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By Captain Roy Love, USN (Retired) and Antonio Rodriguez Martinez, CEO Efficient Happiness.
“A great leader is like an umbrella.” My good friend, Antonio Rodriguez Martinez, CEO, and founder of Efficient Happiness made this brilliant observation while discussing lived experiences during a recent ZOOM chat. Having never heard the term, I thought it was an extraordinary observation.
As we pondered this concept and explored it a little further, I understood his meaning: we should think of Organizational Culture as an umbrella that any leader could use to guide and protect their people. Absent a solid pro-employee cultural umbrella, a leader must find other ways to take care of those under their leadership.
This article is a collaboration between Antonio and me to explore the concept of a cultural umbrella further, how one can appropriately utilize it, and how it can be a powerful metaphor for outstanding leadership.
Sometimes we know what the culture of our organization is, and we understand that culture serves our people so that they can work in the most welcoming and supportive environment. However, we also know that sometimes what the culture is supposed to be and what it truly is, are vastly different things.
Culture is a set of values, beliefs, and behaviors derived from a social group, which directs conduct through tacit agreement. It represents a fundamental element of a social contract between groups of individuals.
Culture defines the way people behave in a group. Optimally, it creates a space where everyone feels free and protected. We feel most comfortable because we are with those who share similar perceptions, beliefs, and points of view. We fit in because there is something abstract that brings us all together. According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari, the origin of this phenomenon starts at the cognitive revolution, which marks the point when people who did not know each other could imagine intangible entities, like a divine being, uniting them to fight for and watch over a common cause. The culture, and that power of unity, belonging, and safety is the protective umbrella a leader provides those under their care.
Good leaders know how to use the culture umbrella to protect and shelter their people from the rains of nonsense and the storm of unnecessary churn. When the culture umbrella serves only to cover the organization and its profit, growth, and wealth, great leaders work beyond the limits of the culture to protect their people.
In almost 30 years as a Naval Officer, my observation is that leaders mean well and want what is best for both the organization and their people. In this balance lies virtue. The line is blurred when we confuse a great culture supporting people with a culture that espouses that the company’s needs outweigh the needs of the employees. An organization’s culture, and above all, its values, should be the main drivers for a leader’s interactions with their people and what is best for them.
As I think back on more than three decades of military service, I genuinely believe that achieving a “Culture of Excellence” has been the primary driver for everything we do in the service. Often, I think leaders misunderstand that an organization’s culture should be the protective umbrella covering and supporting its people. At the same time, they perform the mission instead of solely protecting the leaders or the corporate interests, as noted by several high-profile firings of military officers for personal and professional failures in the last two decades.
An effective leader knows how to use the corporate culture to take care of those under their charge, and when the culture clashes with the interests of those we lead, we must figure out ways to protect our people. Sometimes, this means a leader must make decisions that could cost them professionally and personally, including reaching into your pocket to make things happen. Suppose the company culture is such that the leaders must continuously expend personal currency to take care of people because the organization fails to do so. In that case, they will eventually decide the individual cost is too high and move to a workplace where the values and culture are closer in alignment with their own.
Leaders sometimes get this right, and other times they fail; this is life. It is imperative that we strive to understand the culture of our organization and that when in doubt, we remember that organizations are the people that make things happen. As such, culture will always come from the people. If we cannot take care of them, then we will have failed as leaders.
How do we know when we as leaders use the umbrella to protect our people, ourselves, or our organization? Let me share a few examples from my career.
“You need to work weekends.” The time I chose not to listen to my boss.
Years ago, when I commanded a US warship, we were preparing for a critical inspection we call INSURV. The Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) was established by Congress in 1870, with legislation enacted in 1882 to inspect Navy ships and report their readiness. It is a thorough inspection that examines vessels against Navy standards to determine readiness in many areas. The assessment is supposed to be taken “in stride” and as an “open-book test,” with the criteria available beforehand.
In the years preceding our inspection, many ships had failed or done very poorly during this all-important inspection, which happened every 3-5 years in the life of a vessel. It is understandable that my Immediate Superior in Command (ISIC), the Squadron Commodore, at the time in charge of about 14 ships, did not want any of the ships under his purview to fail. Nor did I!
As the ISIC, my boss oversaw the tactical proficiency, administrative support, and material readiness of the 14 ships to ensure they were ready to deploy across the world to support national taskings. As the Captain of my ship, I was responsible for everything that happened on that vessel. The good, the bad, and everything else! Failing to prepare for, and do well at INSURV, was a failure of leadership on the Captain’s part and would reflect poorly on the Commodore. Understandably, my boss was very much interested in our success. At the time, the culture for our squadron was and still is the culture of the US Navy, a “Culture of Excellence.”
It is not hard to define a culture of excellence when your core values are honor, courage, and commitment. I think of it as always ready, doing everything we must to ensure excellence, doing things right, without fear, and fully committed to taking care of our people to accomplish the mission. While I thought of it as taking care of the people who work to achieve the mission, I honestly think that some see it as “mission always first,” no matter the cost to people.
With the inspection still several months away, the boss and I talked about how prepared I thought the ship and crew were for our upcoming inspection. We had a good relationship, and I felt that he trusted me. After saying I thought we were on track and that we should pass and do well, my boss asked if I had considered bringing the team in on weekends to work on preparations. He based his question on experience with other ships that had brought in their crews on weekends months before the inspection. We usually start preparing for this inspection about a year out, as it is incredibly detailed. We were initially supposed to do a limited review because we were to decommission the ship in less than a year. So, when the board of INSURV changed the scope of our assessment to a full one, with only a few months left, we had less time than most ships to prepare, and we started doing so immediately!
At the time of my conversation with my boss, my crew worked extremely hard during the week, putting in twelve to fourteen-hour days, sometimes more. I trusted them and did not feel that we should have to come in on the only days they could relax and be with their families.
So, I said no, we did not need to work on weekends. The boss asked me to think about it and not hesitate to do it if needed. I just thought, noted!
Fast forward, and we are a couple of months from INSURV now. Again, the boss asks if we had started to work on weekends. Again, I said, no, we should do well without bringing in the crew on Saturday and Sunday. So, he says every other ship in the squadron had worked weekends when they were this close to the inspection. Again, noted! I still did not feel that we needed to. See, I trusted my people, and I understood their capabilities, determination, and commitment.
A few weeks closer to the inspection, the boss asks if we have started to work weekends, emphasizing that no other ship had done well without working weekends. OK. I think that means he wants us to work weekends.
I still do not want to inflict this level of pain on my crew. They had been working extremely hard doing more than full workdays, and our preparations were going well.
My dilemma then was whether to listen to the boss and bring the crew in on weekends. If I brought them in, it would signal I did not trust that we will be ready, and in the process, make many families very unhappy. If I did not bring them in, I risked my standing within the squadron and with the boss who may perceive I disobeyed the implied “order” to work on our days off.
What must a leader do when faced with doing what is best for the organization vs. what is best for the people?
Understanding that the corporate culture demands excellence and interpreting this pursuit of excellence to mean that we should work longer hours, sacrificing our people’s emotional and physical well-being, is wrong. We can achieve greatness by working more intelligently and efficiently. Working long hours and on weekends is not necessarily effective.
I knew my crew, and I knew they could deliver. What then could I do? My boss trusted me. He always listened and let me do things as I thought best. This time though, I felt that he asked me to do something he thought would make a significant difference in our success. The drive to ensure success, in this case, seemed to trump whatever I felt about our readiness and the happiness of my crew. His cultural umbrella was to be used to protect the organization. Was the culture of excellence we had established conspiring against us? To me, you achieve excellence by taking care of people.
I know the boss, deep down, also believed this, but prior experiences may have led him to believe that excellence should be measured by how well a ship did at this inspection. Nevertheless, a good leader is also a good follower.
I certainly wanted to do well, and I cared about my people and this inspection. Still, I felt that I needed to protect my crew from working longer than they had to simply because he told me to. So, I did not do what the boss wanted. Instead, I called all my Senior Leaders (Supervisors) together, Officers and Chiefs, and asked that we all come in on the weekend and let our crew stay home. If my boss asked if we had worked weekends, I could honestly say yes.
Without advertising to the crew, the leadership worked a couple of weekends before the inspection, and the junior Sailors only worked the weekend before the actual examination. My boss never asked me again, as his staff had been to the ship on weekends, and seeing all the Senior Leadership there, would have witnessed that we were working weekends.
On the week of the inspection, our crew was ready. We did not just pass. Our INSURV was above average! Inspectors lauded our results as the best observed INSURV for a Frigate in several years. I was proud and felt good the crew had done so well. It also validated my belief that our people should come first. If we trust them and treat them well, the team’s performance will be more remarkable if we take care of them first.
“Anything you need?” The day I failed to extend my umbrella for the protection of others.
A little over a year after taking charge of the second-largest naval base in the United States, with over 1500 direct report employees supporting about 50,000 people each day, I reviewed our annual Command Climate Survey (Corporate Culture Survey). It was an excellent survey, with many positive comments, and one where our workforce felt good about coming to work. As such, negative comments stood out, and I wanted to focus on correcting any issues. In reviewing the survey, I came across a written statement indicating that I had lied in my first year as the Commanding Officer.
I promised someone water, and several months later, they were still waiting for it. I will not quote it, as I do not fully recall the words, but the essence of the complaint was that I did not care about my people and made false promises. Of course, this statement came as a surprise to me. Initially, I had no recollection of what this was. It bothered me, as I am a proactive leader who cares about people first and always did what I could to take care of them.
After some reflection, I remembered driving around inspecting our security post on a rainy day. I oversaw a 400 strong security department, the largest department at our installation. Normally, I would walk to our posts and spend a few minutes with the personnel on guard to ensure people were doing their jobs, talk to them, and get to know them. This day, because of the rain, I was doing it in the company car. I stopped at one gate and, after asking how things were going on Post, I casually asked the sentry if there was “anything you need?” He said he had forgotten to bring water with him. I told him I would pass that to his supervisor and get him some water. I proceeded to the next checkpoint, and the next, and the next, satisfied that we were doing our job of securing the base. I completely forgot about the sentry who needed water.
I considered the culture at this command to be one of excellence. We had this written on everything. I spoke about it at all my engagements with my staff and every opportunity I got. “We support the Fleet, Fighter, and Family, with excellence always!” This young man was one of those fighters.
He never got his water. I failed that day! I was so busy looking out for corporate interests, like ensuring our folks were doing their jobs properly, that I forgot to fully embrace one employee under our cultural umbrella.
It may seem like a small detail, a simple glass or bottle of water, but much more. Thinking back, my organization failed collectively to take care of everyone. Neither the Sailor’s immediate supervisor, his shift Sargent, the officer in charge of the base that day, his senior leaders in the department, the executive officer, nor I did our jobs that day.
Having been asked if he needed help, this young man had said yes, with an expectation that someone would do something to alleviate his need. I learned a valuable lesson that day after reading his comments and made significant changes that ensured all our people would have water available on their posts.
Some argued that it was the individual’s responsibility to ensure he had what he needed before taking the watch. Having a radio, this young man could and should have contacted his supervisor to confirm we supported him. However, as leaders, we must make sure we are looking after our people. If we take the time to ask someone how we can help, we should provide help when asked. While I was genuinely interested in ensuring we adequately supported our people, I failed to listen and act on this specific day. We, as leaders, are not infallible.
The culture of our organization is something we should understand and put into practice every day; with everything we do. A culture of excellence, one built on trust, care, and the benefit of our employees, ensures that someone is always listening and taking actions to make life better for those who make the organization function. We were better after the “water at the gate” incident, and our people felt better about our engagement.
I reiterate that we know what our organization’s culture says it is and understand that it should serve our people to work in the most welcoming and supportive environment. Sometimes what the culture is supposed to be and what it is are two vastly different things. Good leaders know how to use the culture umbrella to protect and shelter their people from the rains of nonsense or unnecessary churn. When the culture umbrella only serves to protect the organization, but the organization seems to only value profit, growth, and wealth above all things, good leaders must work beyond the limits of the culture to protect their people.
Leaders sometimes get this right, and other times we fail. We must strive to understand the culture of our organization, and when in doubt, we remember our people will always come first.
We should never forget that organizations are people. Those who genuinely feel happy and can be themselves at work will make great things happen. They will produce more and relish being part of our team, proudly serving our organization, and carrying our standard as their brand, ultimately giving us their best version of themselves every day!
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