'How you receive bad news will shape the work culture at your office'

Dr Mark Brouker, a retired captain of the US Navy, and founder and president of Brouker Leadership Solutions, lists out five behaviours that can help you become a great leader.

Published 3 years ago on Jul 26, 2021 14 minutes Read
Dr Mark Brouker, retired captain, US Navy

Under some bosses, you get fired up to go to work while the others make you want to quit. So, what exactly does it take for a leader to inspire? Dr Mark Brouker, a retired captain of the US Navy, has charted out five behaviours that could help. Currently a teacher of Leadership Studies at Chapman University, he has served as the chief executive officer at one of the largest naval hospitals worldwide. After transitioning from the Navy, Dr Brouker worked at Bridgepoint Education as a senior leadership development facilitator and in 2013, founded Brouker Leadership Solutions. At Outlook Business Leading Edge 2021, organised in association with IDFC FIRST Bank, Dr Brouker speaks about the qualities of a leader that inspire and excite employees. Edited excerpts:

Brouker: I got into the US Navy as a pharmacist several years ago and ended up working for 30 years. In the first 10 years, there were times when I was really excited to go to work but the other times, I hated it. I remember calling up the Navy’s human resource department a couple of times to say that I wanted to quit. I realised it had nothing to do with where I was located or the job I had. When I looked into it, amazingly, it was my boss. With some bosses, I got fired up to go to work while with the others, I wanted to quit. I was intrigued and started on a journey of reading and learning, and came up with 20 years of some pretty strong feelings about leadership.

What I learned through my 30 years in the Navy is that it’s all about building trust. Although you have to have some modicum of competency, you do not really have to know the intricacies of business. You don’t have to be the best IT person, surgeon, or engineer but you need to be competent and have those skills.

Twenty-two years into my Navy career, I was selected to be the CEO of a big hospital. Initially, I was all excited about the opportunity as it was a big promotion except, a week before I was going to take it up, I started getting nervous. Sometimes you feel like you’ve bit off more than you can chew. That’s how I felt. 

One particular night, I could not sleep and was feeling restless. I woke my wife up and she asked me what was going on. I told her I was nervous about being the CEO of the hospital. She said it was a big job indeed, but asked me what I was specifically worried about. “I do not know how to run a hospital. There are so many others who are way more qualified than I am to be in that position and it intimidates me,” I replied. To that, my wife said, “Mark, you’ve been studying leadership for 20 years and you’ve learned a lot through your journey. Just employ the things that you’ve learned.” And that’s what I did. In spite of really not knowing how to actually run a hospital, today, we’re wildly successful and stand number one in many categories, and that was surprising to me.

At my last job with the Navy, I actually was a chief operating officer for that same region and had about 12 commanding officers and CEOs reporting to me. There are six specific behaviours to build trust and the CEOs who employed them were more successful than the ones who didn’t.

The first behaviour: Know your staff. You’ve probably read it in different books and seen that leadership is about building relationships. It is a contact sport. I thought I knew my people when I went into the leadership positions in the Navy but here’s what happened: I was selected to be the chief operating officer at a hospital in the southern part of Rota, Spain. Before I joined, I went to a Command Leadership School in Newport, Rhode Island, where all the CEOs and commanding officers of the military units go to learn leadership. I was all excited about this opportunity and was looking at the bios of the folks who were going to be in the two-week class with me. They were pretty impressive. Some had PhDs from Yale in astrophysics and were going to be in-charge of massive warships. I looked at my bio and thought how I even got there! I was pretty intimidated.

I reached my class a little early so that I could grab a good seat — way in the back, in a corner of the amphitheatre with about 100 people. Unfortunately, I was the last person to enter that room and I got the worst seat in the house — front and centre. The first speaker came in and asked, “What would you talk about when you meet an employee for the first time?” After a long silence from the classroom, I raised my hand and said, “Well, you talk about the mission, vision and guiding principles, the dos and don’ts. You talk about your push button issues.” — all the buzz words that people use when they get their MBAs. The speaker was shaking his head in apparent agreement and I thought I had hit a home run but he looked at me and said, “That’s absolutely wrong. That’s not what you talk about”.

While I turned red and was sweating, and lost my composure, I was intrigued. He said, “That’s what they’re expecting. The folks are expecting you to talk about the dos and don’ts and the job. Resist the temptation to go there. Instead, have them tell you their story. Don’t go through the dos and don’ts, spend time getting to know them as a human being. Ask them what they love to do or what their goals and aspirations are. What their expectation of you as a leader is.” It shows the employee that the leader is vulnerable and that’s a beautiful thing. So, instead of talking about the job on the first one-on-one meeting, get to know your people. I’ve done this ever since and it was a game changer.

The second behaviour is to be visible. Get out of your office and see your people. When I was the CEO of my hospital, we had a bit of a crisis brewing in 2009. The government was going to shut us down because the Congress and the legislature couldn’t pass a budget. For me and my 1,500 people, it meant about 400 were going to get laid off... they were going to get furloughed and laid off without pay, which caused a lot of consternation.

My assistant asked me to have a town hall meeting or a get together to be visible, get in front of these people, talk to them and answer their questions about the furloughs. I thought it wasn’t a good idea since I didn’t have any answer and, truthfully, I was just a conduit of information. It was being decided at the White House and the Congress — way above my pay grade. But he convinced me to do it against my better judgment. I went down to the auditorium, got in front of all the people who are going to get furloughed and said, “Here’s the deal. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m here to answer your questions. So please fire away.” The first question was about the likelihood of the furloughs happening. I remember saying, “Well, I don’t know. It depends on Congress. If they pass a budget, then it’ll be averted and we can move on.” They asked me if they were going to get back pay and I told them I didn’t know yet. I didn’t want to set expectations and I didn’t know what the decision made by the comptroller would be. I didn’t answer a single question. None. And I felt like it was a complete waste of time.

Two months later, an anonymous survey that the employees took showed that my team’s trust in me was significantly higher. The fascinating thing was that some had written, ‘Captain Brouker answered all our questions on furloughs’. In spite of the fact that I had provided no valuable information to them about the furloughs, they trusted me more and I think it was because I spent some time with them. I was visible and I was vulnerable. I didn’t come up with an answer when I didn’t have one.

The thing about being visible is that you will be either perceived as approachable or intimidating. You do not want to be intimidating. When you’re intimidating, the folks in the trenches are more concerned about not making mistakes. When you create fear because of your intimidation, your folks will not be focused on being creative, solving issues. When you’re visible, just give accolades and thank them for what they do. Ask how you can help them and just be very mindful that they watch you and every time you walk around.

The third thing is to be respectful. Always treat your staff with respect. Every interaction with your employee impacts their trust. It’s either going to increase or decrease, some interactions more than the others. How you receive bad news is a major contributor to the work culture. While I was working at a hospital in Rota, we were three months away from a major routine inspection by outside entities and everyone was nervous. I was second in command, a deputy commander, and my boss at the time, the chief operating officer, had an anger issue. So, there was a culture of fear at the hospital.

One night, we had different officers inspecting different aspects of the hospital. One of the officers, a lieutenant, knocked at my door and said that all the laboratories looked good, the blood in the blood bank was all within date and the temperature logs had been taken. However, he said he had found a human leg in the freezer with a below-knee amputation — frozen solid with a little tag on the toe with the social security number and a date which looked like it had been there for five years. I had all these questions but the thought that predominated all my other thoughts was that I had to tell the boss the next day and it was bad news and there was going to be a lot of anger.

The lieutenant knew the boss’ anger and whispered to me that we could get rid of the leg that night itself. I asked him what he meant and he said that he was the facility’s manager and had a contract with a Spanish incineration team that came to the base routinely. He gets the boxes, the incineration team takes them off the base and burns them at its incinerator. “Tonight, I can call them up and get some boxes together. They’ll take the boxes and burn them. Except tonight, I’ll slip the leg into one of the boxes,” he added. He was looking at me for a thumbs up so that he could make it happen. I said it could wait a night since it had been there for five years. It didn’t seem right. He left my office saying I could call him if I wanted him to burn it. When I got home, I told my wife all about it and she asked me if I was thinking of burning that leg. I admitted to her that it did cross my mind. She then asked me to man up and tell the boss the next day.

And she was absolutely right. It hit me again and I thought, ‘What was I even thinking!’

The point of the story is that there was a culture of fear at that command because of the behaviour of the leader which had created the culture. Anger was a predominant tool of the leader and because of that, I considered doing something pretty stupid when I thought about burning that leg. A culture of fear breeds bad decisions. When bad news comes, you can always control your behaviour and must not show anger.

The fourth thing is: do not ignore good or poor performance. You should give accolades abundantly for good performances as it is a beautiful way to build trust and morale. In case of a poor performance, I was never good at handling it. I don’t like having difficult conversations with employees but what I learned along the way was what Stephen Covey said in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of Covey’s behaviours was to seek to understand first. When someone is not doing the job you want them to do, ask them to help you understand what’s going on.

Several years ago when I was running a pharmacy, I had a pharmacy tech who used to make a lot of errors which were being caught by the pharmacist before they went out. I had to talk to him about his errors but fortunately, his immediate supervisor volunteered to counsel him and told me that I could be there, too. As we walked into the room, the supervisor asked him to help him understand why he was making those errors. There was silence in the room. Finally, the young man said, “Chief, I’m not sleeping well at night. My room is really cold and I don’t have enough blankets. It gets quite chilly. If you could give me a blanket and put some heat in my dorm, it could help.” The kid then stopped making errors. I’m sure his supervisor would have provided him with some blankets and a heater. When you have someone who’s deviating and needs a course correction, as we call it, instead of accusing them, just say, ‘Help me understand and fill in the blank’.

However, there will also be times when you will be challenged and taken advantage of. The employee may think, ‘Mark seems like a pretty nice guy, so I am just going to come in a little bit late’. Don’t ignore poor performance. That way, you would know what’s going on and who’s doing something that is not quite right or needs course correction. You must have the courage to address the issue and if you don’t, you will be taken advantage of.

The fifth thing is optimism. Optimism is very important. I learned it from my last boss in the Navy, Admiral Faison. He was a two-star Admiral and I was his assistant, his chief of staff. He was always optimistic or, at least, he looked like he was optimistic. I got to know him during our travels around the Pacific while visiting hospitals. I could tell when he was faking optimism and there were many times when he was faking it but people wouldn’t know the difference. That is the key to leadership.

In a perfect world, you do not show pessimism. Pessimism is poison and you must be upbeat and optimistic. Napoleon said it best — A leader is a dealer in hope. You must give your people hope but you also need to be realistic. You can’t give false hope and that is probably the biggest challenge I had as a leader. You’ve got to find that nice edge to be hopeful and optimistic but also be honest.

The last thing is to continuously learn and relearn the art of leadership. I suspect everybody who’s listening to this was aware of these behaviours and have seen great leadership. If I asked people to tell me about a great leader they’ve worked for, the answers would probably point at leaders who have cared for their people and listened really well which is also a good thing about respect. They probably got to know their employees a little bit or the employees saw them a lot either via Zoom or face-to-face. They were probably pretty upbeat and optimistic. You know these things but in the heat of the battle, in the business churn when you have a lot of things going on, it is easy to slip into some bad habits. It’s the shortest chapter in the book. Continuously relearn the art of leadership.

Camaraderie during a crisis

To build camaraderie post pandemic, you do these exact same things but a little more of them and better remotely. To be visible, you can do more Zoom calls. It would probably be a good idea to schedule them because people are busy and you need to be respectful of people’s time. You can just say, “I just want to connect with you” or “I don’t want to talk about work.

How are you doing? How are you dealing with this pandemic? I know you’ve got kids, how’s it going with their online schooling?” If you know something about the person who works for you, you can connect with them on a personal basis. And sometimes when you connect, you don’t have to talk about work. During my last job in the US Navy, I had a team of 12 commanding officers, CEOs, and other staff from 10 hospitals around the Pacific coast — from the west coast of the United States to the Indian Ocean. I had never met some of them and was responsible for them. We had two wars going on at that time — in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was pretty stressful and money was running out. Sometimes, I would just call a team member and ask, “Jim, how are you doing? I don’t want to talk about work. I am just concerned that we have a lot going on and you have got a lot of responsibility.” I can’t tell you how many compliments I got after that tour.