‘Creating a performance culture in your business’ Part Three

Posted on 8th June 2016 | Interviews

‘Creating a performance culture in your business’ Part Three

Interview with Rear Admiral Alex Burton

In Part One of this blog series, I spoke to Paul Blanchard, Chief Executive of Commonwealth Games England about how he is driving performance culture amongst Team England. Paul provided a fascinating insight into the challenges faced in the world of athletics both on and off the track. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting points he made was when asked why do leaders struggle to achieve a culture of performance in their organisations, he explained that despite the reasons being plentiful and diverse, fundamentally it was about having the right people in place to start with. A business case for a robust recruitment strategy if ever there was one.

In Part Two, I spoke with Tom O’Byrne, CEO at Great Place to Work® who talked about the importance of ‘trust’ and the differences in levels of trust between average UK companies and the firms who make the ‘Best Workplaces’ list. I found it incredible that through their work in measuring and assessing workplace culture they were able to show how the businesses that demonstrate higher levels of trust in their leadership were significantly more profitable than the less trusting workplaces, thus proving the correlation between trust in leadership and organisational performance.

In the final part of this blog series, I talk to Rear Admiral Alex Burton of the Royal Navy who recently became Commander of Maritime Forces in January this year who kindly gave his time to explain how the Royal Navy cultivates a culture of performance across the ranks. As the Royal Navy’s only sea going ‘fighting admiral’ he is currently Commander of NATO’s rapid response maritime battle staff as well as the Admiral ready to respond to any national tasking with a rapidly deployable maritime, headquarters. He is also Rear Admiral Surface Ships (RASS), responsible for providing independent advice on the fighting prowess and moral component of the surface ship community.

The early part of his career was spent in a variety of warships in many theatres of operations including the Gulf, Far East, Falklands and Caribbean. He has enjoyed three Commands: A minehunter which included operations in the Gulf and a period clearing ex-Soviet minefields in the Baltic Sea. HMS NORTHUMBERLAND, an anti-submarine frigate, which included a seven month deployment with NATO delivering Counter Terrorism Operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and through the Suez to support national operations during the invasion of Iraq. Finally, he commanded HMS BULWARK, the Fleet Flagship which culminated in the command of all maritime forces during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sailing competitions. 

His operational experience beyond the maritime includes seven months in Baghdad as the Senior Advisor to the Vice Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces, expanding his list of travel destinations to Tikrit, Fallujah and Babylon amongst others. Whilst in the UK, Alex undertook a joint appointment within the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters leading the day to day operations for all three Services in Iraq, the Near and Middle East, counter piracy and global counter terrorism.

He has undertaken two appointments in the MOD, initially working within the policy area before being selected as the Military Assistant to the Under Secretary of State during the last Government. As a Commodore, Alex was responsible for the development and delivery to market of the majority of the Royal Navy’s surface capability including the Type 26 Global Combat Ship. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in Oct 2014 and took up the appointment of Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Ships) responsible for the in-service management of all ships until December 2015.

Alex is married to Helen who is a university law lecturer and they have two children at university. He is President of RN Rugby League and a mentor for Durham University, where he gained a degree in Chemistry.

Rob: Thanks for taking the time to talk Alex. This is a fascinating subject and one most people can resonate with, but few can describe with clarity and precision just what makes one organisation more able to achieve a culture of performance over another. Perhaps you can describe in a few words just what performance culture means to you?

Alex: Performance culture for the Royal Navy means ensuring we get the edge in the margins of war fighting at, and from, the sea. Technology plays its part but the true edge is forged by our people: Sailors, Naval Airmen and Women and Royal Marines that make up the Service above, on and below the surface and ashore.

I see the delivery of this culture as a continual balancing of three dynamics: risk, fighting effectiveness and each individuals’ personal and professional well being and development. You see we are not training for a race or competition on a specific day; we can’t afford to peak; we have to sustain and develop the performance on an enduring basis. That’s testing on stamina and resilience.

Rob: How is the job of creating a culture of performance different in the Royal Navy than in perhaps a sporting or commercial context?

Alex: The context undoubtedly has differences. I suppose the key being the combination of the demands for a sustained exceptional performance I have described and the unique characteristic of an organisation that almost exclusively relies on its work-force staying to fulfil appointments throughout the structure right to the top. As such, we cant readily sideways recruit.

We have a very strong tribal spirit within ships, air squadrons, submarines and commandos; this strengthens our cohesion. But we have a structural, as well as moral obligation to develop, inspire and motivate the individual. We pride ourselves on the priority we give to the development of individuals and the moral welfare provided to them and their families. A US Marine Corps General described the true cost of leadership as being at the expense of self interest. Never truer commanding a Ship of 40-1000 men and women, far from home, with nine months of separation ahead and the enduring threats of both sea and enemy. 

Rob: There’s a common civilian misconception about leadership in the armed forces, that ‘command and control’ must be the best style of leadership to get results. Is this just an old fashioned stereotype or is there any truth to this idea?

Alex: We are different, our actions either save life or consciously cause death, that is the most sobering responsibility and requires a level of discipline and direct orders that might be alien to some. But our leadership is more sophisticated than ‘command and control’. Orders are vital: for clarity, for efficiency, for success in a complex, chaotic and dangerous environment; but so is exploiting the talent and developing the future leaders: this requires mutual respect, earned loyalty up and down and confidence that all can ‘speak truth unto power’.

Firstly I insist on an authenticity in leadership, nine days working together exposes most of your true character, nine months in a ship exposes the lot! I encourage people to understand the difference between ‘doing and behaviour’ and ‘being’ the way you are.

Next develop the strengths of each member of the team, develop the individuals such they can advance to fulfil their aspiration and potential. One day they might be doing my job either as their career develops or if I become incapacitated – collective exceptional performance relies on developing a planned or forced replacement for each member of the team. So behind the discipline is an absolute requirement to keep, exploit and develop the talent.

Rob: How easy is it to relinquish decision-making and let go of the reins in such high pressure scenarios?

Alex: When things go wrong or when the crisis is at its zenith those you lead look to one person for the decision making – on a warship it’s the Captain, but I imagine its true in all high performing organisations. That moment is the loneliest most privileged experience one can have; so relinquishing the reins is not an option. But I get a sense you are teasing at something more and perhaps I could answer this in two parts:

Firstly, the manner in which I develop a resilience and find time to ‘loosen the reins’. The most successful leaders I have encountered have been people of wide learning so I personally work hard, and encourage my team, to develop a hinterland as a balance to the professional demands of life. This has the additional benefit of being a buttress to the misfortunes and the inevitable set backs we have in life. It involves family, sport, reading and more.

But I think the heart of your question plays to how we develop our people, constantly asking those who work for us to learn our roles. Once confident it provides an opportunity for us, as leaders, to ‘loosen the reins’, to retain oversight with an element of respite from the fight but never ever a loss of responsibility.

Rob: In these times of tightened purse strings, defence cuts and global conflicts stretching our service’s resources, do you believe the armed forces in this country are managing to uphold the culture of performance that has served the country so well over the years?

Alex: Yes – be in no doubt, the people we have are exceptional. Admiral Cunningham said: during the battle of Crete: ‘It takes the Navy three years to build a new ship. It will take three hundred years to build a new tradition’. The Royal Navy, its men and women are not about to trade that tradition now; margins for success against peers are always small, that’s why we pride ourselves on exceptional performance from exceptional mariners.

Rob: What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned in your time in the Royal Navy?

Alex: There have been many practical challenges I have faced both at sea and ashore that have required me to ‘hold firm’. An enduring lesson is the confidence to trust enough to delegate further than you feel comfortable, it is the only way one can develop our people – micromanagement simply destroys trust.

As for a specific example, you’re putting me on the spot; but one lesson that comes to mind is the importance of taking personal ownership of those correct decisions that have unpleasant implications on your team. To bring this to life: in late 2002 I was in Command of a frigate and we were undergoing our sea training in preparation for a planned deployment. It involved long weeks at sea, testing all aspects of our vocation from a scrutiny of our administration to our ability to sustain and recover from damage and of course to fight and win. This is a tough six weeks and many other nations use our trainers to assure their Navies. It has a necessarily uncompromising set of standards and, in late 2002 ours were falling short in a key area, our ability to defend against air attack. Following a conversation with my assessors it was clear the right answer was to spend an extra week at sea to ensure we were fully prepared for any contingencies in 2003; but at the expense of precious Christmas leave with family before seven months away. I could have stated that the assessors had directed that week’s training but chose to address the ship’s company stating it was my decision to continue training at the expense of time at home; that I had a responsibility to them and their families to ensure we were fit to fight – regardless of the cost to their leave. The discomfort and vulnerability I felt as a relatively junior commanding officer prior to the address evaporated by the time I returned to the bridge!

Rob: What is the single most valuable leadership asset that Royal Naval officers bring to the corporate world when leaving the service?

Alex: A courage to ‘speak truth unto power’ and you don’t get that from the stereotypical misconception of ‘command and control’!

Rob: Thanks Alex, some great examples of inspiring leadership at sea.

Final thoughts:

So there you have it. Three senior leaders from three very different contexts. In this final interview, Alex expands on Tom’s point about trust, actually citing micromanagement as one of the fundamental contributors to a breakdown of trust in leadership. It’s something I hear a lot, but so many leaders struggle to let go of the reigns and actually allow their people to play to their strengths. Trusting your people’s ability and trusting yourself that you’ve hired the right people in the first place can be the most difficult thing to do, but without this trust you’ll never achieve the reciprocal trust that’s paramount to cultivating any form of enduring performance culture.

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