With Martin G. Moore

Episode #49

When the Boss Overrules: Analysing the Captain's Call

When a new boss comes into an organisation and identifies that there is a need to make major changes, should she listen to her people, or push ahead regardless?

Changing fundamentals like the organisational values can be tricky, but sometimes necessary. The so-called ‘Captain’s Call’ is used to at least some extent by all leaders, with varying degrees of success.

This episode explores the question: when is it OK to make a decision without the support of (or even in the face of concerted opposition from) your people?

We examine potential repercussions, and cover some simple rules of thumb that will help you to think about how you are using the power of your position to get results.

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Episode #49 When the Boss Overrules: Analysing the Captain's Call

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences, and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hey there, and welcome to Episode 49 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership Podcast. This week’s episode: When The Boss Overrules: Analysing the Captain’s Call.

Today we pick up on a question from our listener, Greg, who asked: a new boss comes into an organisation and identifies that there’s a need to change the values, but he’s challenged on this when he consults with leaders at different levels of the business. He listens to this feedback, but identifies that it’s time to change the values, and communicates that the site will adopt the corporate values of the organisation. In essence, he has made a Captain’s Call. So with that context we can ask three questions. Number one, when a new leader joins an organisation, what is their licence to change things? Number two, when is it okay to use a Captain’s Call and when is it unwise? And number three, what are the limitations to this licence? Well, I couldn’t have put those questions better myself, so we’re going to go with that today. But as well as talking to you as leaders about how to know when is the right time to make a Captain’s Call, I also hope that understanding this thinking will give you a little more perspective on what’s actually going through your boss’s head if she ultimately decides that a Captain’s Call is necessary. So let’s get into it.

What is a Captain’s Call? Well, according to the Urban Dictionary, and please pardon the language here, “A captain’s call is a decision made unilaterally by a team leader without consulting colleagues – often a massive cluster fuck.” Now, the term was popularised by a former Australian Prime Minister who was renowned for making decisions unilaterally with no reference to his cabinet or senior advisors. In the majority of cases, these Captain’s Calls were seen by the punter in the street as being out of touch, nonsensical and driven by self-interest, hence the negative connotation. So when a new leader joins an organisation, what is their licence to change? And like the answer to pretty much any question in business, it depends. The trick is to work at what it depends upon. So if, as is the case in Greg’s question, you’ve come into an organisation from outside, you need to understand your mandate before you do anything else.

So it’s really important to talk to the person who brought you in and to make sure you’re not out of bounds with their expectations. You also need to work out what your appropriate level of scope is so you don’t come in as a low level team leader and expect to change the company values, obviously. Any call has to be an appropriate call for the role that you’re in. It’s very important to assess and get a read on your level, so always pay attention to the level above. Don’t ever be too dismissive of the legacy because it always takes a little while to understand. If you’ve been brought in to change things, tread warily and until you know what you’re dealing with, because that’s a big animal we call risk. Now I’m all for sending a message, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

You’ll walk into an organisation and see 10 things almost immediately that you think you need to fix, but take your time and take time to understand what’s going on. Because if it were easy, someone else would have already done it. If you’re brought in as a new CEO, you will have been given an implicit licence to change by the board that’s hired you, but some of the people in the organisation might not like this, and this is actually implied in Greg’s question. But to really make a difference at that level, you’ll need to be decisive on some things fairly quickly. The burning platform is your friend. If you’re dealing with a legacy workforce, you may need to change some things against the majority opinion almost immediately.

When I went in to CS Energy as the new CEO, my initial mandate was to get a very poorly performing utility business fit for privatisation through a fast high-impact commercial reform. This would have been absolutely impossible if I’d waited for the workforce to buy into the process that was required to do this, the average tenure of those people was well over 10 years.

Every incoming CEO or senior executive will want to put their stamp on things and it is their prerogative, but there’s a few rules of thumb around this. Number one, make sure the board knows what you’re going to do. No surprises. Number two, you’ve got to pick your battles. You can’t just go in and change everything, like I said, and you want to hit the most material stuff fastest. One of the most important things is to listen really carefully, because there will be so much knowledge inside the organisation that’s there to help you not make mistakes. Deal with the biggest ticket items quickly and communicate the why really, really well.

Culture and values changes are a classic example. Now there’s organisations I’ve gone into and the culture could be described pretty much like this: Accountability spread so that no one can be held to blame if something goes wrong. Staff fiddle the rosters to maximise their personal earnings. They take any and all leave entitlements, they work to the minimum acceptable requirement. They don’t stick their head up. They find a way to make it someone else’s problem. They smile at the boss until he goes away. They don’t speak up. They do as they’re told and absolutely no more. They hoard their knowledge because knowledge is power, and absolutely don’t trust the boss.

Now if you walk in and find a culture like this and you’re the leader, that has to change. And it’s not going to change by itself and it’s not going to change without some really hard work. Because the type of culture you want is one where people take accountability. They think first about the team and the organisation before themselves. They have a go, and they try to make the place better. They share what they know and they help their workmates. They don’t try to conform, they try to stand out. And they want to be the one who makes a difference. And if you’re the boss they actually give you the benefit of the doubt. That’d be nice. Bottom line is that in a large organisation where the culture is driven by a large, heavily unionised or underperforming workforce, any transition is impossible, without imposing your will to at least some extent on the leadership players below you. Setting new standards and targets can be seen as a Captain’s Call. The trick for the leader is that if you do make a Captain’s Call, make sure that it is at least sensible, rational and easy to explain to your people.

If you’re not the CEO, I think it’s really good to earn some licence from your people before you go too far. You have to think in terms of pilot initiatives, where can I start, and start small? Don’t make it all seem too big all at once for people, don’t get the change too quickly. Saying things like, ‘What would happen if we tried this?” Is going to get your people on board, even if you do have to finally push through with the will of the Captain’s Call. And look for initiatives that are no-brainers like safety. Get your people on board.

Let’s move on to talk about when is it okay to use a Captain’s Call and when is it unwise? If the call is clearly within your remit, you can be pretty confident about making it, but you still need to read the play. What are the unintended consequences of imposing your ideas, views, and decisions on your team? You’ve got to think about that. As a CEO, you clearly have the authority to make decisions within your board approved delegation. However, if I ever thought there was a contentious issue, even though I may have been technically able to make the decision myself, I would always run it past the Chairman of the Board. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Let’s face it, sometimes you’re going to know what’s best for the organisation, pure and simple. If this is the case and it often will be, don’t be afraid to make a call decisively and then stand by it.

Just remember, you have a greater breadth of perspective than those below you. You’re more attuned to what the end state of the organisation needs to be. You don’t have a patch to protect, a,nd by definition, being brought into an organisation means you’ve greater experience in different ways of doing things and you’re probably more accepting of, and resilient to change than the old and bold are. It’s fair to say though, that how you use your power as a leader is critical.

And if we go back to Episode 5 of No Bullshit Leadership, that was all about using power wisely. The use of power is so important, and we covered the five different types of power. So there’s referent power, which is the one you should be trying to use. That’s the power of influence. You get things done because what you do make sense, people want to follow you and they’re signed up to the mission. So you can influence them based on who you are, and they will actually get behind you and get with the program. There’s the coercive and the reward power. So that’s basically the equivalent of carrot and stick. And you have expert power, which is the power vested in your knowledge and capability. And finally you have legitimate power, which is the power that’s based purely in your role and authority. And when you’re using a Captain’s Call, you’re pretty much tapping into your legitimate power because what you’re saying is, “It’s my right to make this decision because I have the authority and so I’m going to make it.”

Just remember there’s a cost to everything. So think about a few things. When you want to make a Captain’s call, is it just a personal preference issue? Are you making change for change sake or is it an essential inertia breaker for your team or for the organisation? Is the decision you want to make critical in meeting your overall objective? Why is it so important that you insist on this change? Is it a cultural or legacy thing that’s holding the team or the organisation back? And ask yourself, is this really material in the scheme of things, do I really need to do this? Is the timing critical? So as I said with the CS Energy example, we simply couldn’t wait for the years and years it would’ve taken to bring people gently along on the journey, as some would have you do. There’s an opportunity cost if you don’t act right now, and sometimes organisations are like that. So building that sense of urgency in is really important.

Let’s finish off by having a look at what the limitations are to the licence that you used in a Captain’s Call. And first of all, Captain’s Calls are unwise when they are for example, made in the name of self-interest, when they’re not rational or justifiable, when they fundamentally erode your people’s trust, or when they’re not supported by the board or leaders above you. So let’s assume that we’ve got over those hurdles because they’re the really big sticking points that you’ll get lost in straight away. The biggest problem with Captain’s Calls come when you make a call that overrules one of your subordinates in an area that is actually their domain and their accountability. So it’s one thing to make a unilateral call in your own area of accountability, without consulting the people around you when you have the authority to do so, but it’s a completely different thing about making a decision for someone else and overruling a decision that they should actually have themselves.

We’ve spoken in previous episodes about enabling and empowering your people and what happens when you step across someone’s accountability, it’s absolutely debilitating. You’re actually diluting the execution capability of the whole team below you. Once again, this is a discretionary effort killer. Now, if you believe strongly enough that someone below you is getting a major decision wrong and you’re prepared to overrule them, you’d better also be prepared to replace them. Because once you step in across their accountability, you have completely disempowered that individual, and you will never again be able to get the right amount of effort, the right amount of commitment and the right results out of that individual. And this should make you think a little bit more carefully about it, before you go jumping in over the top of people to make what you think is a legitimate Captain’s Call.

This leads me to conclude that when we talk about the limitations with Captain’s Calls, it’s not so much the limitation as it is about the side effects. So you’re always going to have the authority to do this stuff, but you can potentially piss people off big-time and this will kill discretionary effort, as I said. One of the other big side effects of the Captain’s Call is that you are quite likely to make the wrong call if you’re not careful. So this can be driven by a few things, but particularly lack of understanding of cultural barriers. So it’s one thing to make the call, but then how are you going to execute it? And if you don’t understand the organisational inertia, and the capability of the organisation to execute, that’s going to cause problems for you. And it’s also got to be consistent with the overall objectives of the organisation. And don’t forget every leader below you is going to interpret this differently, and they’re going to communicate it to their people differently.

This is why it’s so important to use the Captain’s Call sparingly, because it implies you’re not listening to anyone, and listening is such a critical skill. If you can find an advisor in the organisation who’s been there for some time, and who can help you to read the play, then you can test the waters before you make any call at all. If you listen and put this into context, it’ll give you some balance to your thinking and the decision you think you’re going to make.

Just remember that success in any change endeavour will depend almost entirely on how well you can blend the old with the new, to make something better and stronger. This is a balancing act that should occupy a lot of a senior leader’s brain space, if you happen to be working at the right level.

Do you like free stuff? Me too! In fact, one of my favourite sayings is, “If it’s for free, it’s for me.” And that’s why I’m loving the freebies page that we’ve just created on our website. This is where we’re housing all our free resources, so the PDS for the podcast episodes and our super popular eBooks, The Five Career Killers, and The Five Secrets to Attracting Exceptional Talent. Head to www.yourceomentor.com/freebies and download to your heart’s content. We’ve made these resources to help you on your leadership journey. So take advantage of them, yourceomentor.com/freebies, which is F-R-E-E-B-I-E-S.

Alright. so that brings us to the end of Episode 49, thanks so much for joining us. And remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So if you’re enjoying this podcast, please share it with the leaders in your network as this is how we reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode where I ask the question, are all leaders incompetent?

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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