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Ask These 5 Tough Questions To Turn Around A Struggling Business

Ask These 5 Tough Questions To Turn Around A Struggling Business

According to procedure, I was to spend the next two weeks reviewing ever ything on the ship, including training records, school records, administrative records, award records, advancement records, records pertaining to the operation and maintenance of the reactor plant, the weapons system, the torpedoes and missiles, schedules, exercises, classified material, and so on.

I ignored that. Instead, I spent my time walking around the ship talking to people. I also set up a series of walkabouts during which each chief or officer would walk me around his spaces. In order to do these inspections properly, I’d ask them to bring me a flashlight.

It wasn’t supposed to be a test, but the flashlights were pitiful. Broken, dead batteries, dim bulbs — you couldn’t see anything. I figured this was what Commodore Kenny was talking about. I got myself a super Maglite that took four D-cell batteries. Its light was as bright as the sun. I carried that flashlight around with me everywhere. Soon, others started carrying flashlights that actually worked as well.

I attended a department head meeting, a routine review of maintenance issues, in the wardroom. The wardroom is a small room in which there’s a ten-man table where the officers eat. It also serves as a training room, an operational planning room, a meeting room, and the place where officers watch movies. If necessary, it serves as the surgical operating room as well.

I looked around at the four department heads. These were the key individuals I would go to war with, entrust the lives of the 135 crew members to, and possibly die with. I felt bad for these guys: the attendees wandered in late, and the captain stayed away until ever yone was assembled.

Then he was invited. The meeting started late. It might seem like a little thing, but on board a nuclear submarine, little things like lack of punctuality are indicative of much, much bigger problems. At this particular meeting, everyone was waiting for someone else.

The meeting started. Lieutenant Dave Adams, the weapons officer (Weps), briefed a problem with the vertical launch system (VLS) in the bow of the sub. There was a long discussion about O-rings, seals, and retests. I probably should have paid attention to the technical issues because this missile system wasn’t on the Olympia so I hadn’t paid attention to it during my training, but instead I observed the people in the room. Dave was earnest and forthright but frustrated and defensive about all the questions he needed to answer. The other department heads and chiefs were bored.

After the meeting I followed Dave to his stateroom. “Weps, you seemed a bit frustrated.”


In essence, Dave was describing a problem inherent in the leader-follower model, although he didn’t use those words. Because of his insights and passion he would become one of Santa Fe’s greatest engines for good, embracing the concept of leader-leader and carrying it forward.

“Look, Captain, I have a vision of how I want this department to operate,” he began.

As I listened to him tell me about how he wanted things to be, I became more and more enthusiastic, and impressed. Unfortunately, he was being ignored. As he ticked through the ideas he had for improving his department, I would ask how he had implemented them.

Each time the answer was the same: someone up the chain of command hadn’t supported the initiative, so nothing happened. The chiefs working for him didn’t seem eager to step up with their own ideas either. He had wanted to conduct training with the officers numerous times on Tomahawk missile strikes, something we would be tested on in January, but the training either had never been scheduled or had been canceled.

I found Dave an incredibly intelligent, driven, and gifted officer. He grew up the younger son of a career Army enlisted man. Likely influenced by his demanding father, Dave acquired a drive I’ve rarely seen equaled. He also learned to appreciate his men but at the same time demand excellence from them. I felt better about my plan because I was going to have to rely on the technical expertise of Dave and the other department heads if it was going to work.

Dave wasn’t the only frustrated officer. Lieutenant Commander Bill Greene, the navigator (Nav) and senior department head, had requested a transfer out of the submarine force. Two of the junior officers had submitted their resignations.

As things on Santa Fe deteriorated, the crew adopted a hunker-down mode in which avoiding mistakes became the primary driver for all actions. They focused exclusively on satisfying the minimum requirements. Anything beyond that was ignored.

I saw the frustration in the officers and crew on the USS Santa Fe as a result of leader-follower mentality. Based upon their frustrations, I created a series of questions and activities that can help people think about the pervasiveness of the leader-follower model, and the pain it causes.

SubmarineInside USS Santa Fe.

1. When was the last time you walked around your organisation to hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly of top-down management? Begin by answering the series of questions below. Then, share, brainstorm and discuss your answers with your team.

2. Where is the pain and frustration greatest in your organisation? What frustrations do the “bosses” have with the workers? What frustrations do the workers have with the bosses?

3. In your workplace, do you believe people lean more toward desiring change or toward simply being comfortable with the current level of performance? Why do you think this is, and what do you think is the ideal state for a workplace?

4. How would you describe the culture of your workplace? How prevalent are behaviours that support others in the organisation and achieve progress?

5. In what ways does leadership in your organisation take or give control?

Once you’ve discussed these questions with your team, challenge yourself and your managers to do the activity below. This will allow you, your boss, and your reports take the first step toward building reversing that pain and leaders at every level by starting intent-based leadership in your organisation.

The next time you get an email from an employee reporting a problem without a solution, go talk to him and see if you can get him to come up with a solution. Here’s an example of what you could say:

Thank you for bringing this important issue to my attention. I sincerely believe that this challenge is important, and you have demonstrated sufficient technical competence and organizational clarity to solve it. I’m depending on you to take the next steps. Please keep me informed about what you intend to do and if you need any help.