Ep. 64 | Intent-Based Leadership: Give Control, Create Leaders

Picture of David Marquet for the Rethink Marketing podcast where he talks about intent-based leadership

Featured eBook: Creating a High Performance Marketing Plan with Marketing Automation

2017 AO High Performance Marketing Plan

In this week’s episode, we chat with Capt. David Marquet, USN (Retired), author of one of my favorite leadership books, Turn the Ship Around, which is about intent-based leadership and truly empowering your team into becoming leaders.

In his book, Marquet tells an engaging story from when he commanded the USS Santa Fe fast attack submarine. Through necessity, he introduced a bold new approach to leadership on the boat, giving up the traditional command-and-control model and instead inspiring every crew member crew to embrace accountability via intent-based leadership.

The Santa Fe rapidly improved its dismal performance record and started winning awards as the best ship in its class. Ten of its officers later went on to become commanding officers of other submarines, an unusually high number. The book has now become recommended reading for both military and business leaders. And its leadership model has been implemented by big manufacturers, start-ups, sport teams, and government.

But you know you’ve really made it when your Ted Talk on the topic is turned into a DJ’s mix: 

As we start 2018 with personal and professional resolutions, this book can offer insights to everyone within your organization, from CEO to office assistant. I strongly recommend it. And not just because I am a former submariner myself (that’s me with the grounding hook next to the ship’s commanding officer). 

This month, Marquet released a Turn the Ship Around workbook to accompany the book. For this episode, I chatted with David about what is intent-based leadership, how it applies to business, and why its important.

Intent-Based Leadership In Practice

NATHAN:     You wrote about your experience on commanding the Santa Fe. Can you talk about how this carries over into the business world, how businesses could think about this?

DAVID: We have a bunch of businesses who are doing this. And they’re seeing amazing results. And basically it’s the same idea. If you have people, you want them to think, you gotta stop telling them what to do. This idea that we tell people to do comes from the industrial age, when people were doing simple physical, repeated individual tasks, they were running their own machine.

Now we say, well, we need you to work in teams and solve complex problems that requires thinking. We need to release the creativity of the people. But we still have this industrial age management structure where you think the job as a leader is to tell people what to do, motivate them, push them, direct them, whatever words you wanna use. But every time we do that, we’re poaching their ownership, and their creativity, and their ability to come up and own their own solution. So the idea is if you want people to think, you gotta stop telling them what to do.

I’ll give you an example. Major US bank, the customer service phone people. So, in the bank the customer service phone line people are kind of the bottom of the heap. They’re the lowest, among the lowest-paid employees. They sit in these rooms. They answer the phone. Everyone they talk to is angry. And they’re supposed to solve the people’s problems and send them on their way. What the deal with this bank was, like many of these phone banks, is people would call back because the customer service people weren’t really solving their problem. They would just solve the immediate problem and get them off the line.

The head of the customer service center said, you know what, we’re gonna change all this. So he told everyone, look, don’t worry about how much time you spend on the line, I want you to solve their problem, I want you to make decisions, solve their problem, do what it takes to solve their problem. And that was basically it. So what happens now is you call up and the person: I need to reset my password. OK, we did that, now is there anything else that I can help you with? And the result was that people’s problems got solved. And the number of people that called back within 48 hours dropped dramatically. The total volume of calls dropped.

Two other things happened. This team used to lose an average of three and a half people every month just from regular attrition. For five months in a row they lost zero people. So that’s a whole bunch of people who the bank doesn’t need to train. It really symbolizes people happy with their job. The next thing that happened was they got, for the first time ever, only 9’s and 10’s on the net promoter score survey they asked people.

And finally they said, you know what, we really know what’s going on here, we really know what people are having trouble with. Why don’t we get together with the guys who are building the software and the website. And this never happened before either because the coders are high in the pecking order and the phone answering people are low. So what could we possibly learn from them? But because they kind of built up this reputation, they had the first ever day spent together sharing ideas. And the phone people said, well people are always having trouble with this, can we make that button more visible?

So there’s this big synergistic upward spiral as a result of rather than saying, OK, sit here, do this, answer these phones, follow this script, I’m telling you what to do, just releasing the passion, creativity, and the problem solving ability as a team.

And initially everyone thought this was crazy because what could they possibly know. But it’s a great story. And so that’s the kind of thing that happens in business when you give people the ability to solve their own problems.