David Marquet's Ask me Anything at HW21
As Commander of a nuclear submarine, David Marquet determined to make no decisions and instead to coach his staff to be their best. The Sante Fe became the best performing submarine in US navy history. He talks about how he did it in his book Turn The Ship Around.
At the Happy Workplaces Conference 2021, David joined us for an Ask Me Anything session. Questions were crowd sourced from the audience at the event, with David answering the best ones. Watch David's video and read the transcript here.
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How did you deal with people reluctant to take charge or make their own decisions?
It's a hard thing because in my heart of hearts it always made me sad when I would say, "Hey, well, what do you think? What do you see? What do you think?"
One thing I did that was a mistake when I initially approached this idea of not making decisions, is that I thought about it like a light switch. Because it used to be, that as a captain, I would tell people what to do, and instead I'd say, "No, no, no, you tell me," and I realised that this was too big of a jump – it was too abrupt, it was too scary. And it really is more like a dimmer switch where we gradually increase a person's vulnerability. Because when you say, "what do you want to do?" it's really an opportunity to be wrong and it can be quite scary. So I learned to start by just saying, "how do you see it or what do you know about this that I don't know?"
I would very gingerly invite people – that's the other word. I used to think, "be empowered – I'm ordering you to be empowered!" and everyone can laugh at the idiocy of that statement, but... I made a mistake. I had a new officer — he had good marks, he had a great pedigree, he was tall, lean and handsome and I thought, 'oh this guy's going to be great'. But he had some insecurities and it really took a while for him to become comfortable moving into this role. I almost pushed him too hard and too far and he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown – literally. We had to send him off the submarine. I should have reported it, but I didn't because it was my fault and I felt bad. And then when he came back, I really was more thoughtful about it and just let him move at his own pace up the ladder. We use a ladder construct: What do you see? What do you know? What would you like to do? What do you intend to do? – and let him move at his pace. 15 years later, he was a submarine commander. That never would've happened if I'd pressed too hard.
That's a really critical thing to think about and that's a great problem to have, but it's always you. You're always the problem and you can only control yourself. Even if you're not the problem, the only useful way to think about it is that you're the problem because the only person you can control is yourself.
How do you build the confidence of intent in those that are used to being told what to do, especially if that's a way of absolving responsibility or blaming others?
You guys have all heard the saying, "if you're a hammer everything looks like a nail." Well in my world, this ladder is my hammer. And Intent-Based Leadership is really just a language that we speak at work and a way of thinking about the language that we use at work, and it's a little bit different than what we normally have. It's the same deal when I think about confidence. I can't change somebody's 'confidence', but what I can do is make it feel safer giving whatever confidence that they have to move higher on this ladder. And so if they've been used to saying "I got a problem, tell me what to do," we're going to "practise winning." So then I say, "Well what would you do?" "Oh yeah, I don't know. I would come and ask you." So I thought, "OK, I went too far". So I said, "Well just tell me about it. Describe the situation. You're closer to it." And I really learned to appreciate just simple description. The ability to observe, see and then describe what you're seeing or feeling, to me, is a really underappreciated characteristic.
When I got comfortable with that, then I said, OK, now what's behind that? How did this happen? What came first? What do you think they're thinking? What's the root cause? That kind of thing, and then, because this is a little bit more vulnerable – now I'm starting to be vulnerable, I'm expressing what I think. I could be wrong, I could be judged, I could be found wanting. So it's really about practising winning. There's a phrase, "Catch your people doing it right." I work with a lot of organisations, so let's take a construction site for example. Supervisors want to walk around, and I said, "Well what are you doing when you're walking around?" "I'm trying to make sure things are going right." In other words, they're looking for problems. And I'm like, "How about finding things that are already going right and then saying, 'Yeah this is exactly what I'm looking for.'?" So that's what I would do.
When I came to your talk in January, I assumed you were meant to get to the top of your ladder of leadership, but I think you are only meant to get to stage five. Is that right?
Yes, that's a problem with how we depict it, because it's assumed that stage two is better than one, stage six is better than five, but we put the target by five. So when teams talk, the aspiration is that people say what they intend to do, pause, let the team react, and then they do it. Now that pause depends on what you're doing – if you're shooting torpedoes, that pause may be half a second. Like, flooding down the torpedo tube... pause... and then you push the button. But even that short pause allows other people to ask questions, react, and for me as a captain to say, "wait." It may be something more like, "Hey, in two weeks we're going to launch this product," or, "Next week we're going to change the marketing plan and we intend to change the marketing plan."
The reason why we say to strive for five, is because five is intent: "What do you intend to do?" The reason why we say it's better than six, which is just do it, is intent provokes a conversation prior to the action versus do it, people are like, "Well OK, I don't need to talk to my boss. I'm just doing stuff." And then people end up losing context with what the rest of the team is doing, because people are just doing things without talking about them, or they're being asked "hey, what did you do?" It's already done and that's an awkward position to be in, especially if you're running a nuclear submarine! It's not a question you want to ask about the reactor: "What did you do?"
In any organisation, you really don't want to be in that position, so yeah, you're right Henry. And I've played with different ways of representing this ladder, like as a bridge and ski slopes and things like that, but it keeps going back to the same root problem, which is it seems like, 'Oh I want to get to six or seven', but no, we would design the organisation to get to level five.
How do you educate those senior to you to be a good leader and get out of the way of other colleagues?
This is the hardest question that I ever get! I have an answer for it, which will sound optimistic and uplifting – the answer basically is, when it comes to the latter, it's all about safety, which is, if I'm working with a subordinate, I need to make it safe for them to move into more vulnerable positions. And the reason why we play down at the bottom is because it doesn't feel safe. Well the same thing is true about my boss. The reason my boss doesn't want to hear me tell my boss, "Hey, I have a better idea or this is what I would do," is because they feel threatened by that. They feel like their authority is threatened when what they hear is, "Oh you think you're smarter than me? Oh you think you could do my job? Oh you think I'm an idiot?", and so you've got to make it safe for your boss.
And again, jumping from treating it like a light switch – "No, no, no, no, look, hey look, hey boss, let me tell you, I don't think it's a good idea. What I think we should do is this" – and I would do that all the time and then people had listened to me and I didn't understand the reaction. So again, it's like you've got to give them choice and you got to make it small. Choice and small makes it safe. So we say, "Hey boss, great, we'll do exactly what you just said. Would you like to hear how the team sees it?" So in other words, take the contest of authority off the table and then give the boss a choice. And then you could gradually bootstrap yourself up here, and I've heard stories where that has worked.
Having a number of bosses, I can tell you that for some of them that would work. For some of them, a lot of them, maybe 90% of them, they would never understand the sensitivity of what you were trying to do and it would just be a frustration. But maybe I've had a particularly grim experience with bosses telling me what to do.
But look people, if your job is giving you stress, you really need to think twice about staying there, because you're ruining your health for money and then when you get as old as I am, then you're going to spend your money to try and recapture as much of your health as you can. It's a bad trade-off.
Are you're saying if you've got a rotten boss, then leave?
That's exactly what I'm saying — if you don't feel respected, if going to work makes you anxious. Here's the test I use. I have three kids and if one of my kids was in this job and feeling this way, what would I tell them to do? And if it is that I would tell them, "Don't put up with that – quit," then that's what you should do.
How do you encourage your teams to take ownership when they're reluctant to? And what about the people who don't want to lead?
For me it's all about psychological safety, and my very simple formula is small and choice makes it safe. You always give them the choice. We use the word invitation, and if someone just wants to be told what to do, I love them, I respect them, I want them to be successful in the way that they want to operate – that's my job as the leader of the team. But they need to realise I'm never going to recommend them for promotion and they're not going to be getting raises, because the value to the organisation is pretty small for a person who just wants to be told what to do and then doesn't contribute back with their own thinking. And the other thing is, it's a little bit harder for the other people, because there becomes this asymmetry of vulnerability in the organisation. It's a bit like in Zoom, where some people don't put their cameras on for whatever reason – there could be legitimate reasons why you don't – but some people say, "I'm just never gonna put my camera on." And then what happens is there's an asymmetry in vulnerability, and in the next meeting, more people have their camera off and pretty soon everyone's looking at just blank screens or avatars. So some people not practicing vulnerability on the team will be a force that will want to pull the team in that direction. But if it's only a couple of people and the rest of the team understands that maybe that person came from a very directive boss before or they've been burned, just give them space — just see what happens.
Did you get to the point where, by the end of the Santa Fe, where you were getting those people to take leadership?
Yeah, but ironically it wasn't me. It was they decided because the rest of the team was doing it and they saw people thriving, people getting promoted, people doing well, and people being happy at work. Our work is ridiculously hard work and it's demanding and it's cognitively taxing and it's exhausting and it can be satisfying, deeply satisfying, because you feel connected to the team and then they say, "OK, yeah I guess I'll come play in the sandbox too."
There were a couple of guys who I would have fired, if they hadn't opted out. If you want to get off a nuclear submarine, it's pretty easy. You develop a "back problem" or something like that. We can find something physically wrong with you that will disqualify you if you want to. So that's kind of what happened with a couple of the guys, they opted out of the organisation.
How do you let go when the people you are managing are slacking?
I would do it very slowly, very gradually. I guess the first question I would ask is, like, what's behind my perception of the slacking? They don't seem involved, they don't seem invested, they don't care – why is that happening and is it partly a chicken and egg thing? So, in other words, since I see them as slackers, I'm tempted not to trust them, I'm sorely tempted to treat them as slackers and to label them slackers. But if I start to treat them as owners and partners and thinkers and leaders alongside me, ideally they'll start acting like owners and thinkers and leaders alongside me.
But there's going to be a moment when, I call it the "suck air through teeth moment" — but here's the thing, don't turn the keys over to a team that's not ready. That's why there's all these steps. Don't say, "Oh no, no, you guys make decisions." Every time they come to you just say, "Hey, look, tell me more about that. How do you see it?" Just practise description because now they're talking, now they're involved. Like, "What do you know about this that I don't know? I know you're closer to this. I know you know stuff about this I don't know. What should I know as I think about this?" And then it's almost just like being visible. They'll feel like they've been seen, because you're listening to their story.
How do you cope when your team make decisions that you wouldn't make?
Remember I told you about the hammer and the nail?
This is why I don't like going to stage six, because six is, they made a decision. When they say, if they say, "Here's what I intend to do." This is one of the hardest things that I ever found. Let's say they say, "I intend to start a Google ad campaign," in a company like mine, a consulting company. And, like, I've done that before and we spent a lot of money and we basically saw no impact on book sales, so I think it's a bad idea, it's a bad way to spend resources. And that pops into my head immediately, so then I ask questions based on that framework of, I'm right, you're wrong, and I even need to ask "Well have you thought about...?" or "What research?" and it kind of comes across as poking in the chest: I'm right and you're wrong. What I try to do is wipe my mind clear of those preconceptions and for just a moment, be curious about what they see that I don't see and what they know that I don't know. And maybe that curiosity is simply how did they come up with this decision, because I'm trying to understand their thought process, not from the point of view of, oh, how could I dissect it and figure out what was wrong here? But just, what can I learn from this person? Not everything that you hear that sounds unusual or odd is a brilliant innovation, but every brilliant innovation will initially sound unusual and odd. Otherwise you've already thought of it and it's not an innovation. So I would do that.
The phrase we use is, "be curious before compelling." If you need to give an order, give an order. If the building's on fire, the fireman doesn't come in and says, "Hey what do you guys all think we should do?" They're like, "everyone down on the ground, crawl, follow me." So the worst thing you can do is when the team needs to be told what to do is sort of futz around with this ladder. Tell them what to do. But it's bad to design the organisation that telling people what to do is the default communication.
So were there times in the Santa Fe where you would tell people what to do? I know there was the missile launch, but presumably that never happened.
Yeah, a couple of times. First of all I would do it by accident or by programming, because I was tired or hungry or irritated or whatever and I would just default back to my old ways. Secondly, I would do it in the following situation, which is our construct for giving control. So the ability to give control or invite people to move up this ladder is dependent upon their technical competence and their organisational clarity. If I'm going to say, "you tell me what we should do with the reactor," you need to understand how the reactor works, but you also need to understand what we're trying to do with the organisation.
So, this could happen a couple of different ways. Number one, it's a very unusual, dramatic situation, no one's ever seen it before. So now all of sudden they have very low context. That drives us back to the situation where I just have to issue specific orders and then we get out of it and we talk about it. Or it's a situation where the mission changed, for example, and I didn't fully convey it to the team. "Hey, we used to be trying to protect the aircraft carrier. Now our job is to collect intelligence off a cell phone, intercepts off of cell phone towers." So our mission has dramatically changed and there's a whole bunch of other nuanced things that follow on from that, but it wasn't fully conveyed to the team so now they're optimising decisions for a situation which is no longer the case, and then I have to say, "No, no, do this," and then I would say, "Why do I have to... Oh I forgot to tell them blah blah blah."
How did you handle overconfidence and possibly mistakes amongst those you empowered?
So what that sounds like to me is, I've got someone who's not very self-aware and is sort of blundering along, making mistakes. Most mistakes in a submarine come back to you — you flick a switch and the light doesn't turn on because you didn't rewire the circuit properly kind of thing. So a lot of the mistakes, they become announced back to you. Now, you can't risk significant things. Like if that's a reactor protection circuit, then you really need to make sure it's right before you button things up. So I always tried to not be the answer man. For some reason the system was sort of designed like a node. So the captain is here, everyone would talk to me. "Oh I got a problem with Henry. He's running the engineering department and he's making all these..." And then they would want me to go talk to Henry and solve the problem and I would say, "No, you go talk to Henry." "Oh, my boss doesn't run a meeting very well. He doesn't really listen to us." And I said, "Why are you telling me? "Well I want you to go fix them." Like, no, how about you do it. And so I was always trying to say, what can I do to encourage this?
So we had all these forms in the Navy and they're all very linear. The forms are submitted, reviewed, and it just goes right up the chain – there's no crosstalk – and we took some of those forms and I would add the signature of another department head. So the engineer would say, "Well why do I have to get the weapons officer or the navigator? They don't know anything about what I'm doing." Well, not true, they do, but you go see a peer and it's just a mechanism to force you to bounce an idea off a peer. And then often the peers would be there and say, "No, that's a knucklehead idea. Starting the reactor at two in the morning. Let's see if we can figure out a better way of doing it."
What were the benefits of this approach? What worked really well and why did you become the best performing submarine?
The way I described it is we went from one thinker and 135 doers to 135 thinkers and doers. There is doing that needs to happen. There's writing reports or running the manufacturing – whatever it is that your company does – but there's thinking too. The old model was, the thinking happens up here and the rest of the people are essentially extensions of the brilliance of the captain or CEO or founder, whoever else. And that's how things generally start, but if you're going to be successful then the thinking of a 150 people way outweighs the thinking of any one person, it doesn't matter how brilliant they are. And they just see more – they just see stuff that you don't see. Your brain filters what you see. It deliberately chooses things that affirm what you already believe. So you need help uncovering those blind spots.
For example, at the end of a sentence, you don't say, "So guys, hey we have all looked at this blah blah blah blah blah. Does that make sense? Are we good? Right?" In other words, we don't need help getting a bunch of people nodding their heads with us. We need help with people saying, "No, wrong." So we say, "Hey, so we've done this." Let's say you are making a decision: "We're going to go north. How could this go wrong? What am I missing? What are we missing? If this turns out to be a mistake, what's the most likely cause?"
You need to ask those kind of questions. You need help disconfirming what you know. You don't need help confirming what you know, but your brain is wired to use words that are going to want to seek confirmation. That's why we say, "Blah blah blah blah blah, right? Does that make sense?"
Is the US, having seen that this creates the best performing submarine, is the US navy now rolling out this approach across all its submarines?
Yeah. If you go on any submarine, you'll hear this intent. It spread throughout the submarine force. There's a documentary I just saw, a very recent documentary about some submarine that's up in the Arctic and you hear the officer of the deck saying, "Here's the situation, I intend to submerge the ship."
My son's a junior officer on a submarine and this language of intent [is present]. It didn't happen formally – no one ordered this shift to happen – but because so many of the Santa Fe officers spread out to other submarines and carried this way of doing business – also the navy put Turn the Ship Around on the official Navy reading list for about five years. The navy is three separate tribes – submarine force, the surface ships and then the aviators – so it hasn't jumped over into the other tribes, but...
Finally, I asked you if you had three tips for happy workplaces. Have you had a chance to think about that?
So, I took over an organisation which was dismally unhappy. It was manifested in the way people walked around. They were looking at their shoes, they were bumping into each other, they didn't really care. And in the Navy, one of the ways that we measure it is how many people sign up to stay in the Navy. We ask them to sign up as they're leaving the ship, basically. So a quarter of the crew leaves every year and so it turns out it's about 33 or so people. And on the Santa Fe in the previous 12 months, only three people did. In the next 12 months, 33 people did – every single one, 100% of the people signed up to stay in the Navy.
I would submit that in multiple ways their jobs were harder, because I was asking them to be more vulnerable, I was asking them to share what they think and I was asking them to take responsibility for their decisions. Because the greatest thing is to say, "Oh, I was told to do it. I'm absolved of all responsibility." I mean, how fun is that? And I describe that as a happy workplace. There weren't any foosball tables, there wasn't any kind of free lunch, but there was a deep sense of purpose. There was a tremendous connection of teamwork. We just felt like we were synchronised, like we were one organism working together, and people felt a tremendous degree of agency over their contribution. And so I think these are the things which need to be in place for people to feel visible and be looking forward to Monday morning as opposed to the, like, "oh my gosh."
Just remember, I think it's hard. You can only control yourself. Focus on yourself. If you can control yourself, you're doing better than half the people on the planet.
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