The Submarine Leadership Tour- Ninth Stop: Engineroom!Dave Forman
Our last stop was the Missile Control Center, where we discussed the necessity for good leaders to be clear on their core mission and principles.
From the Missile Control Center walk aft, all the way through the missile compartment, and up one deck until you get to the Engineroom. Be sure to have your earplugs with you.
This is the forward engineroom of the World War II-era submarine USS DRUM. You won’t find pictures of our current enginerooms because we don’t take pictures there, but it’s all pretty much the same: cables connecting a bunch of gray boxes, steam lines with insulated handles, and all kinds of instrumentation. (Warren Weinstein/Getty Image) ***The cover photo won’t be found on a submarine, it’s just a shiny car engine (again, we don’t take pictures in our enginerooms).
Losing propulsion or electrical power is a serious problem for any ship, but especially so on a submarine. We have emergency systems designed to bring us to the surface, but we’d rather not have to test them.
To help ensure we don’t lose propulsion or power, we have a well-designed layout with some redundancy; we may only need one piece of equipment, but we designed the Engineroom with two. Either will work, so we always have a backup.
With this kind of design, we gain the ability to do preventative maintenance on our equipment. Changing the oil in your car is preventative maintenance, but we have to be able to do it at sea, and that’s why we have more than one: leave one running while you fix the other, etc.
We know if we don’t take care of our equipment, eventually it will break, and our people are no different.
I touched on this concept when we visited Berthing (treating your team like actual people and not just “employees”) and the Battery Well (having a short-term backup plan when people or processes suddenly fail on you), but this stop is different.
The Engineroom is about taking deliberate care of your people and their mental well-being. It’s about noticing when they are run down and need a break, and then creating the plan that affords them that break.
It’s about designing your organization with enough redundancy so you can give one person a break while another person is fresh. When your people get the “preventative maintenance” they need, in the long run they all perform much better.
We all have our breaking points, and a leader’s job is to sense when there has been too much of the grind without sufficient recovery. People need occasional maintenance too.
Sea Story: When my wife was pregnant with our third child, I was the Engineering Officer, and I took a lot of pride in my job. I felt the ship, or at least my department, could not function to its fullest without me. I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.
When my Captain at the time learned that we would be having a baby soon, he said one thing, “Engineer, you are going to be there with your wife when she delivers.”
My response: “What? Wait, no, I have to be here with my department. You need me!”
Ok, so it wasn’t actually that dramatic, but he did say that being there was paramount. If the timing of her delivery required, he would find me a temporary replacement.
I was obviously touched by his commitment to afford me that opportunity, and as it turned out, after a successful delivery I went directly from the hospital to the boat to begin our preparations to get underway.
He created the space in our organization to keep me “fully charged” by being there with my wife and knowing she and my son were healthy before I deployed.
Do leaders in your organization consider these types of life events and plan adjustments around them? Maternity and paternity leave have greater leverage outside of the Navy, but what about major events with grown children (graduations) or other family members (major anniversaries, etc.)?
Related Sea Story: Years later when I became Captain, we got word at sea that a Sailor’s wife was going into labor. Thankfully our schedule could accommodate, and we stayed at periscope depth (with our communication antennas raised above the water) so my Sailor could call home.
We hadn’t planned to stay up for hours, but we adjusted, and he was on the phone to her hospital room as his child was born.
There is no doubt I created that space for him based on my appreciation for what my previous Captain had done for me.
Would your team support this type of adjustment? More importantly, who on your team would notice these opportunities, and if they do, are they empowered to make the decisions to create that space?
Unrelated Sea Story: We have two crews on ballistic missile submarines, blue and gold, and we rotate so the submarine can spend more total time at sea.
We have a usual cycle with four basic steps: go to sea, turnover to the other crew and help them do maintenance, train and get certified to take the boat back (we do this while the other crew is at sea), take the boat back from the other crew and do maintenance, then repeat.
We usually have a “stand down” period shortly after the other crew goes to sea (the beginning of our “train and get certified” phase). By that point in our cycle, everyone is ready for a break.
For one of our cycles, the “train and get certified” period overlapped with spring break for our local school district, but our actual stand down period didn’t match it. My crew was going to get a couple weeks off, but those with kids had limited family options because their kids would be in school the whole time. That wasn’t good preventative maintenance.
We worked with the training facility and our certifiers to slightly adjust our schedule to free up the spring break week in addition to our stand down. We had to work later some nights to compensate for the week off, but it was more than worth it.
We always did a great job taking care of our equipment on the submarine, and this was the time to take care of our crew with the same dedication.
And that concludes our time in the Engineroom! To recap, good leaders take care of their teams and never run them to the breaking point. They create space for their people to periodically come offline and recharge. Is burnout an issue in your team? Do you have space for some “preventative maintenance” for your people, and are you using it?
Our tour is almost complete! We just need to head down to see the Engine Room Lower Level watch. We’ll see how informed he is about the boat’s upcoming schedule and operations. If he knows, then the whole boat probably knows. He’s our litmus test.