Thursday, May 8, 2008

Leadership ‘Surprises’ and the Mahogany Prison

Many years ago, in a seminar I attended at Georgetown University, I heard Robert Townsend use the phrase ‘mahogany prison.’ He used the phrase to describe those bosses, in any profession or industry who, having reached some certain level of upper management, allow themselves to become trapped, imprisoned in the executive suite. They are always busy, they work long hours, they rush from meeting to meeting, and if they do leave the executive suite, stepping from the paneled rooms with the river view to quietly walk on thick oriental rugs past the executive secretaries and step out of their ‘prison,’ it is only to rush to another 'mahogany prison' for meetings and the like.

There will be those who say that they are simply doing their jobs, that they have work to do, paperwork to move, etc. The answer to that is simply this: if they want to lead, they have to understand their organization, they have to communicate with their organization and they have to be known by their organization. They can NOT do that from the mahogany prison.

One more point, and it is critical to understand this one point: those who do this, who get trapped in the ‘mahogany prison,’ allow it to happen.

Who is in a mahogany prison? Every manager, every CEO who considers his responsibilities starting with what report he needs to edit, what brief he needs to finish preparing, what numbers he needs to check, what meetings he needs to attend is already trapped. Those tasks should not be and are not the number one priority of any leader. I recently read an article about a Navy Admiral who took ‘an unscheduled visit’ to the piers where his ships were and was shocked at the conditions of the ships and the responses (or lack thereof) of the sailors manning those ships.

This is so off kilter it is hard to know where to begin. These are his ships: the admiral should be intimately familiar with each and every one of them. He should be visiting them frequently. Why would he ever schedule visits to his ships? I understand the issues of protocol for senior officers visiting ships. That is a very poor excuse. How does this admiral expect to understand the real condition of his ships, and his officers and sailors, if he doesn’t meet them regularly? How does he expect them to understand what he expects of them if they don’t meet with him regularly?

Every time that the CEO, the admiral, the VP, or the general shows up at the plant, the ship or whatever, a number of things happen: he sees the real thing, not the paper report. True, when people learn that he is likely to drop by there will be an effort to ‘polish the brass’ and put on a good show for the boss, but after a while that will become to hard. Furthermore, the guys who continue to polish the brass no matter how many times you show up are probably hiding something, just as the plant foreman who always shows up when you do is almost certainly a lousy leader and doesn’t trust his people.

Frequent visits will also allow the boss to ‘meet the troops,’ the people who do the real work, no matter what kind of organization you are in. He or she can meet with them, here there concerns, here their thoughts on new ideas, listen to how the folks who have the best feel for the day to day might provide innovation to the organization. These ideas can then be taken back to the boardroom and incorporated into your future.

Every time the CEO walks onto the work floor it is a chance to Communicate, to pass the word ‘from the horses mouth,’ just what is happening and – most important – Why. It is a chance to provide unvarnished answers and to motivate the real engine of your organization. And don’t doubt that your presence will be noted. The fact that the CEO stopped and talked to the guys in the Tool and Die Shop for 45 minutes, had a cup of coffee and talked about the new expansion will be shared with everyone on the production floor. Leadership requires that the vision be communicated and the people in the organization be turned into a motivated team. A motivated team doesn’t happen by mistake or luck or by paperwork. A motivated team requires effort and communication to provide understanding to the team. This in turn will lead to increased initiative and creative juices, all of which will benefit the team, the unit or production facility and the organization as a whole.

On the other hand, when leaders remains removed from the bulk of the organization, from the ‘job floor’ or the work crew or the crew of the ship, his or her leadership becomes diluted, the message becomes garbled, and the team loses its cohesion, at least in its relation to the organization as a whole. Eventually, the crew will view the leader within and ‘us vs. him’ relationship. In the end, leadership will exist in the mind of the leader alone. I was aware of one Navy organization recently – a 4-star command staff – where the leadership was so removed from their own staff that one junior officer remarked that in his 42 months on the job he never met either the number one or number two guy, and he never tried to avoid them: they simply weren’t interested in their own people. (No one should think that this was because they were never in the staff building: the number of visits to the piers located just a few miles away was few and far between).

So called ‘Leaders’ who don’t know their organization, who aren’t known by their organization and who end up trapped in their ‘mahogany prison’ fighting the papers wars will always be ‘surprised’ and unpleasantly shocked by the conditions of their organization. The reason is simple: they aren’t really leaders. There are cures, but the best and most effective is for the organization to purge itself of such people and try someone new. On the other hand, before you become an inmate in the mahogany prison, develop the habit of walking through your firm, meet the people, feel the pulse of the organization, communicate your vision, mold the team. You may find that it is not only the best way to understand your organization and all its strengths and weaknesses; it’s also a lot of fun.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Accountability and Leadership

A recent issue of NAVY Times (see ) released a series of reports concerning inspections of two US Navy ships; both ships (USS Stout and USS Chosin) were found to be unfit for combat. As that is what the taxpayers send their dollars to the Navy to buy – combat ready ships – there is obvious reason for concern. In as much as this is not the only issue that has crept up lately on the Navy’s maintenance or shipbuilding (USS San Antonio class cost overruns, USS John F Kennedy retiring early, consistent cost overruns on the Virginia class submarines, cost overruns on the Littoral Combat Ships (the LCS), etc., it would seem that something isn’t quite right with how the Navy buys, maintains and operates ships.

It is true that in any inspection like the ones that Stout and Chosin recently failed, there are many possible reasons for the unsatisfactory condition of the ships – demanding schedules, design flaws, material failure, improper manning, inadequate maintenance funds. But, irrespective of the particulars, someone should be held accountable.

Traditionally, the Navy has responded in such situations by relieving the captains of the ships found to be deficient. While there should be no rush to judgment, there must be judgment, and in this case it appears likely (and perhaps reasonable from a distance) that, since other, similar ships did not have such problems, and, per the investigation, there was no lack of maintenance funds, the commanding officers of these two ships will be held accountable.

That being said, it is worth remembering what has been going on over the past several years, calmly and deliberately.

The Navy has: systematically minimized the real importance of leadership by reducing key tour lengths - particularly those of the Commanding Officers – to a point where sometimes two commanding officers in a row might not need to bring a ship through an inspection; crew sizes have been cut while maintaining a large (arguably too large) shore establishment;* reduced or eliminated what were called unproductive or unnecessary inspections; stressed a whole host of ‘other’ issues (known as ‘collateral duties’ in the military) for the promotion of Chiefs - the key middle management on any ship where leadership meets the work force and the real work needs to take place - resulting in the Chiefs spending ever more time on ‘other’ things and less time on the basics; and continually changed the meaning of ‘readiness’ in order to be able to say ‘yes’ to any demand signal without making loud noises or instituting any vertical organizational cuts.

Should it stop there? Probably not. Invariably, in a case where two such ships failed and failed badly, and they are ships of different fleets – one in the Atlantic, one in the Pacific – the question needs to be asked whether this is the first inkling of a pervasive, systemic problem that spans across the entire US Navy. Is Navy maintenance being poorly led? Is it more than a maintenance problem? Are these ships more difficult to maintain as they approach ‘middle age’ then was previously thought? Will these ships last the 30 plus years expected of them? Is it unreasonable to expect combatants to last that long? There are a host of similar questions that need to be asked and answered.

Perhaps, in the end it will be revealed that the ship designs and the concomitant maintenance plans are adequate and this was simply a failing by two captains and their crews. That is certainly possible. However, I would be willing to predict that any thorough investigation will turn up clear evidence that leadership failed at several levels: it failed at the ‘deck plates’ – that is, it failed where the Chiefs are supposed to provide the leadership that brings sailors together and makes them a crew that cares for their ship; it failed at the division and department head level where officers should have both understood that they were failing and informed the Captain; it failed at the commanding officer level where they either failed to notice that their ships were sub-par or worse, and difficult to say – they didn’t care; it failed at the flag (admiral) level in a host of ways: with Strike Group commanders who both failed to detect the failures and failed to detect the poor leadership; it failed in the selection process that allowed these to officers to be given command; it failed in the senior officers – admirals and captains – who certified these two ships as ready for deployment and the commanding officers as ready to lead their ships.** The list goes on from here. There will be excuses. But this should be a clarion call to the Navy Brass that something is wrong at the most basic level. The questions need to be asked and answered, clearly and quickly.

To those who suggest that this is overreaction, that this is nothing more or less than two ships failing inspection, and nothing more should be read into it then that, the answer is that those who defend themselves with that answer are the same people who have defended fewer ships (and fewer strike aircraft in Navy wings) with the answer that these ships (and aircraft) are so much more capable then ships of even one generation ago, and that the Navy really can accomplish more with less. One former senior Navy admiral remarked something to the effect that a Burke class DDG was worth a half-dozen earlier ships. That may be so. But, if it is, doesn’t that mean that the ‘loss’ of each ship is equivalent to losing a half-dozen earlier ships? I’m not sure that the admirals can have it both ways; either the ships are worth much more and they need to be cared for with that much greater care, or they aren’t and they don’t.

That being said, what other lessons can any leader draw from this?

First - You need to have a mechanism, a process to rout out problems, problems in systems certainly, but, and much more importantly, problems in leadership. To do so successfully is a difficult procedure, and requires an interweaving of both formal and informal surveying. It is a subject of another article, to follow soon, but it is critical that you have such a process.

Second - Bad news doesn’t get better with age (old saw but still true). If there is a real problem in your organization, you have to go digging for it. If you have an inkling that there is a problem, you must be vigorous and relentless in digging for the truth. You need people to understand that this is about the organization as a whole and is not a witch-hunt. Some people will immediately become ‘scared;’ you will need to explain to them that it is necessary for the health of the organization, but you must not let them deter you.

Third - Understand the problem. Keep asking ‘Why?’ Don’t accept the simple answer. Information reports don’t equal understanding. You need to understand the real root of the problem before you can come up with a solution that will prevent it from happening again. (In the case of the US Navy it would be very easy to simply blame the commanding officers and move on.) This is particularly true with large, and complex problems in large organizations: often there is a tendency to fix blame on some specific individual and ignore any further real investigation. A second, and often worse response is to ‘solve’ the problem by addressing the organization with a unique construct: “if only ‘Y Division’ worked directly for the senior VP there would be proper oversight.” There follows a rash of quick organizational changes that throw everyone into a state of confusion and by the time the dust settles the issue is buried again. Whether in fact it has been correctly addressed is arguably still a mystery.

Fourth - Fix the problem – Once you are certain you understand the problem, you will need to act to fix it. Perhaps it is straightforward – a design issue; perhaps it is a training issue, or a maintenance issue, or a funding issue, and perhaps it is an oversight issue. Invariably, in all but the simplest problems, the answers are multi-tiered: there are leadership issues, personnel issues, training issues, material issues, funding issues, organizational issues and oversight issues. Each deserves the proper level of consideration and effort. Whatever the root of the problem, you need to develop a response that will both prevent this from happening again and, at the same time, won’t make something else worse.

Fifth - Remove barriers to fixing the problem – the real problem. Invariably, when you finally understand the problem,*** you will find that the changes necessary to fix the old problem run counter to some slice of the organization and probably to some specific individuals. They have a choice at that point – play the new game or leave. In most cases it is easiest to simply ask them to leave, as it provides a clear signal to the rest of the organization that there has been a definitive change. This may sound unpleasant, but fixing real problems isn’t easy. But the choices are clear: fix the problem or suffer even greater difficulties.

Sixth - Be accountable and hold others accountable. In the end, the issue is accountability. People should be held accountable and your responsibility is to identify those people who have failed to live up to their responsibilities. When the system is at fault, you, as the leader, the guy at the top, are responsible for fixing it. Or for getting out of the way and letting someone else fix it.

* In 1940 the US Navy was approximately the same size as it is today: roughly 250 combatants, similar number of capital ships, etc. In 1940 the Navy had 368 ships, including 15 battleships, 5 aircraft carriers, 37 light and heavy cruisers, 127 destroyers and 64 submarines. Today we have 11 aircraft carriers and 11 large amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 54 destroyers, 55 submarines, 14 ballistic missile submarines. One major difference is that in 1940 the US Navy had a total of 116,000 sailors of which 89,400 were on ships. Today, we have a slightly larger number of sailors afloat but overall the Navy has 276,000 sailors. Additionally, today, the shore establishment has 178,000 civilian employees. That difference in personnel, coupled with the fact that in 1940 less than a quarter of the sailors were married while today roughly ¾ of sailors are married means that there is a vast difference in the percentage of the Navy budget with deals with personnel and the shore establishment; money that is not available for buying new ships or maintaining old ships. (It is worth noting that the entire US Navy/Marine budget in 1940 was $1,137,000,000, or roughly 1.1% of the US GDP of $100 billion, as compared to a Navy Marine budget for 2007 of roughly $127 billion or .95% of the US GDP of $13.5 trillion).

** The firing of a commanding officer is nothing new in the Navy or the other services, but it has been noted that over the past several years the Navy has fired quite a few commanding officers of ships, squadrons and submarines. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – these are demanding positions. But there is also the possibility that the selection process for command is partly at fault. How is that being addressed?

*** Assuming it isn’t some simple material defect that had never been identified before and is easy to fix, which is not likely. Safety investigations are excellent examples of just how complex ‘simple’ problems and ‘simple’ solutions can be. It took months of expensive effort to recover the remains of TWA 800, then more months to re-assemble the aircraft and determine a specific event – detonation of the fuel vapors in one fuel tank caused by sparking, which led to the plastic covering on the wire which then needed to be replaced in a large number of aircraft worldwide, and drove further investigations into material failure of plastics that had not been considered to be an issue before that accident.