The Submarine Leadership Tour- Tenth and Last Stop: Engineroom Lower Level!Dave Forman
The tenth and last stop of our submarine leadership tour is still in the engineroom, but we’ll head down to specifically see the Sailor standing watch in Engineroom Lower Level.
Our previous stop was the general Engineroom, where we discussed the importance of “preventative maintenance,” not for your equipment, but for your people. People are not machines, but just like machines, they also need occasional “tune-ups” to ensure they can keep running smoothly. In any organization, people are the ones powering whatever it is that you do, and good leaders assume responsibility for giving those people occasional breaks so that when they are back on the job, they are ready to reliably perform at their full capacity.
Now, to get to Engineroom Lower level, we basically walk as far aft and as far down as we can go, and that’s the whole point….it’s as far away from the Control Room as you can get. The Control Room is the decision-making center, so we often use Engineroom Lower Level as our litmus test to see if necessary information has permeated the whole boat.
We occasionally check with the Sailor in Engineroom Lower Level to ensure we haven’t played a nasty case of the “telephone game.” Good leaders must ensure their message is received as it was intended, and if there are many layers between the leader and the “deckplate” worker, clarification or amplification will likely be necessary.
Leaders will always be able to find enough “shiny objects” to keep them occupied daily, and a submarine Captain could easily spend all his time in Control. But good leaders keep the wider view, and if even they check some areas of their organization less frequently than others, they still check.
Let me explain a little about the Engineroom Lower Level watch, and you should consider who fits this characterization in your organization. For new Sailors with a mechanical rating (specialty), this watchstation is their first qualification where they are trusted to take their own actions in support of engineroom operations.
In this first position, they have modest responsibilities (overall fewer valves and switches to operate than higher level watchstations), but potential mistakes can still be consequential for the rest of the team. In other words, they can go from “out of sight, out of mind” to “front row center” in a heartbeat. Who represents the equivalent in your company?
This Sailor standing watch in Engineroom Lower Level will take significantly different actions depending on what he or she understands the submarine is doing overall. For some submarine missions, stealth is paramount. For others, sustained readiness for maximum propulsion could be paramount, and the positioning for each is not the same.
If this “distant” watchstation is not properly aligned with the Control Room, then we risk incongruous action that could put the submarine’s mission at risk.
So how do you know if they are aligned? Simple: walk back and ask them. And since there are three of them that rotate through the day, you have to walk back three separate times to catch them all. Just go walkabout. This is one of those things in life that is really that easy.
In your organization, who is at the end of communication line? Also, how often does the leader check with that person to see what messages and priorities have “arrived” at that level?
Sea Story: During my time as Engineering Officer (Department Head) and as Captain, I toured the engineroom countless times. A handful of times I found “unexpected” things and fixed them right way, but the majority of time I had some of my best conversations with my Sailors. I was in their environment (not my “office” or stateroom), and in general, they were more comfortable that way.
Many times I was able to clarify our mission and teach them more about what submarines do and why we do it. These conversations were good data points for me about how well (or not well) my team was aligned, and plenty of times I adjusted in response.
One thing to consider as a leader: you must do these walkabouts often enough so your team is relaxed when you arrive. It’s no secret that when they saw me coming back there, they would alert each other to be on their toes. Human nature doesn’t change in the Navy, and if someone on the “work floor” of a company got word that the CEO would be visiting in a few minutes, that gossip would undoubtedly spread like wildfire too.
My crew developed a codeword for my visits, and for a leader to think this won’t happen is naive. But I also went back often enough so my crew did not tense up too much and created an environment where they could do most of the talking. That’s the point: they verbalize the submarine mission and priorities (your company’s mission and priorities) in their own words, and they ask whatever questions they want. They talk, you mostly listen.
This feedback loop verification, from the Captain all the way down to the Sailor in Engineroom Lower Level, is essential to any successful team. It’s the only way to ensure everyone is onboard and rowing in the same direction.
Congratulations! We’ve just completed our entire tour! We’ve covered from the bow to the stern of the submarine now, and this last stop is a reminder of how you need to tie it all together. The best ideas, plans, and intentions can be in your mind, but if the entire team (including your equivalent to an Engineroom Lower Level watchstation) doesn’t know about them, there is little chance your team will ever achieve those ideas, plans, or intentions.
Now we’ll head topside and you can be on your way.
I hope you’ve taken some of these ideas onboard, and as you proceed on your leadership journey, think back to some of the spaces we visited, and ask yourself how you’re doing in that area. Sonar: are you listening well enough? Radio: Are you communicating effectively? Torpedo Room: Are you mentally ready to speak up when you see behavior that violates your standards or company culture? And so on.