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April 22, 2021

Building a Culture of Leaders from Day One in the US Navy

By IT Revolution


Gene Kim: One of the things that really leapt out at me is your emphasis around leadership development. You had once told Steve Spear and me a story about the extent that you went to, to reinvigorate training, to toughen up the training. You had this incredible story about how that training came about. Getting away from the post 1940 human conveyor belt mentality and the amazing outcome that resulted from it. Could you tell us that story?

Admiral Richardson: Well it happens really at every level, and it’s a task that’s still in progress to be honest, Gene. It was the product of a lot of really smart people who helped us just sort of pick away at this at every level.

So the major entry point for the United States Navy is up in the Great Lakes at our bootcamp, right up near Chicago. We process about 40,000 people per year, all over the country, and even the world, to come in and join the US Navy. They come from every imaginable situation. And so this really is the place where we start the integration. We take that vast, disparate, talented cadre of people who have raised their right hand and committed to joining the Navy and now we begin the process.

So this was motivated by me walking around and talking to junior sailors and them saying, “Hey, that was a lot easier. That bootcamp was a lot easier than I thought.”

And I was like, “What?”

And it was fairly consistent. And you take that observation against the background that we were really trying make the Navy a little bit more capable, a little tougher. We made toughness one of the core attributes of the Navy.

And so I thought, “Well, these two things are just…That’s a contrast I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.”

So we started to take a look at how we might increase the value, really, of bootcamp. And a lot of that would be to honestly, to make it harder, to make it tougher on the recruits.

And so just from about every dimension, intellectually, physically, from a team building standpoint, we improved the curriculum and we did make it harder. The physical standards became more challenging. We really went back to fundamentals of watch standing so that we could, no kidding, graduate a sailor who upon arrival in their crew was ready to contribute with some fundamentals, for sure. And there’s a lot of education still to go, but we wanted to do that.

So we actually started backing it up even before they arrived at bootcamp. So typically, somebody with some period of time before they actually report to bootcamp, just logistics, et cetera. And we backed the training up into that time before they reported. Particularly in the physical, “Hey, let’s get together and workout,” and all of that stuff. So we cranked it up.

The other thing that we did though, and this was where the thoughtfulness of the team really was just astounding, was that we also developed some mechanisms, maybe call them coping mechanisms, for each of the recruits to manage that increased level of difficulty.

Kind of sounds like a bad joke, the beginning of a bad joke. But it was a SEAL, cognitive psychologist, and a chaplain who got together and put together these coping mechanisms. It was astounding, the things that they really taught these young recruits in terms of the ability to manage their way through and help their shipmates through difficult situations.

And so just as a visual example, one of the very first things that recruits have to do is get comfortable with the water, obviously. They have this platform dive that they have to jump off of, a pretty elevated platform, into a pool. And that could be a scary thing. Some of the recruits just don’t have any experience in that regard, and if you’ve ever done that, it can be a little bit of a fearful thing.

So you could literally see these young recruits go up there and they start to—this is, like I said, very early on—they start to hesitate, and either their instructor or their fellow recruit would just use a code word, I think it was calibrate or something like that. And they would start these techniques to just center their mind, do some breathing or whatever, and then they’d step right off.

It was just remarkable and everything would be fine and everybody would cheer. It was very self-reinforcing. And so you just start with that.

I think the point being that, yes, we had to make bootcamp more challenging so that the graduates, the sailors that graduated, would be more relevant and contribute more to the Navy upon graduation. Making itself tougher. But it was insufficient just to do that. We had to give them some tools for them to get through this.

So some of the great stories of that were that the instructors and the sailors also started to use these tools in other parts of their lives. We would have people say, “Yeah, I actually, at home in my marriage, I’m able to use these tools to get through difficult times with my spouse,” or whatever it might be.

And so we really thought that we were onto something there, I think, write an article or something about this. These are very sort of boutique tools.

If you go to high-performing teams, you can find these sorts of mechanisms at play, but typically those teams are pretty small. We’re doing it at scale, 40,000 people a year able to use these tools and get through this indoctrination period. So, we really felt that we were onto something.

The key, actually, Gene was getting the instructors on board. They’ve got to be real believers of these techniques, which in many cases were new to them. I mean the previous approach was just sort of yell louder, and so we really took a different approach to that.

It was interesting that when we first started it, we went into this doing a number of pilot programs and those sorts of things, refining it, and then finally, doing all of bootcamp. We’re actually in middle of spreading it around the Navy where it can be applied. You’ve got to go slowly and thoughtfully because of the training involved with the instructors.

Early on, we were taking a look at different pilot programs and experimental phase, and we found that one of the teams up at bootcamp just weren’t getting it. They were performing in the same, et cetera. And so we dug into that and we found it was because the instructors really had not fully adopted the approach. You really have to be a believer when you do this.

Now, of course, when we cranked up the level of difficulty, a lot of people kept telling us, “Hey, this is going to be a disaster. This generation just isn’t going to be able to handle it. You’re going to see everybody leave bootcamp and drop out.” And in fact, we saw exactly the opposite. Our graduation rate went up, our attrition went down, and even the day to day, “Hey, I don’t feel so well today, so I’m going to call in sick.” All of that went down. We really felt like we had captured something special by virtue of these techniques, because it just became so much more effective across the board. People seem to be really aligning with it.

I mean, the Navy is about as talented as it ever has been, by every measure right now, grades and fitness, et cetera. And these young people can graduate from school, high school, college, whatever it might be and write their check anywhere in the world. I mean, they really are that good. There’s a lot of competition for that talent, and yet they chose the Navy. So we didn’t want to shy away from that. We wanted to give them the challenge that they signed up for, and they really leaned into that and made everybody proud.

Gene Kim: And you had this great story about the new sailors, their role in a firefighting scenario, before and after.

Admiral Richardson: Yeah. I don’t know about before, but we wanted to get some feedback from the fleet, the graduates, how were they doing? Was this really achieving the aims that we had set about? It’s a little bit anecdotal.

In general, we got very positive feedback, but there was this one story that really made me smile, which was the story of a Chief Petty Officer at sea talking to somebody back in the recruiting command saying, “Hey, what are you guys doing back there?”

And it’s, “Well, why do you ask?”

“Well, we just had a brand new recruit, and she shows up on the ship and typically we put them in a learning phase, and we don’t expect much of them. But just the other day we did a fire drill, and I was watching this damage control locker, to just monitor performance. And this young sailor came up, and she opened the damage control locker. She just went to town. She broke out the hose, flaked it out, charged it, grabbed the knife, and started doing exactly what a seasoned firefighter might do.”

Basically the feedback was, “I’ve never seen that level of proficiency on arrival before, so whatever you’re doing out there, keep doing it.” So it was really a nice bit of feedback there.

Gene Kim: I can imagine, maybe before you had those success stories, some of the reactions you would get from the instructors would be, “Holy Cow, the CNOs trying to be awfully nice.” Nice meaning maybe opposite of effective or tough. Could you tell us what maybe that discussion might have sounded like to refute that, not someone being nice.

Admiral Richardson: Right. Well, it was really a complex discussion Gene, because first there was the discussion about toughness. Is toughness the right attribute. And really, I think, Steve, you might’ve been there for some of those sessions, just joining us there for the leaders meetings, et cetera.

But they would say, “Well, we’re really after resilient or toughness. We don’t want to make it tough on ourselves. We want to train recruits to be more capable, but we certainly don’t want any abuse of any kind going on, hazing or anything like that.” We’re very mindful to protect against that.

So people were, I think, thoughtful about, is that the right word? And at the end, we sort of stuck with it and with all of the attention that it deserved. So that was the first part of the discussion is, “Hey, is toughness really what we’re after.”

And so then it was, “Okay, so how do we go about building it, raising the standards.” And everybody understood that. So instead of 10 pull-ups, something as simple as that, how do you get there?

Mental techniques were a little bit of a new approach. So now that’s where it’s like, “Oh, wait a second. Why can’t I just yell more?” We really wanted to build teammates who were ready to take on challenges, that can be quite scary, very challenging. And so how do we build them up? It was really that combination. I mean, US Navy SEALs, pretty tough crowd, no doubt about that. The psychologist just did a tremendous amount to add to that.

And then, of course, the chaplain is monitoring and bringing all of that to bear. It was the balance of those body, mind, and spirit that created a set of techniques. Again, the proof was in the pudding. There was a lot of skepticism. Eventually we got the instructors to say, “Okay, well, we’ll give this a try.” The feedback ended up being positive and so it just kind of built on itself.

Read the full transcript or listen to the full episode here.


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