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Interview with Bestselling Leadership Author, Speaker, and Podcaster Jon Rennie

Episode 26- The Deep Dive Into How Being a Submarine Commander Informs Leadership with Author and Leadership Guru Jon Rennie


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What this episode will do for you

  • Take a Deep Dive into leadership lessons from leadership guru and former submarine commander Jon S. Rennie.
  • Learn Jon's perspective on combining the theorist and the practitioner points of view.
  • Gain insights into the value of team members working in unison from a shared base of information.

Interview with Jon S. Rennie: Leadership Author and Former Submarine Commander

Jon Rennie is a former U.S. Navy Nuclear Submarine Officer with a history of seven Cold War deployments. He is the Co-Founder, President & CEO of Peak Demand Inc., a premier manufacturer of critical components for electrical utilities.

Prior to starting Peak Demand, Rennie led eight manufacturing businesses for three global companies. He is the author of the best-selling leadership books, I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following and All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner and is the host of the Deep Leadership podcast.

Jon's website is and he is @jonsrennie on Twitter.

Jon S Rennie
I think it's really important that we do that in our lives... That we put ourselves in those situations where we're uncomfortable, we are beyond, outside our comfort zone, doing things that are difficult.

And sometimes, you know, almost seemingly impossible.

-Jon S. Rennie

Curated Transcript of Interview with Jon S. Rennie.

The transcript is lightly edited for clarity and is a partial transcript- the full interview is on audio. Click here to listen.

Chris McNeil: I'm Chris McNeil, the host of Thought Leadership Studio, and I'm sitting here with leadership author, expert, and practitioner, Jon Rennie. Welcome, Joh..

Jon S. Rennie: Hey, it's good to be here.

Chris McNeil: It's good to have you here. What can you tell the listeners about your unique history of bringing theory and practice and leadership together, using your experience, on these deployments running submarine crews?

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah, it's really interesting. You know, I started my career as a submarine officer. I was on the USS Tennessee towards the end of the Cold War. So I came out of the university. I had a degree in mechanical engineering, went right into the fleet as an officer, served on the USS Tennessee, in seven deployments. And then I got out. So like a lot of guys that go in the military, we get out, we get recruited heavily by big corporations. And so that's what I did. I got out of the military and I went into big corporations. I ended up running eight different manufacturing plants in three different companies, three different global companies.

But one of the things that I noticed over time is that I was a sort of a different kind of leader.

I was taking different approach to getting things done than some of my peers. And, probably about 10 years ago, I started writing about some of the leadership concepts that I had embraced as a young leader on that submarine and how they helped me turn around businesses, increase profits, increase revenues, and really turn businesses around using those simple principles that I learned under the ocean so many years ago.

So, I realized and started saying, "You know, what? I have something unique to share that is different than a lot of what people are talking about with respect to leadership." So that's when I really started writing. I have a website. I started writing blogs, started writing for different websites, leadership websites, which then eventually led to my first book and then a couple more books.

And, I also run a podcast called Deep Leadership, where I interview thought leaders who are experts in leadership, whether they're practitioners or they're academics, or they understand the theory. So, yeah, for the past 10 years, I've been sort of just trying to share all of what I learned through this unique background in leadership from the submarine to corporate to now as an entrepreneur.

I have my own manufacturing business, which I started six years ago. So I've got a lot of practical experience. And now for the last 10 years I've been sharing that.

SubmarineChris McNeil: That's really interesting. And to me it's fascinating from a number of points of view. And, we talked a little bit before the show about how my father actually was involved in refueling nuclear subs, and so I knew a little bit about them. And it's interesting to me how it almost serves as like a metaphor for how much power is under the surface.

Jon S. Rennie: Oh, sure. Certainly. Yeah. And you know, what's unique about that power too is it's run by young people. In our case, it was an all male crew, and probably the average age was about 21-22 years old. And, so you have nuclear weapons, you have a nuclear reactor, and you have a $4 billion submarine all being run by very young people.

Chris McNeil: A lot of responsibility.

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah. And so there's power, but there's also youth and there's young people. And so you get a tremendous amount of responsibility at a very young age in these type of scenarios. And that's one of the things, you know. It was interesting when I had a lot of authority when I was in the military and I came to corporate - my first job, you know. I had to fill out an expense report for like a stapler I purchased, and I was like, "Oh, wait, you mean I can't, I don't have the authority to buy a stapler in this company."

So it was weird for me to go from having responsibility for nuclear weapons, nuclear reactor to going where I couldn't even buy a stapler without an expense report. So for me, the transition coming into the corporate world was a little bit shocking, to see how little we give people authority to get their jobs done.

Chris McNeil: Yeah, that's interesting. And I would've thought the exact opposite in some ways in that you should have more freedom in the corporate world (as opposed to) a more of a structured line of command (as in the military). I guess if you're in the right place in that line of command, you have control over everything underneath you on the hierarchy.

And so it's this collision of youth and responsibility, which I imagine was a growth experience both for you and those that you led.

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah. Tremendous growth experience. Think about this. You know, I showed up to the submarine... I was probably 24 years old at the time. And then I show up to the USS Tennessee. She was in dry docks. She was, she was out of the water. And I had my sea bag on my shoulder.

I show up to the submarine. They me where my rack is, I throw my bag in my rack, and one of the other officers takes me to the engine room to meet the reactor controls department. And that's the department I'm about to lead. And so I meet my senior enlisted chief petty officer, and I meet the team, all of the sailors that basically maintain and operate the nuclear reactor instruments. Right. And to a man, everyone was experienced.

They had been on multiple deployments, and my chief petty officer, my senior enlisted was, had been in the Navy almost as many years as I've been alive.

So how do you lead when you are not the oldest and most experienced person in the department? And I realized the, the only liability in that department was me. I was the liability and I was also in charge. So it was very unique leadership challenge that I had to overcome. And, as it turned out, that same thing happened a lot in my career when I went to take over a business. And I realized I had a lot of experience in older employees. And I learned from that about how to tap into that wisdom, that innate wisdom that exists in organizations.

Chris McNeil: Interesting. And that's something that reminds me of some of what we talk about in Systems Thinking: the wisdom of the system, and the counter-intuitive nature of it in some ways, too.

Stretching the Boundaries of What You Can Do

Chris McNeil: And one thing I'm getting from this is putting yourself in a challenge, getting into an environment where you've got to grow in order to fill the function that you're being put in. And I'm wondering, what does that do for you?

What's meaningful to you about being in these challenging situations that require personal growth?

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah, I think that that's it. I think it's really important that we do that in our lives. That we put ourselves in those situations where we're uncomfortable, we are beyond, outside our comfort zone, doing things that are difficult. And sometimes, you know, almost seemingly impossible.

I'll give you an example. We talked, before we started the show, one of the hardest things I ever did was getting into, as part of getting into becoming a submarine officer was going to a nuclear power school. So I graduated with an engineering degree, a mechanical engineering degree, from a decent university. But when I showed up at, at nuke power school, there were the top engineers from the all over the country we're talking, you know, MIT and Cal Tech and Stanford and all these like Georgia Tech and all these brilliant minds in one room.

And there's me - the first one in my family to graduate college, right? I did not belong there, right? This was, I was way over my head and I had to, ... and in nuke power school, it's pure academics. I'm very good with my hands, right? So I can fix anything. You know, if I can get my hands on it, I can work on it. But in nuke power school, it's 100% academic. And so I had to go up against the top engineers to get through this program. And it's about a 40% failure rate - that many people don't make it through. And so that experience pushed me to basically go up against some of the brightest minds in the country. And I ended up come, coming out on top.

I ended up graduating and getting into the fleet, and many people didn't. And so when you do that, it gives you a level of confidence, right? It's a high water market in your life that you can kind of go back to when you're facing challenges again. Like, well, I did that. I went, I got through nuke power school. I can get through this. I got through whatever the hard time you have in your life, you get through that, and then you have that confidence that you can do it again when it comes up next.

And, and in life, it's gonna come again. For sure.

Chris McNeil: So stretching yourself to get out of the comfort zone into a situation where you feel out of your gift mix zone just a little bit. And I heard a little bit of a sense of competitiveness in there too. You think that might be part of it?

Jon S. Rennie: Oh, 100%. I'm a very competitive individual, but I'm a quiet competitor, right? So, I'm sort of looking around the room and like, all right, well I'm certainly not the smartest person in this room, but can I outwork everybody? And that's, you know, what can I, what can I tap into that'll lead me to success that I know I'm very good at? So what are my strengths here? Because academic strength is not one of them.

So I've got to tap into something different, which is perseverance, which is hard work, which is I'm not gonna quit no matter what. And so I tapped into that, versus the guys around me who were tapping into their knowledge. They were students who were top in their high school valedictorians, and they went to the top engineering schools, and I was up against them in an academic program. Well, the only way I could win was outworking them. I couldn't outsmart them for sure.

Chris McNeil: But getting yourself out of the comfort zone calls you to tap into deeper levels of perseverance, which in turn builds your confidence to then go to further challenges. Am I kind of following that?

Adding New Perspectives: The Theorist Plus the Practitioner

Multiple Perspectives in LeadershipJon S. Rennie: Yeah. You know, I've always been the guy that got my hands dirty. So I've always been the practitioner. I've always been the one that would read a book and say, "Well, that's interesting. I wonder how I can make that happen." And so I would make it happen.

So I've always been, I've had a sense of pride about being a practitioner, someone that, you know, "You guys can spend time on theory. I'm gonna make things happen." You know, I'm gonna run my business, I'm gonna increase my revenues, I'm gonna increase my profits, I'm gonna increase my employee engagement. That's what I'm gonna do. You guys can write your, your books, but I'm gonna actually, actually get things done.

But the truth of the matter, that's an arrogant position to have, right? Because there is insight into this research, there's insight into these theories. There's insight into the progression of, of the thought on leadership over the years to the point where if you don't understand some of these really good theories that have been well researched, and have a good foundation, then you can kind of be missing out on how to apply them to really get the most out of your team.

So I think what I've come to realize is that was sort of at a sense of pride about myself that I was a practitioner. But the truth of matter is I was, you know, shunning theory. And \the truth of the matter is we need, we need to understand both. We need to understand, what's theory say and then what works in the real world. And you know, in, in the world of leadership, we tend to have people that are academics, so they understand theory, or we have practitioners, we have few people that can combine the two together. And that's what I'm trying to do with my work.

Chris McNeil: Well, isn't it important to have multiple perspectives?

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris McNeil: Which I think was like experiential learning, in that taking another perspective is always going to fill out your model of the world and make you more effective.

Jon S. Rennie: 100%. In fact, I would say, if you'd say, What's the secret to my success over the years for the businesses I've run? It's always been the idea of listening to the diverse voices of my team and getting different perspective on problems. You know, get it from the marketing guy, get it from the manufacturing guy, get it from the quality person.

Make sure you get those different ideas that you say so that you can see a problem not just in two dimensions, but from three dimensions. You can see it from all sides. So I think when you expose yourself to theory or, or some of the academics around your subject, you end up getting that three dimensional view of the problem, which you might not get if you're just applying one, like experience, or, you know, as a practitioner.

Chris McNeil: Yeah. Maybe that extra point of view just shows you exactly where to make that little change that makes all the difference, too. And, of course, when we're talking about thought leadership in marketing, which is what our audience is largely interested in, it's the application of leadership to marketing or leading the marketplace to a new point of view. So everything you're saying applies.

And I love how your background lends itself to maybe clich├ęs about taking the deep dive and learning or what's beneath the surface. You got all kinds of opportunities, but tell us a little more about your background and what you learned in the ocean that applies now, that you might not have learned any other way.

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah, so, you know, submarine duty is sort of like the most unique military service that you can go into for just for the reason - that you're locked in a metal tube. For, in our case, we would go three, just over three months, we would be, we would deploy. And that's three months without, you know, without surfacing. So, no sunlight, no outside perspective.

So under the ocean for three months. And the space is cramped. So you are you're working side by side with the people that you're responsible for. So from a leadership perspective, it's a 24/7 business, right? So you can't go home at the end of a of rough week. You can't go home at the end of a day and have a beer and kick your feet up.

Chris McNeil: "I'll just step outside and take a break here." Nope.

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah. There's no stepping outside. So you are in it 24/7. But part of that is that you get to know your team really well. So you stand these long hour hours, long watches together, these hours together on watch, and you develop, a deep relationship with the people that work for you. So you might think it's funny, but in the military, you know, I knew my people very well because I, I knew everything about them. I knew all their ex-girlfriend names. I knew what their mom did, what their dad did. I knew I knew their girlfriend's name or their wife's name. I knew everything about them because I spent so much time with them. And so I understood what motivated them, and I had to get the best out of them. And so when I came into corporate, I realized that we don't really do that.

We don't get to know our people very well. We sort of, you know, the salary people are in an office over here, the hour hourly people are down here, and we don't have a common view of the organization. We don't have a common mission. And that's one thing that we had on the submarines. We all had a common view of what our mission was, which was, you know, conduct, in this case, strategic deterrent operations and get home safely. We all knew that.

We all understood that - we didn't have to talk about it. But in, in the corporate world, we have a lot of conflicting priorities. There isn't just one vision or one idea that everybody's going towards, you know, the, the sales team's focused on getting orders in, right? The QA team is trying to make sure there's no defects.

The production team is trying to get their production numbers up. So everybody is sort of battling each other. And, unless you have a good general manager who's kind of getting everybody on the same page, you can actually have all these departments moving in different directions and not being unified. One of the reasons I wrote this book All In the Same Boat was when on a summary, we were all in it together. We were all in the same boat, and there was no escape from the world that we were in.

So, and I think in sometimes in the corporate world, we try to escape. We try to focus on what's important to us, not necessarily what's important to the organization. I saw that a lot in these silos that exist in a lot of businesses. So everybody being on the same page, focusing on the same mission, and people that really knew each other really well, was something that was really unique to the submarine force.

Operating From a Common Base of Information

Chris McNeil: I can see the power of that in corporations, because haven't we all seen so many examples of, like you said, "silos", where you have the frontline people who are directly in contact with the customers, but you might have a back office philosophy where you've got a certain level of management that's in the back office, and they're not acting on the same information.

Where, in the submarine, obviously you're all acting on the same information, You're also tightly constrained, you're unified that way. How would you bring more of that dynamic to a corporation? What, how, what do you see the steps being to get more unified and acting more in unison?

Jon S. Rennie: Yeah, you know, I had my first manufacturing plant when I was 32 years old. So, I was fairly young as a plant manager. And when I walked into this plant, this was in South Carolina in Florence, so not too far from you. I got there and I noticed that the office people did office things, The production people did production things. And there was no common view of our business. In fact, there was no common spaces. We had one break room, so both used that, but the salary people had their own bathroom, the hour people had their own bathroom. And so there was this "us and them" attitude that existed in that plant, right? The production people didn't know what the salary people did, right? It's like those guys just seemed to be wandering around drinking coffee all day long and we're actually doing the work, right?

team with shared visionAnd then the salary people were like, "Why do they keep making defects? Why do they're not making their production numbers?" And so there was this "us and them" attitude. And I remember walking the shop floor thinking to myself, :How am I gonna bring these two worlds together to be like on the submarine where we had a common view and a common mission and a common experience around what it is we did."

And, I started doing something I call Fridays on the floor. So I started with just me and the first Friday of every month, I would work four hours on the shop floor. I would rotate every month to a different department, and I would just be on the line with the operators and just work with them and talk to them. I would get to know them.

I would get to know their struggles. I get to know what's wrong with the processes, and what could be improved. And I had this really deep personal connection with actually what my operators were going through on a day to day basis. So it's almost like, this show "Undercover Boss", right? You see that, that's pretty popular show. But, I was doing this long before Undercover Boss, and I wasn't undercover. It was actually me going out there.

But I remember I would call my leadership team in the office right at the end of these four hour sessions. And, I would bring in lunch and I'd say, "Guys, this is what I learned on the shop floor today. We gotta do this. We gotta fix this, we gotta fix this."

And I remember seeing the blank stares looking at me like, "What are you talking about? What do you mean?"

So they were seeing me almost like one of the hourly people, like, you know, you don't understand. And what I realized is that I had built this common experience. I had shared something with the operators. I had learned something, and they didn't have that same passion. So I extended that Fridays on the floor to all of the leadership teams. So I made all the leaders go out four hours, first Friday, every month, to go work on the shop floor, rotating through different lines.

Chris McNeil: That's awesome.

Jon S. Rennie: And then, then I came in and we'd bring lunch in and, after that four hours, we'd sit down and we'd talk about what we learned.

And the ideas just flowed in the problems we saw, and the opportunities we learned about everything, just changed our whole mindset about what our business was and what it could be. And suddenly the hourly people saw us as people that were trying to help them do their jobs. And they saw us, they saw the difficulties that we had in the roles that we had as salary employees.

We built a connection and we built a common view of the business and a common direction where we wanted to go. And so this business ended up a runner-up for manufacturer of the year one year, but we set records in terms of profits and in orders. And we were the lead plant in our division. But it was all about connecting with, building that common understanding of the business like we did on a submarine. So it was essentially the same things we did but I did it in a way that was appropriate to a manufacturing business. So this thing called "Fridays on the Floor: or something I invented, you know, Well I'm, I'm 55 now, was 32 then when I made it, so long time ago.

Chris McNeil: Yeah. Time flies, you know, and I love that example, Jon. It's about dissolving boundaries to me. And, acting as listener advocate, I know a lot of people listen to this podcast to help them with their leadership in marketing. Dissolving those kinds of boundaries really happens fully when you just get immersed in the other people's roles.

When you take management and you're actually out there on the floor, or they're there right at the transaction point with a customer. In the case of people marketing on the internet, if they go to the other side and see from the outside-in. So they look at how their media, how their organization is experienced from the point of view of the customer and design it (from their point of view).

And I think that's something that we as marketers in leadership, or as in leaders in marketing, have gotten away from, in some cases because of the distorting effects of big data. When you start using data to target people, then you just see them as a number. But those are people and those people have experiences. And if we're going to lead them to a new point of view, we have to go to their point of view first.

Jon S. Rennie: I think you're right. And I think that the other thing too, I would say is that, you know, we think we have the best ideas because maybe we're the marketing manager and we're supposed to have the best ideas... Because I'm the manager, obviously I've been promoted, I've got the best ideas. And, the truth of the matter is, the best ideas may not be from you. They're probably with others. And so we have to have the ability to listen to others, listen to their view of the situation, and to learn from that.

You know, I saw a lot of, when I was in corporate, I saw a lot of leaders, I would say managers, not leaders, but managers trying to manage their business from their office and not getting out on the shop floor, not getting out with their salaried employees.

Not like a sales manager, not getting out in the field, spending time with the sales force to find out what's working, what's not working. You have got to get out and you've got to see it. One of the things they taught us in the Navy was expect what you inspect. And that means you've got to get out there, you've got to look at it and you've got to touch it. And I think too many people try to make decisions based on sitting in their office thinking they're smart and they're gonna come up with a solution. And that never works


The transcript is lightly edited for clarity and is a partial transcript- the full interview is on audio. Click here to listen.


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