The secret behind PVM's "secret sauce"
I’ve only had two jobs in my professional lifetime. My first real job came at 17, when I joined the world’s greatest Navy. After retiring from the armed forces at 41, my second foray into the professional job market was founding PVM. At the time, I founded PVM with the expectation that it would be a company of one: namely, me. I never imagined it would grow to what it is today.
Given my lack of formal business training, I relied on the many lessons I learned in uniform to guide my entrepreneurial decision making. My bedrock principals were (and continue to be): people first, mission next, and the customer defines a job well done. I’m a fan of simple, easy-to-grasp concepts that are communicated plainly. I’m awful at buzzword bingo, and I don’t subscribe to tech or business publications.
And I, as the founder and CEO of PVM, reserve the right as the only company member to tell someone with an idea or request, “No”.
So, what does this mean? As an example: I know we’ve all experienced the joy of being placed on hold for indeterminable lengths of time, and then finally getting a living, breathing human being, only to be told that that person is incapable of helping you solve your problem. One of the things that makes this experience so frustrating is that in many cases, that person is capable of addressing the issue—they just haven’t been given the authority to simply say yes.
The reality is that it is easy to default to saying no in the world of business. It is tempting to “play it safe” and to keep all decision-making within the hands of a few powerful individuals at the top. But here at PVM, organizations partner with us to help us solve their most difficult problems, not for our people to tell them we can’t help them.
At a lot of companies, the reason why an "employee” doesn’t say yes is fear. Fear that some business resource would be exploited by empowering more people to make more decisions. There’s an underlying assumption that most “employees” just shouldn’t be entrusted with the kind of power they need to make choices on the fly. They need to get permission for everything they do, or else they’ll run their company off the rails. But this fear erodes trust, both within the company and with customers. It’s bad for team cohesion, it stifles the valuable talents of team members, and it hampers the company’s ability to be responsive to customer requests.
Conversely, I believe that the team members who engage most with our customers are, in fact, the ideal people to be making those decisions and should be trusted as such. The whole reason we hired them is to engage their knowledge and skills in problem solving; what’s the point of having their expertise on the team if we aren’t willing to trust them to use it appropriately and effectively?
In the Navy, we called this approach to leading, “command by negation”. It is one of the things that sets the Navy apart from other mission focused organizations. The underlying thinking behind this command structure is this: in Naval warfare, due to the unique conditions that come with being at sea, decisions often need to be made quickly and with relative autonomy. That means that leaders must be able to trust every member of the team to make the right calls. Through training and experience, leaders are assumed to have the competence to operate effectively without needing to be micromanaged from above.
In short, what command by negation means for the average US Navy sailor is that unless specifically directed not to do something, they are empowered to do what they believe is right (and ethical) in order to accomplish the mission. Mission accomplishment is the focus. Mission accomplishment is the priority!
I have carried this principle with me to PVM and have explicitly communicated my complete trust in our company leaders and team members at every level. They know that they have complete authority to utilize all of the company resources to solve client problems… with one, single exception—I am the only one who reserves the right to say no to a client’s request.
Implicit in this paradigm is that I own all of the negative outcomes and blowback. I will always have my teammates’ and customers’ backs, independent of the outcome of an ethical decision. In the last ten years, we have been exceptionally fortunate to have great clients and partners who trust us completely. I say “no” only rarely, and usually only in an instance of miscommunication or misaligned expectations.
The principals of command by negation and trust have fueled our growth during one of the most challenging corporate environments of modern times. We’ve empowered our team members and created a company where trust is openly communicated and practiced daily: it is part of our company DNA. I wholeheartedly believe that our approach of trusting and expecting the best in every aspect of what we do and who we are, is our not-so “secret sauce!”
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