Topic

Create a Culture of Excellence

Own everything.  — Jocko” Willink, Retired Navy SEAL, author Extreme Ownership

An elite team strives for excellence, nurturing this culture through an ownership mentality.  An elite team takes joint and equal ownership of its direction, its results and, especially, its mistakes.

I recall my SEAL platoon with the USS Dubuque on deployment to the Western Pacific region.  Onboard, after a couple weeks of observing the ship’s culture and leadership, I detected an attitude that I would sum up as, “I don’t really give a shit, it’s not my ship.”  This was subtle, showing up in how the officers treated their troops, the behind-the-scenes gossip about the leadership, and some shortcuts I saw being taken.  But mostly what I experienced was a general feeling of malaise, of not being thrilled to be there, no sense of “why” to drive morale.  This had a negative impact on the performance of the entire ship’s team…there was no team spirit, no elite team mindset and certainly no cultural excellence.  Typically, this kind of attitude starts at the top, though a few bad apples in the ranks can make it very hard for a leader to nurture a culture of excellence.  The attitude can get structurally held in place by the unwritten organizational rules and roles that have evolved.

The Dubuque was a worn-out Amphibious Navy vessel with the mission of delivering Marines and supplies to a foreign beach.  The mission itself gave the team a second-class feeling, compared to serving on a sexy new frigate or destroyer.  They took no ownership for the vessel or the mission.  For example, one afternoon I observed a few guys lounging around, sunning themselves on the deck.  I thought this was unusual when not in port.  Soon after, I was called to the ship leader’s cabin.  There I was met with an unkempt Commander, who proceeded to harangue me for the SEALs lounging on his deck.  But I knew that the loungers were actually his crew, not my team.  He was blind to what his own crew was doing and quick to blame others.  This was one indicator of why morale was crushing his team.  It didn’t surprise me to hear a few years later that this guy literally ran his ship aground, ending his career.

It is evident immediately when you see a unit that has an attitude of ownership and nurtures a culture of excellence.  You hear things like, “This is my team, my company, as opposed to: “Not my problem, ain’t my ship!” Jocko Willink explored in his book how this concept works in the SEAL Teams.  The SEAL ethos requires SEALs to “take responsibility for my own actions, and the actions of my teammates.”  Elite teams take this seriously by holding extreme personal responsibility for the mission.  Leaders who take ownership will go to great lengths to solve problems within the team and not burden their “higher-ups” unless they really need the support.  Your goal is to make the boss’s job, AND your teammates’ job, easier to ensure the mission gets accomplished without drama or fanfare.

A culture of excellence cannot be nurtured if you, as the leader, don’t also personally have an ownership attitude.  Bottom line: excellence in culture will arise only when individuals are each committed to excellence.  While we can seek and respect differences of opinion and perspective, the elite team will set aside differences to maintain mission focus and team flow.  When building an elite team you must take care in who you invite onto the team.  Hire only a growth mindset character committed to excellence, and then train them the necessary skills.

Excellence Through Ownership

An ownership mindset requires trustworthiness of all of the individuals on the team.  They will serve and support each other while competing in a cooperative manner- for the good of the team and organization.  This ownership attitude has:

Trust

Trust must exist amongst all teammates and within the culture of the team itself.  As discussed this trust is powered by the trustworthiness of each individual on the team displayed through their actions and authenticity.

Shared Experience

Experience must be shared to the extent that no team member is left without a mental concept of what the other team members are experiencing in their “self” sphere.  A good example of not sharing the experience is the leader ordering a team-building ropes course but standing on the sidelines while the team does the course.  How can we understand our teammates if we don’t share experiences with them?  I see this as a big challenge for remote teammates, especially for international organizations.  We must always look for ways to share experience and develop trust.

Shared Risk

This is similar to shared experience, except that most everyday team experiences do not involve many risks.  However, where there is risk, whether physical, emotional or financial, then the team should share it equally.  A SEAL officer jumps off the ramp into the night along with his men.  He would not have the respect and trust of his men if he avoided the risky endeavors while tasking the team to charge forward into these same endeavors.  Is this an issue on your team?  Do others take all the credit while you take all the risk?

Service

Service is not just a leadership theory, but a key discipline of an authentic leader.  Service is a mindset and occurs when we develop our heart-mind.  We then develop a habit of putting our teammates and team mission before our own needs.  Always be asking yourself how you can make your teammate’s job easier, how can you help them grow and thrive?

Support

This is closely related to service but applied to the role of follower.  How can you, as a team member, make the leader’s job easier?  How can you help her improve her life?  The best teams I have led have also been the easiest to lead.  The team members were all looking for ways to make my job easier.  I did not have to task them with many things I would have expected because they were anticipating these things in advance and getting them done.

Course Discussion