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Turn the Ship Around

29 May 2019

By Chris Barker, Team Member, Aberdeenshire

When the offer to attend the Vistage summit arose, I initially skimmed over it and paid it little mind. I thought why would someone like me want to attend a management event when I was in a role which on the surface feels very much like support work? I decided to research some of the speakers billed for the event.

I was fascinated by some of the information I found online about David Marquet’s career and intrigued about what exactly a Navy Officer could have to say that would have any benefit to me?

The theme of his famous book, ‘Turn the Ship Around’, sounded like the interview conversation I had with my branch leader about the vision of the future for Cornerstone. This had attracted me to the position in the first place, and now that I was a member of a self-organised team, there seemed to be great potential to take something from this event.

I decided to go for it. I was supposed to be on annual leave that week but had no particular plans. At worst, I got an all-expenses-paid trip to Edinburgh, which was far more fun than decorating my kitchen.

Do I pack a suit? This I struggled with. I wanted to look smart, and more importantly I wanted to positively represent Cornerstone but my goodness do I hate suits! I’d never been to a ‘corporate meeting’ but if I was going to work hard to help the people I support have the most fulfilled and essentially best lives possible, I guess I better present the best version of me. Suit packed, I set off.

Arriving in Edinburgh was great, a friend who lives locally met me and we went for dinner. We got chatting and he asked about the event and what exactly it was that I was doing there. In all honesty, I didn’t have much of an answer.

I wanted to hear David Marquet speak, and was looking forward to meeting Edel Harris and putting a person to the big, scary CEO title that I didn’t really understand. A weak justification for the trip I guess, but I was determined I would make the effort to learn something new and make the most of the money Cornerstone had shelled out to send me there.

The morning of the event I set off to the Sheraton hotel. Outside the hotel, I started to get nervous. There was a steady stream of the suited-and-booted (glad I wore the suit), but they were all walking with real purpose, like they knew exactly what they were there for, exactly what they were going to hear and the significance of what they had to say. I began to feel way out of my depth.

I went in, biting the bullet so-to-speak. A warm welcome from some of the staff began to placate the nerves but when I got into the main lobby, I felt like a fish out of water. I collected my badge, got myself a coffee and went to hide in a corner.

Now I’m not exactly sure whether my idea of hiding in the corner appealed to others or whether I simply looked welcoming, or maybe even that they could read on my face that I could do with a stiff drink and some moral support, but to my surprise I was soon joined by a small group of people.

They introduced themselves and asked how I was doing, how far I had come, where I worked and whether I was looking forward to the event. I put my ‘management’ head on and told my story, telling them about myself, Cornerstone, the vision for the future of the organisation and that I was keen to hear David speak. I soon relaxed and began to feel right at home.

Marquet HeaderThe day before the event I had received an email from the CEO’s PA, passing on a message from Edel that I should be sure to stop her and say hello. With my new-found confidence, I decided to go over and introduce myself. Within seconds, that big, scary CEO title evaporated. She was warm, welcoming and genuinely interested in what I had to say. She thanked me for coming, told me she was glad to meet me and we got chatting. Edel explained that she had read David’s book and was instantly a fan of his perception of management and that it had almost been somewhat of a catalyst in the birth of the strategic plan for Cornerstone. Not only did I feel reassured that I had attended for the right reasons, I also saw the same passion and spark in her eyes that I had seen in my branch leader when he spoke about the plan – Local Cornerstone.

Before David’s presentation, there was a Q&A session with some Vistage award recipients. As the participants were being called up on stage I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was Edel speaking, but also the group CEO of Insights. I am familiar with Insights as a training tool, as we had used it to great effect in our team training and I am a big fan of what Insights is able to achieve.

The Q&A got underway and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hearing Edel talk with such passion about the work we do was so reassuring. Hearing of how there was a real desire not only to empower and train all of the support workers in the organisation, but to also ensure that we are better paid, valued and have an opportunity to have our say. This genuinely made me so proud to be a part of it all.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Q&A, David Marquet took to the stage. I was captivated. His story is simply phenomenal. It was fun, interactive and so much more relatable than I ever imagined. What would I have in common with a navy commander? I didn’t need to know anything about submarines; I didn’t need to be able to relate to his responsibilities as a captain in the Navy as all of his examples were applicable in my life. We all end up in the position of being the key decision maker at some point, we all end up as the person having to call the shots and we all at a point in time will have people looking to us for the answers. The benefits to having the team members as informed and empowered as possible just made sense.

I felt what David said had really resonated with me; sometimes some of the answers will come from the crew rather than the captain. I did, however, feel that there was something mentioned that really could work within Cornerstone - breaking down that initial barrier. My branch leader told me very early on in joining Cornerstone that if I needed anything, I shouldn’t hesitate to ask. But I never really felt that I should or could disturb him with something which might have been ‘too small’ for him to deal with. I realise now that he really meant it.

With regards to Edel, it took the breaking down of that initial barrier for me to feel comfortable. I felt nervous in approaching her and it literally took minutes for that to be rectified. I felt anxious in almost “stepping out of my station” in just approaching her to say hello. I think opening up an opportunity for support staff to meet some of the senior team in a more informal setting could prove invaluable in fostering an environment where people are willing to speak up, to have their say and to involve themselves more with the organisation as a whole and we could really evidence the empowerment of staff.

I can almost guarantee that many support roles have no idea of any of the work involved in the senior management side, no clue of the operational constraints, opportunities available to them or platforms in which they could bring to light their opinions and actually be heard.

I think it would really help to break down that barrier.

The event helped me re-associate leaders and people who are further up hierarchically, with the fact that they are human. It was mentioned by Edel in the Q&A about allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and I really saw that at the event. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I enjoyed getting to know people as people, and not as my boss, boss’ boss, or the owner of a business or the MD of a law firm - but as David, Chris or Gordon.

I felt reassured that it’s okay not to know the answer, it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to lean on others for support. There is a time to train and a time to learn. There’s knowledge to impart and wisdom to gain. I think this is the first real time that the phrase ‘a problem shared, is a problem halved’ made sense to me. Having a well-trained team, who feel valued, who feel empowered and want to speak up can really ‘turn a ship around’.