How to help your people to become leaders

In this post I want to share some ideas I gathered from David Marquet’s book Turn the Ship Around! This book is totally worthy. His ideas came from the time he was running a nuclear submarine of the US Navy, but definitely all of them can be applied to teams and organizations, specially those trying to work with an agile mindset.

To make it simple, I’ll follow a structure based on the most relevant ideas which pierced my mind of facilitator. At the end of the post you can also see some resources David Marquet shares in the book, such us the Guiding Principles at the USS Santa Fe (nuclear submarine) and a guide to transition to a much better way of working with teams.

The author has a fantastic video you can watch on YouTube where he summarizes all these ideas.

Leader-Follower vs Leader-Leader relationships

From the very beginning, the book starts by showing the most important thing when helping others to become leaders, which is basically treating them as such. This is not easy, first because we all want to feel powerful and second because it’s easier to just do what I’m being told, acting as a follower instead of challenging some decisions.

Our old way of thinking tells us that it’s scary to delegate power and responsibility to others, mainly because we’re not in full control and we might be called accountable for something we didn’t do. If we’re being yelled at, at least we want to have the right to have done it wrong ourselves. This is therefore the best way to start helping others, showing them all the responsibility they will get and to start trusting them. It is a good exercise for both sides to share that: I trust in you, you need to show me I can even trust you more.

One of the best ways to start a conversation with a leader-leader approach is to ask questions to that person. Questions to which we don’t really know the answer and we want them to provide their thoughts and ideas. David Marquet shares in the books a list of questions he used when starting to act with this leader-leader approach. You can translate the navy terminology to you team/organization. Here’s the list if you want to read it (the book is full of triggering questions):

  • What are the things you are hoping I don’t change?
  • What are the things you secretly hope I do change?
  • What are the good things about Santa Fe (your team) we should build on?
  • If you were me what would you do first?
  • Why isn’t the ship (your team) doing better?
  • What are your personal goals for your tour here on Santa Fe (the company)?
  • What impediments do you have to do your job?
  • What will be our biggest challenge to getting Santa Fe (your team) ready for deployment (huge milestone/delivering the product/…)?
  • What are your biggest frustrations about how Santa Fe (the Company) is currently run?
  • What is the best thing I can do for you?

People will necessarily have to think bigger to engage in such conversation. If they want to become leaders, you’re giving them the right toll to start, they’re starting to think as their leader already, figuring out solutions to their problems, team problems.

Move authority to the information and not the other way around

One of the most common mistakes in the organizations is to move the information towards people or departments holding the power to make the decisions. For those interested on being agile and enable teams and people to take responsibilities the right approach must be to move authority to the information. This means everyone in a team must be responsable for something in particular, even if is something temporary or recurrent.

For those working with an agile mindset this is something obvious, but the development teams for example asume too often that the backlog and everything in it is just responsibility of the product owner when it is their responsibility to keep it under a certain number of items and to add all the necessary items to keep the technical debt in check or even to add the technical-must-have features to scale properly in the near future.

It may be the case that working with some particular roles inside the team will help all the individuals to see this more clearly, e.g., someone specially responsible for security, quality, etc. Allowing the ones closer to the information to take the right decision requires training and trust. It might be a progressive process.

Allow your people to make the decision

As a necessary next step the ones closer to the information should make the decision, at lease they should suggest their opinion and you should trust it and respect it.

Decisions are a great moment to communicate your strategy. Whoever is making the decision must keep in mind the guiding principles of your team and based on those decide. Whatever the circunstancies are, acting by following the guiding principles will help your team in the future and will explain in the best way possible how we do things here. Even if we’re talking about a tough decision which will make the team work harder and longer for a couple of weeks, or deciding not to do business with someone else because they don’t share the same set of values or believes. Communicate, communicate, communicate. As the author puts it in the book: The core of the leader-leader model is giving employees control over what they work on and how they work. It means letting them make meaningful decisions.

The guiding principles could also be used during team or personal evaluations. Do you already have yours? At the end of this article I collected the ones David Marquet and his crew have been using in the Santa Fe.

Change the language to boost proactivity

During the book, the author describes how he teach people to not just follow orders and to introduce all the actions the crew was about to perform with the words I intend to ... or I plan to … This is basically a mechanism to make others act proactevely. If someone starts all the short term actions with this words, it will definitely facilitate the analytical thinking as well as the evaluation agaisnt the final mission or strategy the team is trying to achive.

This is a good exercise to translate the higher goals into actions which will lead to expected results. Imagine for a second someone is starting a meeting with the goal he is trying to achieve and how that will make things easier to reach a expected result for a higher quarter goal. Imagine you’re working with OKRs and sprints or interactions and everything your team does is related to achieve certain goals you and your team have set for the quarter. It will be much more easier to reach those goals if everything we all do aligns to them in the best possible way. Obviously we also need to inspect and adapt continuously and the actions might differ from one week to another, but the main objective is there and acting with this I intend to in mind is potentially the best optimization of our work.

Think out loud

It is alright to recognize something is concerning you and you don’t have the answer, or at least you don’t know what the right answer is right now. As said before, communication is a mechanism of clarity and sharing with others the challenges your team might have is an ongoing process.

Showing certainty beforehand is arrogance. Just use the new challenges to work with others finding the right solutions and be open to listen and to show vulnerabilities of the proposed solutions. Facing challenges is the best opportunity to put communication and strategy into practice.

Not just traing: learn!

Receiving a training might be something passive, we could be in the situation of just listening or watching but not actually making that training part of ourselves. Learning is the best way to improve proactively, and putting that new learning into practice is necessary to go through the whole process of learning.

Something we are scared of a meeting and we don’t realize it might be an excellent occasion to learn, to improve something right after it. Scrum tells us: inspect and adapt. What a wonderful way to learn and apply what we’ve learned. Try new things all the time, small little details, then inspect, check if they’ve helped you or not and adapt, adding more changes like those or finding some others.

Take care of your people

This doesn’t mean to put them in a position to avoid consequences, that will be irresponsible. This actually means you as a leader should give them all the necessary things to improve, to be better, whether if that is education or helping them beyond their job endeavors, etc.

Do you know what your people’s personal goals are? Do you know if they’re happy at work? When was the last time you got a one-on-one conversation just in case they wanted to share their thoughts? Simple, you just need a coffee and some time to start the conversation, they will provide the rest.

Recognize desired behaviors

And do it immediately, you don’t have to wait until next quarter or team meeting. Do it right away and emphasize how that behavior is positively helping the company and the team. You could come up with a fun system of recognition or link it to a salary bonus, but first of all it should be something simple and real. Sometimes we don’t say thanks enough and we just point out to problems. Try and do it!

Don’t empower: emancipate!

Empowerment is a necessary thing but don’t think of it as the final goal, we don’t want to create anarchy just for the sake of it. It is necessary though because people usually think with the leader-follower approach instead of the leader-leader one. However, empowerment is not enough, it is still the result of a top-down structure.

What we need is release or emancipation. The author puts it like this: «With emancipation we are recognizing the inherent genius, energy, and creativity in all people, and allowing those talents to emerge. We realize that we don’t have the power to give these talents to others, or “empower” them to use them, only the power to prevent them from coming out. Emancipation results when teams have been given decision-making control and have the additional characteristics of competence and clarity. You know you have an emancipated team when you no longer need to empower them. Indeed, you no longer have the ability to empower them because they are not relying on you as their source of power«.


Santa Fe Guiding Principles:

Initiative means we take action without direction from above to improve our knowledge as submariners, prepare the command for its mission, and come up with solutions to problems. With each member of the command taking initiative, the leverage is immense. Initiative has been a hallmark of the American fighting man and a key reason for our success. Initiative places an obligation on the chain of command not to stifle initiative in subordinates.
Innovation means looking at new ways of doing the same thing. It also means knowing which areas are “above the waterline” and appropriate to innovation, having the courage to change, and tolerating failures.
Intimate Technical Knowledge
Modern submarines are extremely complex. Intimate technical knowledge means that each of us is responsible for learning our area of responsibility. We make decisions based on technical reasons, not hope. We understand the details of our watch stations and the interrelationship of systems. We diligently study.
Courage means we choose to do the right thing, even if it may be uncomfortable. It means not just doing or saying what subordinates, peers, or superiors want to see or hear. It means admitting mistakes, even if ugly.
Commitment means we are present when we come to work. We give it our best. We choose to be here.
Continuous improvement
Continuous improvement is how we get better. We continually seek ways to learn from processes and improve them and ourselves. The chain of command has the obligation to develop and institute mechanisms (such as conducting debriefs) to achieve continuous improvement.
Integrity means we tell the truth to each other and to ourselves. It means we have a grounded base of reality and see things as they are, not as we want them to be. Integrity means we participate fully in debriefs, allowing improvements to be based on facts.
We encourage those below us to take action and support them if they make mistakes. We employ stewardship delegation, explaining what we want accomplished and allow flexibility in how it is accomplished.
Submariners have traditionally worked as a team because a mistake by one person can mean disaster for all. We work as a team, not undercutting each other. The chain of command is obligated to implement mechanisms that encourage and reward teamwork. We back each other up in a positive way.
We exercise participative openness: freedom to speak one’s mind. Additionally, we exercise reflective openness, which leads to looking inward. We challenge our own thinking. We avoid the trap of listening to refute.
Timeliness means we do things on time: start work on time, qualify on time, are ready to start evolutions and drills on time, and get to rendezvous points on time. Timeliness also recognizes that accomplishing most things faster is better and that working to reduce inherent delays and time lags results in a more effective organization.
Leadership at Every Level!

Leader-leader cheatsheet:

Take controlGive control
Give ordersAvoid giving orders
When you give orders, be confident, unambiguous and resoluteWhen you do give orders, leave room for questioning
Have meetingsHave conversations
Have a mentor-mentee programHave a mentor-mentor program
Focus on technologyFocus on people
Think short-termThink long-term
Want to be missed after you departWant not to be missed after you depart
Have high-repetition, low-quality trainingHave low-repetition, high-quality training
Limit communications to terse. succinct, formal ordersAugment orders with rich, contextual, informal communications
Be questioningBe curious
Make inefficient processes efficientEliminate entire steps and processes that don’t add value
Increase monitoring and inspection pointsReduce monitoring and inspection points
Protect informationPass information

David Marquet Talk:

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