This review of Turn The Ship Around by L. David Marquet (Portfolio Penguin, 2015) is written by Richard Simpson, MD of STEM-focused PR agency Six Degrees.
I can’t deny that the cover photograph of a US nuclear-powered submarine didn’t sway my decision to pick up and read this book. Yes, I did judge a book by its cover, and I’m pleased I did.
Marquet is the former commander of a submarine and his book, Turn the ship around! A true story of turning followers into leaders, provides a fascinating insight into the operations and processes onboard his former charge the USS Santa Fe. It tells the story of how he ‘turned around’ poor morale and performance among his crew by introducing changes in leadership thinking at every level, and in doing so taking it from having the worst record in the fleet to the best. From a typical top-down approach to leadership you might expect in the armed forces – with orders barked down the chain of command – he changed it to one where each crew member, from the bottom up, was given greater ownership over problems and solutions.
His approach involved three pillars. The first to push control down the ranks. The second, introducing assurances of competency and knowledge in that process, to ensure decisions are fully thought-through. And the final component, an assurance around clarity, that all crew are clear of the bigger picture when making those decisions. “Our mission requires we submerge now before reaching the Oman waters to avoid detection”. As Marquet points out, getting something like this wrong in most organisations might impact the bottom line, on a submarine people can die.
This book offers an engaging real-life example of how to bring about radical changes to organisation design. Yes, it was done in a regimented, highly controlled environment inside a giant metallic tube with no real means of escape. But nevertheless, the story asks questions about any top-down approach and bears testament to the cultural and operational benefits of shifting an autocratic approach to one that empowers your team. The book takes a step-by-step approach to bringing about that change, with plenty of anecdotes about what can go right and wrong. There are also helpful worksheets at the end of each chapter, which will undoubtedly trigger questions about your own organisation.
Letting go is often one of the hardest things entrepreneurs and business leaders face, particularly if it’s ‘your baby’ that you’ve nurtured and built from scratch. Those that are struggling will find this book useful and can take comfort from the fact that at the end of it you have a well-oiled machine but one where ultimately you, the captain, can still decide where your ship should go.