be used in production. I knew he had been there all morning reworking these parts because we had a big customer order that had to go out. It wasn’t his job but he did it anyway because he cares deeply about the success of our company.

As a leader, I couldn’t just walk by and ignore his efforts. I stopped and talked to him. I told him how much I appreciated him and the work he was doing. He didn’t have to be standing at a drill press all morning working on these production parts but there he was. I had to acknowledge his extra efforts.

The Problem with Most Leaders

The problem with most leaders, however, is they miss these opportunities. Most leaders are sequestered in their offices and oblivious to what’s happening with their teams. They are unaware of the extra efforts their best employees are doing every day. These employees are left feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated.

One of the most frustrating things I see in leaders is a negative or indifferent attitude towards people. Many choose a career in leadership who don’t have an appreciation for the impact they have on their teams. Unfortunately, these leaders usually find they are less effective when they lack a people-focused mindset. The reason is that leadership is inherently a people business.

“Leadership is a people business.” Jon S. Rennie

The entire role of a leader is to motivate a team of people towards accomplishing an objective. Great leaders know this and they know it’s important to show appreciation. They also know people are messy. People have issues, problems, emotions, quirks, hang-ups, baggage, and can be unpredictable. A great leader can see past the flaws, love their people, and motivate them to do great things. In my opinion, you can’t be a great leader if you don’t love people.

“Great leaders aren’t afraid to love their teams.” Donald Miller

A CEO who Cares

Donald Miller, founder and CEO of Storybrand, sees it the same way. I like his thoughts on this subject as he reflects on the culture he built at his company. One of the core values he put in place was to “make his employees’ dreams come true by serving clients faithfully.”  I thought it was interesting that he purposely intertwined serving customers with the dreams of his employees. In his view, loving your employees and showing appreciation means helping them reach their full potential.

“Great leaders can see the greatness in others when they can’t see it themselves and lead them to their highest potential they don’t even know.” Roy T. Bennett

Miller credits the growth of his company to the “secret ingredient” of love. Things changed at his company when they started to live out these core values. As he loved and respected his employees, they loved each other, and they worked as a team to better serve customers. He built a culture of respect with a foundation in love.

He has two fundamental rules which have helped him create a culture of love and respect:

  1. Hire people who are better, smarter and faster than you.
  2. Never mess with their hearts.

Make a Positive Impact

If you’re a leader, you have a deep impact on the lives and careers of the people working for you. You need to be patient with their flaws and take time to truly appreciate their contributions. The biggest problem with employee engagement in most companies today is that employees feel their bosses don’t appreciate them.

Imagine how they will react when they see their boss truly cares!

Reach out to me a Twitter and let me what you do to show appreciation for your team members.

The Problem with Short-Term Bosses

I was talking with some former colleagues the other day about a manager we all knew who had recently been fired. Her time in the role was short and now it was over. None of us were really surprised. She was brought in from outside the company to stir things up. And she did. Upper management wanted quick results so she focused on short-term fixes. She was a bull in a China shop. She brought in her own people, boosted the financials by deep cost-cutting, fired long-term employees, and instituted a top-down autocratic management style. She was laser-focused on short-term results and refused to listen to the concerns of employees and other managers. Anyone who challenged or questioned her authority was let go.

As you can imagine, the business results improved but morale dropped sharply. The good employees eventually all left the company and most of the institutional knowledge left as well. The only people who remained were those that were loyal to her and those that were quietly waiting for her to leave. Fear and anxiety became the norm. As a result, company performance ultimately fell off and all of the short-term gains she had made vanished. The company began to lose money and market share. Eventually, upper management had no choice but to fire her. The damage was done.

“You can’t build a long term future on short term thinking.” Billy Cox

Time and time again, I see companies bringing in short-term managers to fix long-term systemic problems. Often these companies have fundamental, structural flaws that need to be addressed. They have complex problems that need long-term, systemic thinking. Consider the examples of Radio Shack, Sears, K-Mart, and General Electric. Each of these companies has deep-rooted issues that have taken decades to develop. For years, leaders of these companies have focused on a series of attempts at short-term fixes. In the end, this short-term mindset has done little to address the underlying, long-term problems.

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Consider a similar company, Levi Strauss & Co. The iconic denim brand reached its peak in 1996 with $7.1 billion in sales. After that, sales declined rapidly. Competition from other brands and a lack of creative and new ideas pushed it from the center of American culture. Young customers were fleeing to newer and trendier “designer jeans.” Levi Strauss was going the way of Blockbuster. It was just a matter of time.

In 2011, a 28-year Proctor & Gamble executive named Chip Bergh took over as CEO. He inherited a company steeped in debt, struggling to reinvent itself in the highly competitive U.S. denim market. Instead of a series of short-term actions, however, he developed a long-term plan to put the iconic brand “back in the center of culture.” Instead of cutting costs, he invested in innovation and a new research-and-development center called the Eureka Innovation Lab. He also went back to basics. He focused the company’s efforts on making the best jeans, especially for women. He purposely stopped chasing other clothing categories that were a distraction. He also became less reliant on retail chains like J.C. Penny’s and Macy’s. Instead, he expanded the network of Levi-branded stores.

What’s even more surprising, is that Levi’s board gave him the time to execute his plan. And, it worked. After six years of implementing his turnaround strategy, Bergh finally saw the results. Levi sales grew by 7.7% in 2017 and by 13.9% in 2018. Last week, Bergh announced plans to take Levi’s public after a 34-year absence from the stock market. Bergh now feels that Levi Strauss has the potential to be a $10 billion company. He stated that “Levi’s lost a generation of consumers in the early 2000s, but today our customers are younger than ever—and we’re gaining momentum as we bring them back.” Long-term thinking brought Levi’s from the brink of collapse back into the center of culture.

“Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.” Bruce Lee.

Stories like this give me optimism. Senior managers of other struggling companies should be able to see the extraordinary turnaround of Levi Strauss and realize the time and effort that was required to make this happen. This is clear evidence of the power of long-term thinking and the patience required to allow these turnaround plans to come to fruition. Maybe someday we will see an end to short-term managers and the illusion of quick fixes.

Long-term thinking saved your favorite jeans. It can save your organization as well.

As always, reach out to me on Twitter and let me know what you think.

If you are looking for a good book on long-term thinking, you should read Go Long: Why Long-Term Thinking Is Your Best Short-Term Strategy. This book reveals how some of the world’s most prominent business leaders resisted short-term pressures to successfully manage their organizations for the long term, and in turn, aim to create more jobs, more satisfied customers, and more shareholder wealth.