Maneuver and Values-Based Leadership in Business

Interactive forum for the exchange of ideas pertaining to: the experiences of the change management consulting and hands-on leadership training firm, Santamaria & Martino LLC and the message of our book, The Marine Corps Way, which applies military strategy and leadership to business

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Learning to Lead – Outside Your Comfort Zone

Many businesses and academic institutions struggle with teaching their people how to lead: classroom-based instruction is often criticized for being “too theoretical” and “intangible”, while “feel good” events, such as ropes courses, fail to relate to real-world business needs.

Below, we describe how we custom-tailored an intense, “hands-on” leadership training / team-building event aboard sailboats to the real-world business needs of a highly regarded asset management firm. For those of you familiar with the Wharton Leadership Venture to Quantico, this sailing event was the same experience as the U. S. Marine Corps’ famed Leadership Reaction Course (LRC) – in a non-military environment.

Event Design

Our over-riding intent was to take participants outside of their respective “comfort zones” by placing them in conditions of simulated uncertainty and urgency and challenging them to maintain their composure, make rapid-fire decisions, and collaborate. Rotating through “captain” and “crew” positions on the boat, everyone had the opportunity to lead his/her team, and everyone gained a greater appreciation for each other’s contributions in the process.

After each race, we provided participants with immediate feedback on individual leadership skills and team dynamics. Because of the high (and increasing) level of difficulty, learning occurred through "a-ha!" experiences of self-realization, and we were able to identify tendencies that otherwise would not have manifested themselves during everyday firm operations.

Said participants:

  • “I thought it was a great experience – definitely difficult and sometimes frustrating, but very beneficial. The theme was decision making in the face of uncertainty and that is what we were forced to do . . . Next time I'm going to wear my hockey helmet”
  • “Personally, I found [being pushed outside of my comfort zone] extremely rewarding . . . an effective way to see what you're capable of”
  • “I thought it was fantastic that we received immediate feedback during the day. The comments that Vince & Jason had for me, really made me aware of how I am in the office. I learned that it is important to focus on a goal, but you have to be aware of what's going on around you and with your own team members. I also learned a lot about my colleagues”

Event Description

Along with certified sailing instructors, we joined four 4-member teams for four 1-hour races aboard identical 24ft J/24 sailboats.

Race 1 – “No Designated Leader . . . Then Sail Backwards.” After the crews learned about basic sail control, seamanship, and safety in the harbor, we moved to the start line and began our first race – without designating a team leader. And for the last leg of the race, boats sailed backwards. Our aim here was to see: 1) who was willing to take charge of the situation while still listening to his/her crew and 2) which teams were able to agree on a race strategy and roles & responsibilities in the most expedient manner

  • “I think getting together to communicate on a non-technical basis helps each of us understand better where the other person is coming from. Needing to work together was definitely good. I liked the fact that with the boat underway, there was no chance to debate about who would take the lead. Fast action was required so under the circumstances people were ok accepting orders whereas they might not have been if urgent action wasn't needed”

Race 2 – “Sail Change.” In this race, we designated a team leader but introduced two major disruptions: an unannounced sail change (i.e., “change the jib now”) and a subsequent announced sail change (i.e., “at the buoy 200 yards ahead, you will need to change the jib again”). Our aim here was to see: how the leader was able to 1) react to rapidly changing events and 2) then prepare for a reoccurrence and communicate a plan. Crews that proactively anticipated potential problems (and captains that provided advance notice of upcoming decisions) were able to avoid crisis situations that required heroic yet reactive efforts to “put out fires”

  • “I learned a lot about communication - what works, what doesn't, different approaches to try with different team members”

Races 3 & 4 – “Inclusive Team Leader.” In this race, the team leaders were blindfolded, and we challenged them to rely completely on the observations and recommendations of their crews to navigate the sailboats. Our aim here was to see: 1) how the boat captain was able to leverage diverse inputs from the crew to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and 2) what level of comfort the boat captain had with an impaired sense of control. Boats were successful when crewmembers provided blindfolded boat captains with detailed, tangible descriptions – in a unified voice

  • “The blindfolded exercise was incredible. It made me more conscientious of how I could improve on my own communication skills”

Event Wrap-up

After the races, we related lessons learned from the day’s activities and prescriptions from our book, The Marine Corps Way, to the firm’s specific business needs – communication, people development, and defining / reinforcing culture – in a relaxed dinner setting:

  • “I found the dinner presentation and discussion afterwards as useful as the exercise itself”
  • “Without [the wrap-up] presentation, the day would have been left hanging a bit, but it really tied everything together. Military-related analogies and anecdotes definitely keep people's attention”


Across all teams, we noticed two noteworthy trends:

Teamwork: we were most pleasantly surprised with the exceptionally high degree of cooperation and composure that all boat crews displayed: teammates were quick to help one another, boat captains maintained their poise under challenging conditions, and everyone was very receptive to the input of their colleagues

Leadership: In general, boat captains appeared reluctant to take charge of and direct their crews. Many boat captains attributed this reluctance to the high degree of uncertainty (which was “by design”): their lack of familiarity with sailing hindered their ability to make decisions with confidence.

  • Our advice to reluctant boat captains: Remember the "80% Rule"** - the longer you wait to make a decision and provide your team with a general strategic direction, the more likely are competitors – who may be just as uncertain and uncomfortable as you – to make a decision and move ahead – while your sailboat remains stalled . . . pointing directly into the wind (**the "80% Rule" holds that any decision made with more than 80% of available information is hesitation)

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Recognizing Superior Achievement

This posting on recognizing superior achievement in an organization is the third in a three-part series on how we helped a consulting client effect major cultural change. Our previous two postings (July and August 2005) described how we helped our client improve downward communications and create a meaningful set of core values.

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Many managers dismiss the recognition of superior achievement as "touchy-feely" or "nice to have . . . if I weren't so busy." But in those companies that are widely heralded for having high-performing cultures - such as Southwest Airlines and FedEx - recognition of superior achievement remains a top priority for managers at all levels. Below, we describe how we helped a 300-member organization revitalize a program for the tiered recognition of achievement, which not only bolstered morale but also served as a powerful means to reinforce desired behaviors, such as initiative, creativity, individual responsibility, and cross-functional cooperation.

The Challenge

Despite numerous "individual acts of brilliance" that enabled the organization to succeed in spite of considerable resource constraints and corporate "involvement", individual contributors and junior managers were not receiving their due recognition for "going above and beyond the call of duty." Although two formal programs existed, recognition was simply not a priority for senior managers, who were preoccupied with their own day-to-day responsibilities, and HR, which was focused on enforcement of corporate policies and regulations.

How We Solved It

Questioning the sustainability of an intense working environment where people did not feel appreciated, we challenged everyone - particularly senior managers - to make recognition a priority.

Revitalized the two existing recognition programs. The first existing program - "Gem Cards" - enabled peers to reward each other for relatively small achievements; Gem Cards could be redeemed in sets of 5, 10, 15, etc. for gift certificates or dinner vouchers. The second existing program - "Extra Effort Awards" - enabled managers to recognize individual contributors for more significant achievements; one Extra Effort Award could be redeemed for a team dinner, where the manager would often praise the individual contributor in front of the entire team. Curiously, both of these programs had "fallen by the wayside" over the previous four years, as the organization's work environment intensified in the face of deteriorating market conditions. Realizing their value and not feeling the need to "re-invent the wheel", we "dusted them off" and added a third.

Created a special award for behavior that exemplified the organization's core values. For the most noteworthy achievements, we asked the general manager of the organization to recognize a select group of individuals in front of all 300 employees at each quarterly "all hands" meeting. Two weeks before each meeting, we solicited nominations via a special e-mail address that IT created for us. We then reviewed the nominations and categorized them as "yes - pending further investigation", "maybe - pending further investigation", or "no." When we agreed that a nomination warranted a "yes" or "maybe", we conducted follow-up, in-person interviews with the submitter, the nominee's manager, and the nominee's peers; the follow-up interviews were always necessary to provide the additional color we needed to complete brief (300 word) narratives for "yes" nominations or make final decisions on "maybe" nominations. When we did not deem the achievement commensurate with the highest level of recognition (which was approximately 50% of the time), we encouraged the submitter to nominate the individual for an Extra Effort Award or Gem Card. Then, before each quarterly "all hands" meeting, we asked the general manager to 1) read the narratives that we had completed and 2) present the selected nominees with personalized plaques and mounted copies of the narratives. While these "Core Values" awards carried no monetary compensation whatsoever, they were embraced at all levels of the organization and proved to be a highly effective source of motivation.

Communicated the details of the three tiers of recognition to the entire organization. At the first quarterly "all-hands" meeting of 2004, we provided both verbal and written descriptions of the Gem Card, Extra Effort, and Core Values awards and their corresponding criteria. And prior to subsequent quarterly "all hands" meetings, we reminded all members of the organization to submit nominations via e-mail.

Formed a special committee to institutionalize the recognition process. The repeated use of "we" in the above paragraphs was intended to highlight the participation of a cross-functional committee of dedicated volunteers, who individually investigated "yes" and "maybe" submissions and collectively decided on nominations. Ensuring that the right people were being recognized for the right achievements in the right manner was a time-consuming and (ironically) thankless endeavor, but the volunteers' dedication ensured the program's ongoing success - even after the initial novelty wore off.

Lessons Learned and Prescriptions

Employees who witness their peers receiving recognition for superior achievement say to themselves one of two things: "I sure would like to be up there" or "this is bogus." The narrative is absolutely critical: the effectiveness of the recognition is absolutely dependent upon who is recognized for what and why

  • Who: be sure to double-check the submission with the nominee's supervisor and peers. In one instance, we failed to solicit input from a recipeint's peers, and the "Core Values" award actually had a damaging effect because the recipient, who always managed to maintain appearances with supervisors, was actually notorious for failing to follow through on commitments to teammates
  • What: thorough research begets tangible, illustrative examples that resonate with audiences infinitely more than do flowery words. Many of the cryptic or incomplete written submissions we received required us to conduct follow-up inverviews in person
  • Why: you must explain the linkage between the recognized achievement and your organization's core values, strategy, or business needs in the clearest and simplest terms possible; what may be obvious to you may not be as evident to others, who lack your perspective

Making recognition of superior achievement a priority is a time-consuming endeavor that you cannot abandon after the initial novlety wears off

  • Don't initiate a recognition initiative unless you are prepared to "stick with it" over the long haul

Similarly, the degree to which you are able to encourage nominations from "busy" submitters depends on the amount of work you are willing to do. In an effort to avoid dissuading potential submitters, we allowed "free-form" nominations via e-mail, but these nominations invariably required significant follow-up research and refinement on our part

  • Consider creating a simple template of required questions that submitters must answer

Presenting an award for the sake of presenting an award is tempting

  • If the achievement is not commensurate with the award, do not present the award; you will undermine the credibility of the recognition program. From the outset, we made it very clear to the entire organization that there could be quarters when no one would receive an award

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Making Core Values Resonate

This posting, which describes how to make your organization’s core values more meaningful, is the second in a three-part series on how we helped a consulting client effect major cultural change. Next month, we will describe how we helped that client create a system for the tiered recognition of superior achievement to boost morale and reinforce desired behavior.

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Most organizations have core values, but many organizations’ core values fall short of resonating with employees. Below, we describe how we helped a 300-member organization not only draft but also reinforce a set of (previously non-existent) core values, thereby creating a baseline for the establishment of a common, cohesive culture.

The Challenge

As a result of large-scale lateral hires and years of “scrambling to stay on top of” rapid growth, the organization lacked a common, cohesive culture. Core values were non-existent, as corporate executives had never before invested in their creation. And this underinvestment created a void: employees hungered for something to shape their decision-making criteria, define appropriate behavior, and set priorities in the organization.

How We Solved It

Conducted an informal poll. After assisting in the formulation and communication of the organization’s long-term strategy, we informally polled numerous employees as to what they thought the organization should “stand for.” Where we saw trends in the responses, we began to construct a list of 7-10 possible values; we then attempted a first draft of 7-10 possible definitions.

Narrowed the list and refined definitions. We then assembled a cross-functional team of employees, ranging from individual contributor to executive, to review the list and narrow the number of possible values to 3-5. After what seemed like countless iterations, we reached agreement on 4 values and their definitions. We then “beta tested” the values and definitions with employees outside of the committee, solicited input, and further revised the language.

Published a final draft: the final version we published was warmly received at all levels of the organization. Written by a representative sample of the very people who were being asked to embrace the core values, the final version: 1) fit the organization’s long-term strategy, 2) was easily understood, and 3) consisted of pledges (“we will . . .”, “I will . . .”), rather than dry definitions.

The following are the values the committee drafted:

  • Excellence: we will think and act as one team to deliver products and services that create breakthrough value for our customers
  • Integrity: we will uphold the highest standards of ethical behavior and honesty at all times
  • Ingenuity: we will embrace change, be creative, and take calculated risks to make [our company] successful and meet the dynamic needs of our customers
  • Ownership: I will accept personal responsibility and accountability for the work I do and the commitments I make so that people can rely on me with utmost confidence

Challenged everyone in the organization – especially managers – to “walk the talk”: The exhaustive effort of drafting the core values was just the beginning; the real effort came as we endeavored to reinforce the core values. We posted signs wherever we could – on doors, in hallways, in conference rooms, and over work stations. Senior managers committed to upholding the values through their actions and holding their teams accountable for doing the same. Project team members repeatedly asked each other, “is this decision / course of action consistent with our core values?” Finally, we worked with employees and senior managers to create “core values awards” for recognizing achievement that exemplified the values (more on this initiative next month . . .).

Lessons Learned and Prescriptions

  • Whether you are creating a set of new core values or placing renewed emphasis on an existing set of core values, senior managers should remember three things: 1. Constantly uphold those values through actions and hold your people accountable for doing the same 2. Constantly uphold those values through actions and hold your people accountable for doing the same 3. Constantly uphold those values through actions and hold your people accountable for doing the same
  • If you are going to ask your people to embrace a set of core values, include them in the planning / drafting effort; don't just impose values from the top-down!
  • Values should further your organization’s long-term strategic goals
  • Wording should be crisp, compelling, and easy-to-understand; an organization generally should have no more than six core values
  • Finally, remember that at work, people are seeking not only a paycheck but also a sense of belonging. Give them a set of ideals with which they can identify and to which they can aspire

Please send an e-mail to if you would like us to notify you of new postings, which will occur on the fifth day of each month