The Submarine Leadership Tour- First Stop: Sonar!Dave Forman
Welcome to the first stop of our submarine leadership tour! We’ll use the spaces of our submarine (also called a “boat”) as an easy way to remember some essentials of good leadership.
We’ll begin in the Sonar Room, where it’s quiet and cool, as the operators monitor several displays and listen carefully. Unless we have a periscope up, we can’t “see” anything, so all we can do is listen well to figure out what is going on around us. It can be a lot of information to take in, so we have several Sailors sitting in front of their “stack” (usually at least two screens stacked vertically), and they report to a supervisor.
A leader must do the same: listen, and listen carefully. Use it to detect what is around you. Ships and submarines make different kinds of noises, and we can often tell what they are doing based on the sounds they make. Listen to the nuances of what your team is saying, and you can gain insight as to how they are doing. If you don’t listen carefully, you could miss some important information.
Sea Story: There are lots of ways to say “sir” in the Navy. It all depends on the inflection. Tone will indicate one of these mindsets: highly motivated, cool and professional, skeptical but accepting, or loosely-veiled contemptuousness. A Sailor can communicate a lot with just one word. Listen well, and it can be your best indicator of that person’s current state of mind. Their tone could reflect on you, your message, or on external factors, but either way, this information is useful to you.
Evaluate Your “Ears”
We have several sensors, and some work better than others depending on the environment. A good submariner knows how to align our sensors to maximize detections, and he or she must also understand how the sound can “morph” between the original source and detection by the submarine.
As shown on the sonar game prop below, sound can bend in the water and become distorted. The further you are away from the source, the more time the ocean has to distort the original sound, and you can be fooled. As a leader, you can also misinterpret important employee feedback if it travels an “ocean” through the company before it gets to your ears.
As a leader, how are your “sensors” aligned? How many different ways can you listen to your environment, and what could be getting in the way?
Do you have a suggestion box that people actually use? Do you hold large and small group meetings to allow for honest feedback? Do you have a culture where junior team members trust they can give you honest feedback without repercussions? How often do you collect anonymous feedback, and does the team trust it’s actually anonymous?
Sea Story: Following one of my standard Navy command climate surveys when I was Captain (nearly 100 questions about workplace standards, equality, respect, etc.), there were small blips of some unwanted behaviors. Though there were only three or four respondents in a crew of about 180, it was three or four too many.
As I shared the initial results with my crew, I wanted more detail. I gave them palm-sized anonymous printouts (easy to cover up with their non-writing hand) that listed all the divisions (teams) onboard. I asked my crew to circle the divisions where these unwanted behaviors might exist.
I wasn’t going to make it a witch hunt, and I believed the collective inputs from my crew would not be wrong since they were the ones living it. Negative attributes of your company are not objects you can hold in your hand; they are perceptions. I needed my crew’s detailed perceptions. I collected them personally in a sealed cardboard box so they knew their reply would remain anonymous.
I tallied the results, found two “perceived” offending divisions, and wrote a memo to both the Division Officer (commissioned officer/middle manager) and the Division Chief (enlisted supervisor/team lead) of those divisions. I conveyed that the crew perceived potential negative behaviors within their divisions and that I expected them to actively work to correct any behaviors fueling those perceptions. In the months that followed, interviews with my Sailors clearly indicated that the anonymous survey and the letters marked a positive turning point in divisional behavior.
To recap, I used some “sensors” with the initial survey, and based on those detections, I adjusted to a different “sensor” with the palm-sized surveys, and I was able to discover what was around me and my crew.
Build the Full Picture
Lastly, and perhaps most important, an officer must pull all the raw inputs into a coherent “picture” of who and what is out there. Various inputs can often provide conflicting information, but when multiple sensors agree, you know there is really something there.
You can’t make a good decision about what to do unless you have the full picture. One particular “contact” (surface ship) may be more interesting than other contacts, but you can’t narrow your focus for too long. Just like life, business, and the economy, the boat never stops moving, so you better keep up.
The reality is that the other ships don’t care what kind of day you’re having or what else is on your plate. For submarines, they don’t even know we are there, yet they keep coming at us. So we keep listening, take in the full 360-degree picture, and then make decisions on how to either maintain or achieve a favorable position.
How do you build the full picture and then keep it? Build in a routine that forces you to “check your 6” (look behind you) and “all around” at some interval that makes sense for your business situation. If you don’t listen to a sector often enough and scan all around you, you won’t know what’s there, and it could sneak up on you.
Sea Story: Across a wide variety of submarine operations, the only time we consistently succeeded was when the watch team had a checklist. It specified what had to be checked, by who, and how often. We explained the basis for these actions, and the specifics could be adjusted based on our operations, but they would always meet the same intent.
The checklist established a battle rhythm for the team (like a well-oiled machine), and when we followed it, things usually ran well and we got our job done. When we drifted from these routines, we’d lose sight of a “sector,” and our performance would decline.
One key point here…the leader can get caught up in leading the boat and forget it’s time to run through the checklist again. The periodic reminder to initiate your routine should be trusted to someone in a “low-distraction” role that can provide the applicable drumbeat for the rest of the team.
In the business sense, your checklist may be weekly, monthly, or longer. The key is that it serves to provide essential situational awareness to the applicable leader, which is you.
Usually the best time to change course (make a business decision or make a change) is just after the checklist was complete and the “contact picture” (context in which your business and your employees are operating) is as current as it can be.
And that’s it for sonar! Next stop, the radio room! What messages do you send, and how do you send them?