Those Busy ED Captains (how will you prepare?)

BLUF: I recently had an email and telephone exchange with one of my mentors that centered on the leadership challenges for ED Captains. There are those that conclude that ED Captains are too busy and too unfamiliar with the details of our business to break free of the “status quo prison.”  Junior Officers and civilians on the front lines struggle to comprehend see the “big picture,” mostly suffering to describe what they are experiencing like blind men describing an elephant.   Few people are looking at the Systems and Mental Models levels or seeing the interactions of the white spaces. In the post that follows, I offer some insight I gained from reading three Harvard Business Review articles that I believe are very pertinent to these challenges.

Commanding Officers, Admirals, and SESs struggle to provide and act on strategic direction or preparation, traits that are not endemic in engineers anyway so one should not be too surprised by this. Sadly, unless we find new ways of doing business, listening to those with the most recent front line experience, and mentoring those on the “tip of the spear” making stuff happen, we are likely to continue to keep doing the same things (even as the world changes around us) and getting the same old results.

My mentor believes that “The Secret Reason Your Employees Won’t Innovate” p 26 of April Harvard Business Review (HBR) applies [afraid they will invoke anger among their peers].

I believe he is right about Captains being too busy to pay attention most days. When there is so little quadrant two time, important things like reflections on business results and strategic actions for improvement get short shrift. The “busy” things people have to do that pass for action (like email, returning phone calls, responding to urgent action items, and attending meetings that constitute “presiding” over matters rather than being engaged in the details and driving improvement) crowd out almost everything else. In my experience, you have to be very well organized to strategically leverage your position to make a difference in the complex world of ship repair and construction. This is why I am so open to having shadows accompany me for a week to see what a Captain does. Everyone who has done this comes away awestruck about the demands on my time.

In the classic HBR article, “Leadership: Sad Facts and Silver Linings,” by Thomas J. Peters, the author notes that the leader’s job is to promote and protect the organization’s values. A short excerpt:

Fact: Not enough choices: You usually receive just one option for review—e.g., one investment proposal rather than several fully developed choices. You face yes/no decisions. 

Silver lining: Single options usually reflect your previously expressed preferences. Over time, enough one-option choices accumulate into a coherent portfolio that let you shape your company’s direction. Use a single option to detect whether the company’s heading in the direction you desire; e.g., is a proposed new product slate aimed at the right customers? Then signal division managers: “You have (or haven’t) gotten the message.”


Fact: Limited time: You don’t see critical issues until late, because proposals omit problems that arose earlier. You end up tackling 11th hour problems in fragmented bits of time.

Silver lining: Use each time fragment to wrestle with pieces of larger issues—and continually signal your preferences. Top managers regularly use forays into detail as a shield against surprise, and, over time, they can learn a lot this way.


Fact: Too many filters: Managers hide bad news from you.

Silver lining: Commenting on good news lets you reinforce the organization’s larger values and priorities.


Fact: Too much inertia: Major choices take months or years to emerge. 

Silver lining: A lengthy choice process lets you build consensus behind a crucial strategic shift that your firm will implement, often years later. Muddling about on the way to major change provides “marinating time” and prevents premature negative reactions.


Sustained drive for improvement takes *enormous* effort because everyone is more comfortable with old routines and patterns of behavior, even if they do not like the results they produce. Most leaders don’t even see the “white spaces” (where most of the leverage for improvement lies) because that takes years of experience, practice, and mentoring to do and most are focused on succeeding in the system as it is to get promoted. Our systems tend to extinguish the fires of rebels at an early age. Most just want to survive.

This line of thought did not depress me, especially since it is most descriptive of what actually happens (I try not to get too depressed by reality).  In fact, it brought to mind several excellent HBR articles that I first read when I was Operations Officer at Pearl Harbor that I felt captured many of the dilemmas an O6 (whether in command or not) ED faces in the Navy.

The second article I had in mind was "Seven Surprises for for New CEOs," by Michael E. Porter, Jay W. Lorsch, and Nitin Nohria. In the Navy, we also struggle with the harsh reality of the mythical vision we have of the heroic senior leader who will be able to cut through the bureaucratic fog to “tell us all what to do.” Senior leader intervention into the sausage making is a very blunt tool. A short excerpt from the article:

As a newly minted CEO, you may think you finally have the power to set strategy, the authority to make things happen, and full access to the finer points of your business. But if you expect the job to be as simple as that, you’re in for an awakening. Even though you bear full responsibility for your company’s well-being, you are a few steps removed from many of the factors that drive results. You have more power than anybody else in the corporation, but you need to use it with extreme caution.

The seven most common surprises are:

    * You can’t run the company.

    * Giving orders is very costly.

    * It is hard to know what is really going on.

    * You are always sending a message.

    * You are not the boss.

    * Pleasing shareholders is not the goal.

    * You are still only human.

These surprises carry some important and subtle lessons. First, you must learn to manage organizational context rather than focus on daily operations. Second, you must recognize that your position does not confer the right to lead, nor does it guarantee the loyalty of the organization. Finally, you must remember that you are subject to a host of limitations, even though others might treat you as omnipotent. How well and how quickly you understand, accept, and confront the seven surprises will have a lot to do with your success or failure as a CEO.


The final article was Henry Mintzberg's "The Manager's Job - Folklore and Fact." If you have not read any of his work, you are missing something important. I have always liked this article and re-read it (and took notes this time using my pdf to WORD converter). I especially like Mintzberg's ten roles of the leader (Figurehead, Leader, Liaison, Monitor, Disseminator, Spokesperson, Entrepreneur, Disturbance Handler, Resource Allocator, and Negotiator), his suggestions for how to integrate them, and his Self-Study Questions for Managers.

If there is a single theme that runs through this article, it is that the pressures of the job drive the manager to take on too much work, encourage interruption, respond quickly to every stimulus, seek the tangible and avoid the abstract, make decisions in small increments, and do everything abruptly. In the interest of brevity, I leave it to readers to obtain their own copies of the article.

I think the three articles do an excellent job of describing the realities of O6 jobs (whether in command or not) that a) most are not prepared for (this is not unique to EDs) and b) keep them from being the superheroes everyone wants them to be. Even for superheroes, it is hard to be good at all of Mintzberg's roles because of the surprises noted by Porter et al.

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