Have you ever watched the television show “Undercover Boss”? The show can be a little sappy and overly dramatic. Most bosses that go on the show end up in tears and it seems a little staged quite frankly because they always stumble upon the employee that is homeless and overcoming some addiction to raise their kids as a single parent or something and the boss comes to the rescue with a big fat bonus check and pays for a vacation. I always wonder what the other five thousand employees think of this. But, hey, it’s TV, what do we expect? However, there is one aspect of the show I really like. Watching the CEO of a company completely flounder in attempting to do the “everyday jobs” his or her people do routinely.

Why do I like this so much? Because it summarizes so much of what is wrong with Corporate America and what can be done to make organizations better. More bosses need to take the time to really understand what their team has to do in their daily tasks whether those are manual labor tasks or office work. In our consulting work, we see, time and again, middle and upper management that does not really take the time to understand the activities and tasks associated with the work they are trying to lead. In my Navy days, I got to actually operate (at least once) most equipment that our sailors had to operate so as an officer I could understand the work.

We started up turbine generators, we sampled the water chemistry in the nuclear reactor (the hardest thing to do correctly I ever attempted), we packed a steam valve, we shifted electrical switch gear line ups, we operated the sonar equipment, etc. This was part of our “qualification” process and it was invaluable to me as a leader to understand how to lead my teams. But, there was always one thing on a submarine that I didn’t get to do…until I was the Commanding Officer and no one could stop me… {For more information about this qualification process and how business leaders can incorporate it into their organizations, see Randy H. Nelson’s book “The Second Decision: The QUALIFIED entrepreneur“.}

So modern VIRGINIA class nuclear submarines can be “driven” by one operator (called the Pilot) with a joystick or even on autopilot. No big deal. But, on Cold War-era submarines, like my beloved USS KEY WEST (SSN 722), we operated the ship using two sailors operating aircraft type “yoke arms.” One operator was the helm and he steered the ship (rudder) as well as made minor changes to the depth by moving the fairwater planes or bow planes (depending on the design of the sub). The other operator was the “Stern Planes” operator who, you guessed it, operated the stern planes that would change the angle of the ship up or down for rapid and large depth changes. These two operators (typically 18 to 22 year-old sailors who were on the submarine less than a year) had to coordinate their actions and were closely supervised by the Diving Officer of the Watch (DOOW). To stay on depth +/- one foot and stay on course took real skill and coordination. But, what really made this fun was when we combined all three operations into one. We called this Single Stick Operations. This is where one yoke arm was used to control all three actions by one person. This was only used in emergencies where one yoke arm was out of commission or maybe if we had limited people to stand the watch. If this sounds hard, it is. Why do I write about this?

Well, one day as the Captain, I decided I wanted to experience how hard this was first hand. This is a very unorthodox thing for me as Commanding Officer to do. It’s sort of like the CEO of McDonald’s trying to run the fry machine and cash register all at once.

I assessed the risk and noted we were in open ocean in a very low traffic area so I sat down and had them shift all three operations to me. The crew loved it as they watched me completely fail at trying to maintain course and depth. I was all over the place. I learned very quickly how hard this was and how much experience, focus, and skill it took to do this well. It made me realize again how much goes into daily operations and it gave me a renewed empathy and understanding of what my team did. It raised morale because the crew saw me willing to put my ego at risk to do this and they just enjoyed watching me struggle with it. It’s okay to have a little fun once in a while, even on a nuclear submarine.

Why this article about single stick operations? To remind us all that the every day jobs our teams do are not as easy as they look. To remind us that when we get to know the work our teams do on daily basis we can better lead them and better support them. To remind us to get out of the office and away from the emails and power points and spreadsheets to experience real challenges in our organization so we can help them solve problems and make sure the team has the tools it needs.

What is the equivalent to your “single stick operations”? If you run an organization, when was the last time you went down to where the work is and worked along side them or at least spent significant time learning their jobs? Don’t make this a five minute “drive by” but really “dwell” in the area and learn from it. I promise it will make you a better leader and will also improve morale when your crew sees you care.