Turning Your Ship Around

Effective leaders are flexible and confident. They make tough decisions, hold themselves and others accountable, exemplify public service values, and empower and inspire civil servants to deliver ambitious outcomes for the benefit of the Cayman Islands.

This month, senior leaders from across the public sector and additional participants drawn largely from the uniformed services learned how organisations can move beyond a command and control environment to empower their teams and create more leaders.

At the half-day continuous professional development event sponsored by the Portfolio of the Civil Service, Ministry of Financial Services & Home Affairs, and Ministry of Human Resources & Immigration, over 300 participants explored leadership communication skills, how training procedures can lead to cultural change, and the concept of intent-based leadership.

This session was part of the ongoing programme to support the first priority goal of our 5-Year Strategic Plan: Develop Exceptional Leadership.

After the event, David Marquet spoke with Donna Bush from CIGTV to share key messages.



DB: Mr Marquet, you’re working with the Deputy Governor to make the Civil Service a World-Class Civil Service. Tell us a little bit about what happened here today and what your presentation was all about. 

DM: I think these sessions are great and the fact that we’re doing this in the Cayman Islands is really amazing. I go through a lot of organisations and they haven’t quite embraced the learning and mantra. We say, “Don’t be good, get better.” That’s step one.

Step two is ‘How do people think about their jobs?’ and ‘How do they think about their lives?’ In most organisations, there are two groups of people – people doing the deciding and people doing the doing. We set leaders and followers.

I think in the world-class organisations, everyone is thinking about themselves as leaders. They are the ones making decisions in their domain to achieve the mission. Everyone is also thinking about themselves as followers. They are following the mission of making lives better. So, in a world-class organisation, we are all leaders and we are all followers.

DB: What do you hope the takeaway is from today’s event?

DM: Leadership is not magic… it is just what you say. You have to choose to say things differently.

For example, if someone comes up to you and says “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this” and it strikes you as not a good idea, you might say “Well, why would you want to do that?” or “No, we’re not going to do that.” That’s our programmed response.

Instead, be curious. Start your questions with ‘what’ or  ‘how’. “How would that look?” or “What would be the first step?”, “What is it you’re saying that I’m not saying?”

You don’t have to agree with them, but I want you to understand and be curious to know what they know. Your job is to uncover it.

Chief Officer Gloria McField-Nixon chats with fire officers during the event

DB: What are some of the keys to having successful leaders?

DM: Successful leaders create an environment for their people to be at their best. We don’t blame the people and say “You didn’t speak up. You need to speak up more.” Leaders say “What is it that I did that made it hard for you to speak up?” and “What did I do?”

Leadership is not telling people what to do – that’s just bossing people around. Leaders need to ask a question in a way that makes it easier for them to speak up.

Whatever it is, it starts with taking very small steps. Don’t lean into your people, lean back and invite them to lean into you.

DB: You shared your experience that has led you to the message that you shared today. Why did you share your story and why do you think that has helped the persons in the room today?

DM: I was a new nuclear submarine commander. You don’t get much more control than that and I was taught that leadership is about telling people what to do.

The better you are at telling people what to do, the better leader you are. I believed that and because I was good at that, I got promoted.

The very last minute, I got shifted to a submarine that I hadn’t been trained to command. I didn’t really know what all the buttons did but I tried to be that same leader and it didn’t work, obviously.

So, I made a deal with my crew. I would lean back and they would just tell me what they intended to do.

If I didn’t stop them, they had automatic permission to do it. It cascaded down to the crew and it was brilliant because it activated their thinking. We won all these awards, people were happier. But what really happened, was over the next ten years, more submarine captains came from this crew than any other submarine.

David Marquet and RCIPS Inspector Winsome Prendergast

It is not about you achieving this miracle and when you leave, things fall apart. It is about creating an environment so that people feel like they have control over their lives – they’re part of a bigger thing. They have the authority to make decisions to support that mission. Now they’re happy and now they’ll be better.

The idea is that we have the people we need. We don’t need a new team. We don’t need better people, we don’t need smarter people because we have the people we need.

With the people we have, if we change the way we talk and resist the urge to tell others what what to do, they can all do it.

By leaning back, you get everybody thinking and taking ownership. It’s better for us and it’s better for all Caymanians.

DB: The DG has a wonderful plan in place with the help of persons like yourself to build a World-Class Civil Service. Some people may look at it and say they don’t see any changes. What would you say to those people? As it’s not going to happen over night.

DM: I ignore those people. I spend all my time and energy on the people who are excited and trying to do things.

The people in the back? Fine. They’re just trying to get attention. What will happen is that the other people will get frustrated with the people that aren’t trying.

Just say “Look, we’re having fun… Do you want to join in?” And they’ll say “Yeah, I guess I do.”