On my flight from Salt Lake City I sat next to a former Navy submariner. I usually keep to myself when I fly, but he was a friendly guy who wanted to talk about the Navy, submarines and how there were many submarines that weren’t much bigger than the jet we were taking to San Francisco.
I knew submarines were small, but I hadn’t thought about it that way before.
He talked about how living at sea in cramped quarters for two or three months at a time forced the team to get close—real close. “You learn pretty quick who you can count on and who you can’t. Those you can’t count on, eventually wash out,” he said
He also told me that nobody gets assigned to work on a submarine, it’s volunteer duty in the Navy and about 60 percent of those who do volunteer don’t make it. “It’s a real badge of honor,” he said, “to pin those dolphins on your chest.”
He talked about how everyone on the sub is cross-trained and understands the ins and outs of how a submarine works in case there’s an emergency. “You might need to do someone else’s job—even if you’re the cook,” he said. Earning your certification is a big deal. In fact, some twenty or so years after his retirement, he and the men he served with still get together to hash out old times and celebrate the friendships they made at sea.
I realize that the dynamics of a submarine are a little different from the environment on a project team, but there were a couple of things he talked about that resonated with me:
- Submariners are all volunteers: When people are doing the work they feel passionate about, they often volunteer. What’s more, we typically get their best work. Granted, team members aren’t always able to do the work they enjoy, but if we make it happen frequently team members will be more engaged in their work and perform at a higher level.
- Submariners can count on each other: I don’t think it really matters what type of team it is, if team members can’t count on each other when it’s crunch time, the odds of project success are slim. I know I can count on the members of my team to put forward their best efforts every day. In fact, we expect everyone to bring their “A” game and if they don’t, they eventually wash out. It’s very rewarding to work with such talented people. It definitely makes me want to perform at my best.
- Submariners are proud of what they do: I’m convinced that most people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be a part of something they can be proud of. When project leaders make the vision of the work visible to team members, it gives them the opportunity to “buy in” to what they’re asked to do and take ownership of their role in the bigger picture. This is the way to really engage people and create an atmosphere of pride in the work.
Do the members of your project teams share some of the same characteristics of submariners? What are you doing to encourage that type of environment among the people you work with on projects and other work?