From the Sea to the C-Suite: Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office comes at you from a place of success. Written by Cutler Dawson, a retired US Navy Vice Admiral who now serves as CEO of Navy Federal Credit Union, and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, the book conveys perspectives on the corporate leadership that underpinned Navy Federal’s quadrupling in size in just over a decade. This impressive business record is augmented by another implicit tale of success, namely the sometimes tricky path military officers must follow if they are to flourish in the private sector. Dawson offers much to consider in both of these contexts.
This book is nominally outside of the usual topics reviewed here. It’s not about cyber security or public policy. However, the subject is relevant because cybersecurity is, at its root, an organizational matter. Growing SecOps teams need strong leadership. And, many of the people involved come from military backgrounds, so a book about business leadership drawn from military command experiences is actually quite relevant to the field.
Dawson’s military career was marked by achievement, starting with unusually early command of a naval vessel when he was just 27. He served in a succession of sea command positions and senior roles in the Navy’s operational command. After 34 years in the Navy, he took on the role of CEO of Navy Federal.
By any definition, the credit union was already a success. It was one of the oldest and largest financial institutions of its kind. Yet, as Dawson quickly saw, there was plenty of room for growth and improvement in customer service and more. This book tells the story of how he led the organization through a remarkable growth trajectory, enabled by leadership lessons he learned at sea. In this sense, the story is very much one of change management, though the authors don’t call it out by name.
His first piece of advice is to “Go the Deckplates,” or engage with the working people of the organization in their day-to-day realities.
His first piece of advice is to “Go the Deckplates,” or engage with the working people of the organization in their day-to-day realities. The phrase itself refers to polishing the deck of old ships, which were covered with teak wood. This task appears to have been a promotion from Dawson’s first sea duty of “cleaning the heads” on a cruiser. Going to the deckplates at Navy Federal meant listening in on loan collection phone calls, standing in lines at branch offices and similar un-CEO-like activities.
Throughout, he adheres to, and amplifies Navy Federal’s mission of serving its members. He also commits to serving the organization’s employees. Navy Federal has never had a layoff in over 80 years in business. Many anecdotes in the book reveal a willingness to trust subordinates and work collaboratively with them, rather than act as a corporate authoritarian. This was not an easy thing to manage, given the 2008 financial crisis, which affected the credit union.
Dawson emphasizes the value of deep, engaged listening and providing a “safe harbor” for employees to tell him the truth.
In this regard, Dawson provides a welcome reminder of what executive leadership used to be like in the United States. Today, the CEO mindset seems to be “fire everyone, move the plant to China, cash out and buy a Gulfstream.” It’s almost quaint to hear an American CEO talk about an organization having a mission and valuing its employees (for real, not in cynical talking points.)
Dawson emphasizes the value of deep, engaged listening and providing a “safe harbor” for employees to tell him the truth. One gets the feeling that Dawson can pull this off because of a command presence that doesn’t suffer fools. In fact, he shares that he detests the sort of double-talk and secret-keeping that characterizes a lot of American corporate life. He came by these standards through hard experience, such as when he had to call the families of naval aviators killed on a ship he commanded.
This book is a well-written and compelling guide to management and leadership. In a genre that can trend toward an annoying blend of stuffiness and a self-serving tone, Dawson and his co-writer are neither. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone who aspires to run an organization, or even a team, or wishes to do it better.
- Hardcover: 168 pages
- Publisher: Naval Institute Press (October 15, 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1682474739
- ISBN-13: 978-1682474730