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7 Key Lessons for Nonprofit Organizational Change and Growth from a Nuclear Submarine

This past week, I listened to the remarkable audiobook, Turn This Ship Around, by L. David Marquet. Marquet is a retired US Navy submarine captain, and he tells the story of how he turned the traditional leadership paradigm of “leader-follower” not necessarily on its head (that would be “follower-leader”) but possibly inside out and implemented “leader-leader” on his boat. He took his nuclear powered submarine, the USS Santa Fe, from worst to first in an extraordinarily short period of time.

Being a very practical-minded person, I particularly appreciated the “mechanisms” for change that Marquet included at the end of each chapter. Below are a few of those mechanisms and how I would recommend their principles be applied to nonprofit organizations:

Key Lesson #1 – The Creed

The first key point I take from Marquet, and one of the simplest solutions he credits with his team’s remarkable achievement, had to do with the establishment of the boat’s creed, “We Learn.” A creed is a statement of fundamental belief that guides all that the team does. Here is why I believe this creed was so successful, and why such simple statements can turn your own nonprofit ship around:

  • Because it is short, sweet and not technical in nature, it is not limited by time or space. Its generality in applicability is its strength.
  • It can be applied to virtually all decisions and scenarios in which the team is involved.
  • It is an action statement. A creed needs to be applicable, thus an action. “We learn,” or “We help” or “We improve” are not just invitations for team members to follow but identities that guide thoughts and actions.
  • Because of the simplicity and generality of such creeds, they apply to all team members, regardless of responsibilities or status. In your nonprofit, you need Creed that speaks to your board members, your staff, perhaps your dock workers, and your volunteers.

While it is human nature to desire to emulate success, as businesses and organizations, we also want to express individuality and build brand recognition to stand out in a crowd. So, if you want to use this creed as your own organization’s core value, that seems natural. If, on the other hand, you would like to establish your own core values, here are some suggestions:

  1. Gather the team. Do not make this decision on your own. Since this activity is identifying a creed, you can’t force belief on others. A strategic planning meeting is an ideal situations to identify and formulate a creed. Involving the board, staff, volunteers and others is critical.
  2. Get to the bottom of the matter. At every level and every decision and every scenario and during every minute of every hour, what do you want you and your team to DO?
  3. Keep it simple. Mission statements and vision statements are incredibly important organizational documents that have their place and purpose, but no team member will be memorizing and quoting them on a day-to-day basis. A two to three-word creed, on the other hand, can be remembered and implemented easily.
  4. Write it down. Start with “We…” Like the team of the Santa Fe, you may prefer to start with “We” and follow it with a general verb. What do you do in all situations? Do you learn, like the Santa Fe crew? Do you improve? Do you help?

Key Lesson #2 – Core Values

While Marquet does not refer to them as core values, he identifies the three key components (calling two of them pillars) of his leader-leader model: Control, Competence and Clarity.

While the Creed tells everyone WHAT you do at all times and in all places, core values tell them WHY you do what you do. The importance of the “Why” is that it provides staff, leadership, volunteers and others with the power to reason their way through difficult decisions. If they ever question the wisdom of implementing the Creed in certain circumstances, the Core Values will motivate them in their choice.

Many leaders and organizations, such as Marquet, use lists of nouns to establish their Core Values. The problem is that nouns do not lead anywhere. They are passive. They are acted upon and have no energy. They are dead. I usually recommend that you also turn your core values into an imperative by starting with a simple helping verb, such as “Do” or “Show” or “Have” or “Be.” For example, instead of “Helpful” as a core value, try “Be helpful.” Instead of “Compassionate,” try “Show compassion.” For your nonprofit, a Core Value might be “Do right.” Core values are simple, guiding principles that can be applicable at all levels of an organization.

Key Lesson #3 – Change the Genetic Code of Your Organization

Marquet writes about the challenges he faced when attempting to move from a leader-follower mindset to a leader-leader paradigm. His officers and crew were “programmed” by initiatives and rules to follow command rather than take the initiative. He wanted to discover the team’s genetic code and to rewrite it in order to change the way things got done.

For nonprofits who are hungry to take their organization to the next level, this might involve a review and even a rewriting of their Bylaws. This will be a challenge unless there is fundamental buy in from the board and, in the case of associations, the membership. When was the last time your board reviewed and updated (or even read) the Bylaws? Are there other written and unwritten rules of behavior that you need to address in order to change the way business gets done (or doesn’t get done)?

Key Lesson #4 – “I intend to…”

It was not enough for Marquet to tell his officers that they were to own their responsibilities. They continued to ask for his permission and advice, which meant they were still not empowering themselves. So the captain instructed them to use the phrase, “I intend to…” before notifying him of what they were planning to do. Such a simple change of terminology had a dramatic effect. The officers (and eventually the crew) began to think like the captain, considering the various consequences of their intentions.

Have you tried to “empower” your managers and the directors in your nonprofit? Have your attempted to implement empowerment programs? Marquet makes the point the such programs are likely to fail because they approach the problem as if the leader is the one empowering the followers. The team much empower themselves, and using the simple phrase, “I intend to…” is the easiest way to start.

Key Lesson #5 – Embrace the Inspectors (or the regulators or the auditors)

Rather than trying to hide problems from inspectors in order “not to fail,” Captain Marquet and his team welcomed them and asked questions about how other organizations were handling common challenges. If it seems tied to Lesson #1, “We learn,” it absolutely is.

Does your organization fear site visits by regulators, auditors (standards or financial) and other inspectors? If so, it is likely that you are trying not to fail rather than striving for excellence.

Key Lesson # – Start with the End in Mind

I have been asked by employers before to describe, in advance of a performance review, where I want to be in 2 or 5 years. The problem with the instance I am thinking of was that the company had not shared – or even set – any organizing goals. So how could I answer the question about my own goals benefiting the company if I (or anyone else, for that matter) did not know where the company was headed?

Set organizational goals that lead to the fulfillment of the organization’s vision. Then, share those goals with the employees and ask them to align their individual goals to those of the organization. Otherwise, my goals felt like shots in the dark.

Key Lesson #7 – Continually and Consistently Repeat the Message

I appreciated the captain’s description of the importance of repeating the important messages that include the boat’s purpose and the officers’ and crew’s purposes. “But won’t they get tired of the message?” If they don’t get the reaffirming message from the captain that change is positive and important and possible, they will get a message from the void that change is not any of those things. Change will not happen.

How can you continually and consistently repeat the critical message of your organization’s purpose to your team? Email signatures and newsletters are probably part of it. How about including such messages on every meeting agenda? Can you have break room posters made? Great ideas! But the most important message will be the verbal and nonverbal messages communicated by you in every conversation you have and in all activities you are involved in. Make sure YOU are the message.

If such lessons can turn around the culture and performance of a nuclear submarine, they can certainly apply to your work to improve your own nonprofit.

If you would like help implementing these and other key practices in your nonprofit, I would be happy to discuss ways to assist.

Looking for a facilitator for your next planning session, click here or call Todd at (208) 649-4788.

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