Nine Principles for Improving Business Culture and Leadership from “Turn the Ship Around!”

Embedding the culture you want in your business into your business can be a long, tough battle. The smallest thing can be a subtle influence against your success.  In this post we take you through nine principles used aboard nuclear powered attack submarine USS Santa Fe which contributed to a complete change of culture, raised performance levels and bought in accountability at every level.  

In December 1998, the USS Santa Fe had a history of poor morale, poor performance. Only three of the crew of 135 chose to reenlist, giving it the worst retention of submarines in the US submarine fleet.

Six months later, the crew were engaged, morale had improved, performance was above the rest of the fleet and crew were reenlisting. Plus the submarine was in a position to respond to a request to deploy two weeks ahead of schedule!

“Turn the Ship Around!” tells how Captain David Marquet introduced a new leadership style to the ship which changed the culture onboard. Below we have reviewed the key principles shared in the story.

Principle 1: “People who are treated like followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers.” (p. xxii)
At the time of the events in the book, in the US Navy, commanders were only held accountable for what happened on their ship during their period of command. If something from a past command contributed to performance under their command, or if consequences of their command impacted the ship’s future ability to perform, this did not influence how effective that commander was seen to be.

So each commander was only being motivated to maximise performance for their period of command and as a result, not many commanders took the time to invest in the future of the ship. They were only concerned about maximising performance under their period of command. Many probably thought that taking the time to invest in the future of the ship would come at the cost of their own record. Day to day, onboard, the result of this was that commanders gave orders and crewmen followed them without question.

So what happens when people are just expected to follow orders?

They don’t take ownership of the tasks at hand. They stop challenging the instructions and just do them. They lose a sense of connection to the organisation.

One day after taking command of the USS Santa Fe, Captain Marquet was wandering around the ship and asked one of the crew members what he did onboard, to see what this crew member thought his job was. The answer was “whatever they tell me to do” (p. 36).

Another time, he gave instruction for the submarine to increase speed to “ahead two-thirds” (p. 80). This was a speed on the previous class of submarine he was familiar with, but their was no ‘ahead two-thirds’ speed on the USS Santa Fe. Yet the order was repeated by the Lieutenant Commander to the helmsman. When the helmsman didn’t adjust the speed, Captain Marquet asked the helmsman why the order wasn’t carried out, to find out that there was no ‘ahead two-thirds’ speed for the submarine. The Lieutenant Commander had known this, but repeated the order because he thought it must have some coded meaning that only the commanders were told about.

To Captain Marquet, this highlighted the risk of operating a culture where there was one leader and everyone else followed instructions. There was no safeguard. He could issue an instruction that was detrimental to the safety of the ship and apparently everyone would blindly follow it.

At that point he decided to never issue another order.

Principle 2: “I intend to…” (p. 81)
This is one of the most critical concepts in the book. After Captain Marquet decided to stop issuing orders, it was up to the subordinate to come to their superior and state their intended course of action, for the superior to maybe ask some questions to confirm that the intended action would be appropriate and then to confirm they subordinate was okay to proceed with the intended action. This change was implemented throughout the ship.

What this meant was that the crew immediately had to stop passively waiting for instruction. They had to engage themselves in what was happening and it gave them back ownership and accountability for what they did.

How the intention to act was stated was important. “I intend to…” showed that the subordinate was in control. They had already made a decision as to the action required. If the request was rephrased to “I would like to” or “I request permission to”, this was pushing on the full responsibility to the superior person. Using “I intend to” instead meant that the superior merely confirmed the action to take and was there as a safeguard to prevent mistakes happening.

Principle 3: “Your reward is no punishment” (p. 44)
In a nuclear powered submarine there is not a lot of room for error. Errors are tracked, reported and analysed to identify the root cause. On a submarine that wasn’t performing well, this mindset just compounded the bad morale. If you made a mistake, you were punished, if you didn’t, there was simply no punishment.

Is focusing on the negatives really the right way to motivate people? What’s in it for them apart from to become more immersed in the negatives?

It is important to minimise errors but try to identify a positive way to approach it, and acknowledge that “you will always have errors on something as complex as a submarine” (p. 44).

Captain Marquet realised that the consequence of trying to avoid mistakes was to simply avoid making decisions or taking action.

Principle 4: “Act your way to new thinking” (p. 65)
Captain Marquet asked his officers how they would know if the crew was proud of the ship. They identified a behaviour that would demonstrate that the crew was proud of the boat then expected the crew to use that behaviour going forward. By expressing themselves in a way consistent with being proud of the ship, the crew were building their pride in the ship.

Principle 5: “Short, early conversations is a mechanism for control” (p. 75)
Onboard, nautical charts are routinely prepared to show the submarine route, area of operation, depth zones, navigational hazards, etc. This involves a number of phases with review at various levels throughout with the commander only seeing the charts in the final stages.

Two days before the submarine was to deploy, Captain Marquet was provided the charts to review. Although perfectly correct according to regulations, the charts were irrelevant because they assumed the best route for navigation purposes, not the route an enemy was likely to take which was what an attack submarine needed to consider. Also, the colour coding was different which was not ideal when people need to be able to consistently read charts at a glance. The work had to be redone.

After this, the principle of “short, early conversations” was implemented. This meant that subordinates would check in with superiors early on on projects to get feedback. This meant if an error was picked up it was still within the subordinate’s capacity to rectify it, rather than if it was only identified later when the situation might require the superior to regain control.

Principle 6: “Don’t move information to authority; move authority to information” (p.49)
Part of the success of the “I intend to…” concept was that it moved the decision making authority back to where the information was. Captain Marquet worked with his Officers to appropriately shift decision making authority back down the command chain to the source of information. Normally, information would have been sent up the chain of command to someone authorised to act on it. This red tape automatically delayed decision making and stifled the crew to order takers rather than initiators. It also meant that decisions were being made based on the insight of someone who was removed from the situation.

As subordinates took on decision making authority and more responsibility, it became obvious that their technical knowledge needed to be increased. Previously some crew members didn’t need to have broad technical knowledge because it was held by the superiors who made the decisions. Subordinates needed to consider the bigger picture to be able to make decisions appropriately and this meant they needed to improve their knowledge. Onboard the USS Santa Fe an attitude of “we learn” was implemented and the crew engaged in developing their technical knowledge and skills so they had the competence required to make the decisions.

Principle 7: “Don’t brief, certify” (p. 138)
Normally in the Navy there would be briefings with all the crew to inform them of upcoming operations. What Captain Marquet realised was that the only person intellectually engaged at a briefing was generally the person giving the briefing. They were the only one who had to prepare or study. Everyone else just had to show up and listen. Yet it was important that the rest of the crew understood what was to happen and for that to occur, they needed to be informed in a way that engaged them as well as the ‘briefer’. Captain Marquet decided to stop briefing and start certifying instead. ‘Certifying’ still involved a meeting with the crew but after explaining the intended operation, the crew were asked questions to see if they understood what was required and were competent to perform the operation. Only if their answers showed that they were competent would the operation proceed. Once the crew realised they would be getting asked questions they started to think about what they would need to do and study up for it.

Principles 8 and 9: “Thinking out loud” (p. 105) and “Take deliberate action” (p.121)
When the submarine docked, electric cables would be connected so it could run off shore power and the reactor onboard could be shut down. There is a specific procedure to do this which involved hanging red ‘danger’tags over switches, valves, etc. that would be dangerous to either the crew or the submarine if operated while the power source was being changed over. An inspection picked up that one of these red tags was moved without the appropriate clearance being taken.

In investigating why this had occured, what the crew realised was that the sailor that had moved the tag aside just wasn’t fully engaged in the task. He had the required training, he knew exactly what should be done, but he didn’t actively think about the meaning of the red tag when he moved it aside. Rather than implementing more training (which was not required because the sailor knew what should be done), or implementing a supervision step (which would be more red tape and push authority back up the chain), the response was to develop a mechanism that would ensure that sailors were thinking things through before they started to take action. They called this “take deliberate action” and what it meant was that before someone was to start a procedure, they would verbalise and mime what they were about to do. This stopped people automatically making mistakes and also meant that if another crew member was aware a mistake was about to happen, because they had heard the procedure repeated incorrectly, there was time to step in and correct it before it physically took place. This paid off in later testing; inspectors noted that the crew tried to make the same number of mistakes as other submarine crews did, but they were prevented from actually making them because “thinking out loud” and “take deliberate action” gave them an opportunity to identify and correct the errors before they took place.

In closing: what can you take from this book to move your organisation forward?

    1. Are you fostering a culture of leaders or a culture of followers?
    2. Do your systems support leaders or followers?
    3. Is decision making authority appropriately placed or do you have a lot of unnecessary red tape?
    4. Does the way you engage with your team work to the benefit of your organisation or are you just taking up time?
    5. Are there people on your team who are just following? Why? What needs to happen for them to become leaders?

“Turn the Ship Around!” is one of the most powerful business books I’ve ever read. Go buy it and read it.!-L.-David-Marquet/9780241250945

If you have any questions on how to move forward in changing your business culture, we would be happy to discuss and may have some resources that could help you. Call us on 03 5339 3200 or contact us here.

Thanks for reading.

By Genna Kidd

The information contained on this website has been provided as general advice only.  The contents have been prepared without taking account of your personal objectives, financial situation or needs.  You should, before you make any decision regarding any information, strategies or products mentioned on this website, consult your own financial advisor to consider whether that is appropriate having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs.

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