Monday, July 30, 2012

Culture: Defined

I recently attended Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) training and can confidently state that much like the training received for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, it was both extremely well thought out and presented. There were many great take-aways from the session related to the primary topic, but Admiral Quinn left me with a nugget that I did not anticipate.  While communicating with the great humility that allows him to connect with so many, he made a comment regarding culture that really struck a chord with me. He defined culture as "the collective action of leadership." An extremely simple definition, and as I thought more and more about it, probably the best definition I have heard.

Over the last month, I have been giving a great deal of thought to organizational culture. Having recently read David Marquet's "Turn The Ship Around", having an article that I wrote with the Command Triad on cooperative leadership published in PROCEEDINGS Magazine, and experiencing more behavioral challenges at work, I've been really reflecting on what I am doing (or not doing) to contribute to our command culture.  Being a big believer in "The Power of the Triad", I know that the Executive Officer and Senior Enlisted Leader (SEL) are my primary partners in defining the culture.  It is our actions that set the tone for the team at large. Because the three of us are conditioned to hold each other personally responsible and accountable first, we've spent some time over the last week really analyzing our words and actions and comparing them to our organization culture. Feeling even stronger about our visible commitment to our command values and demonstrating that we are far more interested in our deliberate actions than merely our words, we felt pretty validated that by Admiral Quinn's definition, our actions are in fact consistent with the culture we value most.  Being firm believers in 360 degree awareness, the XO called a Command Assessment Team meeting to hear the constructive feedback we have grown to expect from this group. Again, they reenforced our assessment. The culture is sound, morale is good, and mission is being accomplished.

So why is it that we've had reason to relieve two Chief Petty Officers from their positions? Why is it that after such a long stretch with minimal distractions, we've had incidents with SPICE, underage possession of alcohol, adultery, failure to obey orders, and unauthorized absences all within the last two months? Sometimes an organization's challenges are rooted in its culture, sometimes good people get caught making bad decisions, and sometimes a team just becomes more committed to enforcing the standard. After looking at this from just about every angle and being as inclusive in the introspection as possible, I am confident that our problem is not one of flawed culture. Our problem is two-fold. We've had some good people make extremely poor decisions that we were not willing to ignore and we've uncovered a few others of questionable character who were in need of our personal attention. By being even more visibly committing to holding people accountable to the standard (as a team), we became more aware of the exceptions to our culture, as we continually strengthen the same.

What seems to be happening of late is more people are committing to the culture, making those who hadn't very visible. Funny how questioning our words, our action, and our culture, validated all three (action always being most critical)...

So Admiral Quinn is once again right, culture is in fact the collective action of leadership.  The key is to get a larger portion of the team to see themselves as leadership and ACT accordingly.  We are all leaders, the culture is reflective of OUR collective action and holding ourselves accountable is OUR responsibility.  As we say, there is no THEY, only WE and US.

What culture are you endorsing with your personal actions?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Making Personal Recommendation Meaningful

Note: I am repeatedly reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such great people. The below post (my second guest posting) comes from a Shipmate whom I have known since 2005. A leader, a critical thinker, and outspoken thought leader, LCDR Kevin Ernest is now serving as the Executive Officer at the Center for Information Dominance Unit Monterey, CA.  We are very fortunate to have a leader with such incredible  character, humility, and passion for truly serving his Shipmates, helping to shape the minds of every new linguist joining the Navy.  This post is further demonstration that Kevin is not afraid to question the ways things have always been done and he is equally willing to offer solutions to any and all areas for improvement. Thanks for making the time to share your thoughts, Kevin...

Letters of Recommendation – many of us have had the opportunity to be associated with them by writing, or receiving them, or perhaps both. Many of the programs the Navy offers require letters of recommendation and we uniformly believe that you simply have to ask for one and within days you’ll be presented a page filled with superlatives describing yourself. Similarly, when asked to provide a letter of recommendation, most of us simply comply with the request and fill the page with the superlatives. Easy process, not much thought or effort required.

Several weeks ago, I was privileged to have the opportunity to write a letter of recommendation for a protégé seeking admission to the Stanford University Graduate School of Business MBA program. After I agreed to write the letter – I’ve known him for several years and consider him to be an excellent candidate - the protégé told me that he would send an email with all the instructions for preparing the letter. Instructions for writing a letter? I thought that meant he’d provide an email address for where to send the letter. When I received his email I was surprised to find to a lengthy transcription of an interview with a Stanford admissions officer describing Stanford’s requirements for letters of recommendation,as well as instructions for completing a leadership behavior grid.

As I read the transcript, it occurred to me that that much of what the admissions officer was saying should have been obvious; things like are you willing to write the letter and, if, not are you honest enough to tell the person not only will you not write the letter but why you will not give them a recommendation? But much of what Stanford is looking for in letters of recommendation is not what you’ll find in a typical Navy letter of recommendation.Summed up, Stanford is looking for recommendations where, “…the person jumps off the page and they really come alive. I feel like I know them; I know the good, the bad, the warts; if I walked into a room, I could almost pick out this person.” To meet the goal of getting the person to jump off the page, Stanford wants the writer to answer four questions:

1) What’s the context of your relationship with the applicant that you’re recommending?
2) How has he/she performed versus his/her peers?
3) Tell us about a time you've given constructive feedback to the candidate. That helps us see how the candidate has grown over time.
4) Finally, we ask an open-ended question to give the recommender a chance to comment on anything else we should know about the candidate's performance, potential or personal qualities.

And, Stanford doesn’t want just a list of superlatives; they want evidence to support those superlatives. They want the writer to describe the how the person made an impact on the organization. As I was writing the letter, I realized that the Stanford model of letters of recommendation is a useful model for Navy use. It’s a going in assumption that each candidate for each program has many great qualities that supposedly qualify them for whatever it is they’re applying. But we never talk about the areas where a candidate can improve. I believe it’s this type of information that would allow selection boards to make better-informed selections. For example, if a candidate has a 4.0 in computer science from MIT and paints swing sets at the orphanage but routinely exercises questionable judgment and decision-making at work, the selection board can use that information to compare the candidates more completely.

We read and hear a lot from senior leadership that we shouldn’t have a zero-defect mentality, but we also know that if we submit letters of recommendation with anything but superlatives in it, the candidate’s chances for election drop precipitously. It’s time to embrace the idea of accepting our people for everything they are, and then making the proper recommendations for them, their warts and all.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Think. Do. Become.


I have come to believe the best way to determine that which is truly important to an individual is by taking a hard look at how he allocates time and what activities she chooses to put on her calendar.  While paying personal attention to the same, I have witnessed changes in my own development and effectiveness, as I also become more aware of those around me.  In doing so, I have grown disappointed in more than a few of my colleagues, caught myself losing focus on more than one occasion, and identified a few individuals (both senior and junior) worthy of emulation.  As leaders, we are often times overly focused on mission accomplishment.  Whether we choose to believe it or not, the HOW that leads us and our team toward accomplishing our mission defines who we become over time, both as individuals and as a team.  It also serves as a metric for how long we might be able to deliver similar results.

Every action we take today shapes our future self.  If we identify who it is we want to become over time,  commit to purposeful self-awareness, and care enough about ourselves to be personally accountable, it is rather simple to validate our path or correct our course on a daily basis.  Some observations of late that are not as obvious as we like to think include...

1) If we truly want to be healthy, we will eat properly and exercise regularly.
- Eating poorly and living a sedentary lifestyle is our way of accepting a future self that is fat and sick.

2) If we are truly committed to building a culture of teamwork, we will create opportunities to work with others, we will seek feedback from all willing to give it, we will create opportunities to both teach and learn from others, and we will express our appreciation to those who care enough about the team to do the same.
- Not doing the above is our way of communicating that putting self before team is both a characteristic we condone and a trait we want to encourage.

3) If the people with whom we serve truly are a priority, we will be supportive of them in a time of need; we will be mindful of their goals and help them to reach the same; we will hold both them and ourselves accountable to exceeding the standard; and we will create opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue with them. 
- Failing to do any one of these things makes the phrase "people are our greatest asset" (and I hear that a lot) a hollow promise and diminishes the trust we have in those who fail to deliver.

Over the course of my ongoing experiment of being hyper aware of those in my professional life and equally critical of myself, I have assessed that too many people live a life of contradiction.  We say we value one thing and our actions state something very different.  In essence, we are blind to our authentic selves.    

As leaders we have a responsibility to be deliberate about developing the attributes of our team with an eye toward the future.  What specific attributes do we want to become commonplace across our team over time and are we exemplifying them?  How do we use today to help all to grow in that direction?  How do we get those who don't seem to have the capacity to embrace the ideals we value to find another team?

Ghandi is known to have said, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."  He did not say "Talk of the change you wish to see in the world and then act in opposition", nor did he say "Accept those who act contrary to the change you wish to see in the world."  Be as you wish to become and help others to to do the same.  The decisions we make and the actions we take today, determine who we will become tomorrow.  Let's be consistent, deliberate, and purposeful.