Three ways to transform a company by changing the language of the boardroom

Marquet USS Sante Fe

Leadership coach and former US Navy captain David Marquet suggests how directors can boost their businesses by rewriting the rules of communication at senior level

Until 2009, leadership coach and bestselling author L David Marquet served as a captain in the US Navy. Under his command, the USS Santa Fe went from being the worst-performing submarine in the fleet to the best. He believes that some of the communication principles he applied as skipper can help to change business for the better.

Here are three of his recommendations for directors, drawn from his latest book, Leadership is Language.

Change the rules of board decision-making

The format of a board meeting normally involves the discussion of a proposed action, followed by a vote. This is the wrong way to go about it, according to Marquet, who says: “You will not get diverse opinions this way.”

He argues that the vote should happen before the debate. More crucially, it shouldn’t offer a binary “yes” or “no” option. The chair should ask everyone how strongly they support the proposal on a scale of one to 100 and write that number down, so as not to influence others at that early stage. The board members giving the lowest and highest numbers should then be invited to share their thoughts first, because they will have the most diverse views.

“You have to structure a meeting to embrace variability, because that benefits the strength of the decision,” Marquet says. “Whole organisations are often tuned to reduce variability. They have made a lot of effort to increase levels of diversity, yet they still aren’t set up in a way that allows differing opinions to be heard.”

Give everyone equal airtime

Marquet claims that organisations tend to be structured in the same way, with the most senior people having the most say. But it is “often the newest person who is the most likely source of insight. This is because they aren’t emotionally anchored to any previous decisions by the company.”

One way to address this is to keep track of the number of words each person contributes during meetings – something that Marquet calls the “team language coefficient”.

He explains: “If we’re in a conversation among equals, then everyone’s contributions should be the same. There shouldn’t be one person on the board who doesn’t say anything.”

Leadership is Language uses the SS El Faro, a ship that sailed into a Caribbean hurricane in 2015 and sank with the loss of all hands when it could have avoided the worst of the weather, as a case study in how badly things can go wrong when a team has a top-heavy structure. The book reviews the ship’s voyage data recorder, which logged conversations on the ship’s bridge during its last hours afloat, revealing that its most senior officers did most of the talking. Marquet argues that the crew’s fate might have been different had the discussions been less lopsided.

Embrace change yourself and set an example

Many directors focus on creating a more agile and innovative working culture, which tends to rely on persuading staff to change deeply ingrained behaviour. But directors don’t always grasp how difficult this can be, according to Marquet.

“For a director to truly understand what it takes, I would advise them to pick a habit in their own life and change it,” he suggests. “You will then be sympathetic to what others go through when making such changes.”

One executive he has worked with had been struggling to resist hitting the snooze button on his alarm every morning. Marquet used this as proof that even the smallest routines can be hard to shake.

He says: “If you can’t do something as simple as that, how can you ask people at your organisation to do something that’s as fundamentally scary as sharing their ideas so that we can all be more innovative and agile?”

Marquet believes that leaders “need to create an environment that’s easy for people to be more collaborative and innovative. But it all begins by looking within.”

Director April/May coverAn extract of Marquet’s book can be read in the April / May 2020 issue of Director magazine

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Sam Forsdick

Sam Forsdick

Features writer, Director magazine

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