View from the Top: An Interview with Admiral Mark Ferguson

View from the Top: An Interview with Admiral Mark Ferguson

Our new series, View from the Top, gathers insights and wisdom from leaders across all industries that we can apply to our own work.

We couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce our first guest, Admiral Mark Ferguson. At first glance, there may not seem to be many similarities between leaders in the world of high tech and those in the U.S. Navy. But his experiences show that tenets of leadership are constant, whether you’re in the military or in the corporate world.

Hear the full audio here, or read the highlights below.

The Team, The Team, The Team

[Listen at 12:30]

The first thing you’ll notice when speaking to Admiral Ferguson is his respect for the men and women he’s worked with. Many of his proudest accomplishments would not have been possible without the support of a strong team.

Here are his two main strategies for building a successful team.

Personality Fit, Abilities, and Skills

Admiral Ferguson evaluated three areas when determining whether to bring someone on to his team:

  1. Personality fit

  2. Knowledge and Abilities

  3. Skills

Skills and abilities are different. A potential candidate must have a certain set of knowledge and abilities for consideration. This set of building blocks are then refined through practice into skills, which are the technical things an individual can do that may be built upon. And over the years, he realized that skills can be taught.

One the years, he realized personality fit was the most important consideration. This includes attributes like character, commitment, the ability to work with a team, etc. If the fit wasn't right then it wouldn’t work, no matter what skills or abilities the person had.

A Broad Interview Process

Admiral Ferguson utilized a multi-tiered interview strategy when determining whether someone was a good fit for his team. He’d have potential peers walk the person around to introduce them to the organization or have subordinates eat lunch or have coffee with him or her to answer questions for the candidate. While these encounters seemed casual, they were actually part of the interview process.

In his interview, Admiral Ferguson focused questions on case issues as well allowing the candidates to discuss leadership challenges they had faced in their career and their approaches to solving them.

These case-focus interviews demonstrated how the person being interviewed thought, and ended up being a window into how they would react to future situations. At the end of the day, the Admiral would canvass the peers and subordinates on their perspective of the candidates strengths and weaknesses and their fit with the team.

In nearly all cases, he found that their peers and subordinates gave better insights into how the person would fit into the team than what could be inferred from their resumes alone. More importantly, the team took ownership of not only choosing the right person, but of integrating that individual into the group.

Whenever you bring a new person onto your team, it gets disrupted a bit. But, this collaborative process assists in the acceptance of the individual into the team, and helps make the transition as seamless as possible.

Strategies for Prioritizing Your Agenda

[Listen at 3:03]

We all have many responsibilities, a laundry list of tasks to complete each day, and longer-term goals we’d like to reach throughout our careers. So, how do you prioritize to ensure you tackle everything that needs to be done, both in the long term and the short run?

For long-term goals, Admiral Ferguson suggests starting with the end in mind. What do you want to say you’ve achieved at the end of your time at the organization? Which changes would you like to affect? Create a vision for the future.

Then, for everything from daily tasks to longer-term goals, determine the things that only you can do, and those you can do with the support of your team.

Ensure the organization’s culture aligns with your mission, then look at the alignment of the team - their alignment with the vision, the work they need to do, and their ability to execute. Once that’s set, the roadmap forward becomes clear.

A Crash Course in Change Management

[Listen at 15:48]

One of Admiral Ferguson’s most high-profile achievements is working on the policy initiatives for the effort to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As the task involved a significant cultural challenge within within the armed forces, it was hugely dependent on the strong team behind it.

The details are incredibly interesting (as you can hear above), but we’ll break his process down into a few smaller steps:

  1. Build a cross-functional team. It should be the right size, with people in right roles and with right skill sets and gravitas.

  2. Change the concept or the context of the discussion from whether to how. The mission is not to debate the whether we should do it, the issue is was how to figure out a plan to do it.

  3. Identify issues and objections. In many organizations, leadership proposes change. While there are those within the organization who will support it, there is often a large group of middle managers who will oppose the change. That group will tend to erect a wall, brick by brick, of issues why the change won’t work. Acknowledging their concerns, and then specifically addressing them reduces their leverage to resist the change. Specifically addressing how the team will address each issue, big or small, is a key path to acceptance.

  4. Create a fact-based report and recommendation. Spread the word. Take it on the road and get tops-down and bottoms-up support for it.

  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Transparent communication throughout the process is essential for gaining buy-in and eliminating objections.

The Power of Diversity in the Workplace

[Listen at 25:39]

Admiral Ferguson has had a front-row seat to many historic events throughout his career. One of those is the integration of women into the U.S. Naval Academy. He later worked on the first warship to have women integrated in the pre-commissioning crew.

Whether it’s gender, racial, or any other kind of diversity, the lessons he saw are the same - the transition may be difficult, but the end results are exceptional. Simply put, diverse teams perform better.

A key to increasing your team’s diversity is the concept of psychological safety. As a leader, this means you must work to ensure that the person is mentored adequately, their feedback is appreciated, and that he or she feels like a valued member of the team. Part of this effort is having a critical mass of diverse talent within the organization.  

Tips for Millennials and Recent College Grads

[Listen at 36:52]

For our younger readers, Admiral Ferguson offers three pieces of advice:

  1. Your life is the most important design project you’ll ever have. Your life is not a raffle ticket where chance determines your success. Live with intention and focus on designing the life you want.

  1. Be an individual who creates trust in your relationships. Treat others with dignity and respect. Keep your word in your transactions. Be open to feedback. Recognize you're learning, and you don't know it all. Act with purpose and pure motives, and appreciate the best in those around you.

  2. You’re going to get bad breaks. You’re going to get bad breaks, and will have to realign yourself. It happens to all of us, so the question becomes: how do you respond and bounce back? Following such a break, are you resilient enough to set a new course?

Interested in Hearing More from Admiral Ferguson?

If you’d like to hear more from Admiral Ferguson, please contact us to discuss speaking engagements.

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