The Impact of Building Connections

Admiral John Richardson served as Chief of Naval Operations for four years. This is the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy, overseeing the efforts of over 600,000 people. Now that he's retired from the U.S. Navy, he serves on numerous boards of directors, including Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, and Constellation, a Fortune 150 company, which is the country's largest supplier of carbon-free energy.

His framework of Competence, Character, and Connections has been increasingly used within this community to describe the skills that leaders need. And I’ve hypothesized that technology leaders often don’t have enough or adequate connection with their peers or with their bosses.

As one gets more senior, the needed skills for success are less about Competence and depend more upon Connections. He sums it up so well when he says that the goal is to gain their confidence and trust, especially as one’s area of responsibility grows and the amount of regular oversight goes down.

He shared some remarkable stories of how he’s been in situations where he built Connections, and in one case, having to start from zero, and the impact that had on his ability to get the outcome he, his team, and his organization needed.


Admiral John Richardson

Admiral, USN (Retired)


Gene Kim

Author, Researcher & Founder, IT Revolution



Hey. So I'm going to introduce, uh, the next amazing, um, expert and, uh, needs, he's already been referenced, uh, numerous times. We've talked about, uh, uh, technology leaders, uh, around, you know, what can we do to sort of make sure that, you know, technology leaders can achieve their own goals. Um, and so next up is Admiral John Richardson, who served as the chief of Naval Operations, uh, for four years. Uh, he's, uh, no stranger to this community. Um, he is, uh, now that he's retired from the US Navy, he serves on numerous corporate boards, including Boeing, uh, uh, constellation. Um, the world's, the country's largest supply of carbon free energy. And one of the reasons why I'm so excited for this is that an ongoing discussion with him, um, that of which I've learned so much from him, uh, for so many years, uh, is the importance for technology leaders to connect well, so this is not just with their teams, but with their peers and bosses.


And I think the conjecture right now is that if they don't do that well, they're potentially very vulnerable, uh, when so many people are quite happy to do things the way they've always done it. And, um, so this has been a common theme in the leadership careers focus, uh, that Dr. Andre Martin spoke about, Ian Esic and Paul Gaffney even mentioned, um, animal Richardson's model of competence, character, and connections. So, I'm, John, I'm so excited that you're here. Uh, could you, uh, briefly introduce, uh, yourself to us and, uh, maybe talk about this thesis that, um, connecting will across and up is actually something that's teachable and not something that's either, either born with or without <laugh>.


Yeah. Uh, you know, first of all, I gotta say I'm kind of reeling, uh, from the two presentations that I just watched, you know, I mean, professor Rock and that AI presentation really kind of set you back on your heels, and I'm, so, I'm still recovering from that a little bit, so I apologize if I take a little while to, to get back to reality here. But, um, yeah, as you said, Jean, three, seven years, I retired from the top officer in the Navy, the chief of Naval operations, they call it. Uh, during my time in service, I was a submarine officer for most of the time. That's a painting, uh, by my dad, uh, in the background there of, uh, of the USS Nautilus, the first, uh, nuclear powered submarine. And, uh, so I led, uh, the, uh, I was the director of Naval Reactors before I became the chief of the Navy, and served, uh, a lot of, uh, jobs in the submarine force since then.


As you said, I've joined some corporate boards, those sorts of things. And, uh, you know, uh, what we did a lot in the Navy is think about how to develop leaders. And as you said, um, you know, this model kind of stems from that work where, uh, just have, you know, think, think of leader development in terms of the superposition of sort of three strengths. One of those strengths is competence. And, you know, I've got to say that, uh, the last talk by, by, uh, professor Rock got me thinking about, you know, the nature of competence and how it's changing so fast in the face of ai and all of those competencies that are, uh, affected by, you know, the advances that have been made in artificial intelligence and, and these large language models. So, so maybe competence and creativity would be that. And I think that that's all pretty well understood.


The other, uh, dimension, the other strength is, uh, character or integrity. And then finally, uh, the one that we're here to talk about most, uh, today is, uh, connections. And so, you know, if you step through those pretty quickly, I think competence is pretty well understood. It's the skills to do the task that you've got. And so I won't spend a lot of time on that except to say that it's right likely the most fungible of the thing of the three, uh, strengths, the three Cs, right? You can easily retrain a smart person to do, uh, something else, right? And it happens all the time. Uh, character a little bit deeper, cons, uh, uh, uh, concept. It, uh, I think it goes to values or the integrity of the person. What are your personal values? Uh, what are the values of the team that you're on?


Uh, what are the values of your boss? You know, how much do those values align your, your personal values and that of the team and your boss? Where are the gaps? And how do you navigate that? And so, you know, we can talk about that a little bit, little bit, but really, the, uh, the thing that, uh, we wanna talk about today is sort of connections. You know, the, the strength whereby you connect to o other people in the organization. It's the, it's really the strength that binds together competency and character, you know, by virtue of the communication. And, and the, and the, the output of this, uh, effort, if you will, and we'll talk a little bit about that, is to, you know, produce a relationship that's founded on a high levels of trust and confidence, right? And so, and, and minimizes uncertainty, right?


Because just human nature in, in the face of uncertainty, like people are gonna think the worst, right? They're just gonna discern the worst possible outcome, and it starts to become, you know, stomach acid and toxicity just pervades. So I think that, um, you know, often, particularly in technological areas, and, you know, I was a nuclear submariner, so we had a lot of those <laugh>, uh, you know, the thing that, uh, we have to make sure that we think about all of those strengths, uh, acting together, right? And, uh, you know, the, the super position of those three really kind of make the type of team leader and teammate you're gonna be. And it sounds simple, right? Just, you know, add up three things, but it's really, they interact on one another. So if you talk to a physicist about solving a three problem, know their, their head starts to explode.


It's a very, very difficult thing to do. But you've got to, you know, you've got to try, and particularly in these areas, you know, other than competence areas like character and, and connections, you do need to make some deliberate effort to, to develop these, these connections to, to really go after that goal of trust and competence, particularly as you get more senior, right? Uh, it's not like these are all, you know, weighted the same. And oh, by the way, those weight factors sort of change over time. And, and it's my experience that as you become more senior, as become eligible for higher and higher levels of responsibility, a character in, in my book is always gonna matter. And connections matter more and more, as well as, you know, the person who's going to appoint you to that job, or, or that that role is gonna have to have, you know, more and more trust and confidence in you to, to take on those things independently without needing a lot of oversight. So, how about if I pause there, Jean, and, uh, open it


Up? No, it's so good. In fact, if I can just sort of, uh, concretize or just reiterate three things. Uh, one is, I mean, I love what you said is that, uh, as you get more senior, the more important, uh, connection has become. And I think that's something that, uh, this community's absolutely acutely aware of. Um, something you said to me before is that, uh, the goal is to generate trust and confidence, um, but with, uh, because, and to be trusted to do ever growing <laugh>, to, to do ever growing levels of responsibility and with less and less oversight, which I thought was such an interesting nuance that you put there. Um, and of course, this is more important as the more senior you become, but I'd actually love to confirm and, uh, point out that, uh, you have such an affinity for, uh, nerds and, you know, leaders, uh, technology people who become leaders, because you too also came from a, you know, uh, technical, highly technical field, arguably one of the most technical in the US Navy. Uh, can you just tell us about that?


Yeah, no, I mean, I, I am a nerd, right? I was raised, uh, in the nuclear navy, and this is, you know, Admiral Rick Over's legacy. Uh, and, um, you know, it's a program, the, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has justice unmatched reputation for, uh, you know, decades and decades of operating, uh, propulsion reactors on ships and submarines, you know, really since about 1955, right? And, uh, and so I don't have the number right off the top of my head, but it's really, you know, like millions of miles of safe, uh, operation on these, on these ships. And, uh, you know, they're all operated by high school graduates and college graduates that, uh, the Navy trains and, you know, the culture of, uh, safe operation, the culture of, uh, you know, the technical expertise required to do that. But Gene also, to our point, the culture of operating and acting together as a crew, right? I mean, there's nothing like being on a submarine, uh, to really get that intrinsic sense that like, Hey, what happens to one of us happens to all of us, and if any single person makes, you know, a, a mistake, you know, everybody's going to, uh, feel the impact of that. You know, we are really literally, uh, all gonna sink or swim together. And so that, you know, that makes this idea of connections super cr, uh, important.


So, uh, you have this incredible story of like, uh, how you, um, uh, wrote down very specifically, uh, you told a story about how you had to create a connection when it really mattered, basically from zero <laugh>. Yeah. But before you share that story, I just wanna make a quick little side. So one of the, uh, most memorable moments of, uh, uh, working during the pandemic was this workshop that you did with Captain Emily Bassett, uh, and telling the story of how she wrote to you as a, uh, a young officer. And, uh, next, you know, soon enough, found herself talking with you directly and actually changing the, uh, you know, adding the third Sea <laugh> to, uh, uh, to, uh, the Navy Leader Development Framework. Um, and so if you didn't catch that, uh, um, you, uh, you, some of you were able to attend the workshop that they gave, uh, in Las Vegas, uh, two months ago. Uh, and so just a, such a, an amazing story. In fact, your talk, which was published, uh, tells that story. So just anyone who hasn't seen that, you, you absolutely need to do that. So, um, so that's one example of a connection that was made, um, you know, almost from zero. But, uh, you had a specific example that was for you, <laugh>. Yeah. You had a, um, monumental responsibility. Can you tell us that story?


Right? No, this was a story where I had to go and, uh, you know, as, uh, I got more senior, one of the responsibilities I had was to go testify before Congress and, uh, you know, submit a, a budget that was part of the Navy and defense budget that would get congressional approval. And so, you know, you, you get this new job, and, uh, you just sort of dive at the whitewater. Rapids are raging, you just dive right in. They said, Hey, you gotta get ready for testimony. Said, okay, well, how, how's all that going? And they said, not good <laugh>. You know, we're not, we're, we're not really getting the, the support we need. I was like, oh, well, why is that? And they said, well, you know, they have all these questions about what we do. And, uh, I said, oh, okay, well, what do we say?


You know, how do we respond to those questions? I said, well, we just, you know, we're the experts and, uh, they should just support us. That's kind of what we answer <laugh>. I said, okay, well, we're, we're gonna have to change strategy here. Uh, and so, um, I said, the first step that we're gonna take is that, uh, you know, I wanna have dinner myself with the chairman of the committee that, uh, proves our part of the budget. And so, you know, they say in Washington DC one of the most effective weapon systems is the di is the dinner table. And, uh, and so that's what we did. We just got together for dinner, and this, uh, person was, you know, absolutely fantastic. We had a great dinner. We talked about growing up, you know, we had a lot in common in terms of, you know, playing high school sports and, uh, marrying our high school sweethearts and all of this stuff, this talk just went on for two hours, had a great dinner dinner.


And, um, then at the end, he said, Hey, look, Admiral, you know, uh, I have no experience at all in, uh, in, in nuclear stuff, right? Uh, you know, I was, I was trained to be a doctor, and so, uh, you know, I, I need your help, but, but I've got this responsibility I've got. And so how about we do this? I, you know, you're gonna come to me with a request, I'm gonna ask you some questions, you answer those questions, and then I'll give you what you need. And at the end of the year, you come back and tell me how it went. I was like, that's perfect. And we parted ways. Uh, we said we had spent literally like 90 seconds on business, and, uh, you know, after that we really, you know, got the full support. We, we responded to their, their, uh, their questions in a respectful manner.


And, uh, we got, you know, full res, full support. And, and it just really goes to the, the power of trust and confidence, right? I think that that was really the output of that dinner was that, you know, by virtue of that conversation, spending time with each other, getting to know each other a little bit, getting past staffs, talking to staffs, all of that, you know, stuff we, we connected and that we left that dinner with this understanding like, okay, you know, we're pretty straight shooter, so we just wanna get the same thing done. Uh, you told me you're gonna do this, you know, by virtue of these last two hours, I trust that you're gonna do it. So let's give it a try and, uh, you know, see if our, if our walk, you know, will we'll be consistent with our talk. And, and it was, and it, it was just great.


And we, you know, that, that great relationship persists to, to this day, right? Uh, really, uh, about 10 years later now, uh, they just have a good relationship between that organization and the congressional committee. So in any, you know, all to say that these are, you know, it, it is hard to really kind of measure these things on a graph, but, you know, just connecting as, you know, two people together to, to get this sense of each other. You know, can I really trust this person? Uh, do I have confidence that, that they can do this? Very, very important that night.


Let me kind of reflect that story. Well, first off, it's such a remarkable example, but let me tell you maybe about what a superficial interpretation might be. Okay? All you need to do what I heard is all you need to do is take 'em, someone out to dinner, uh, whether expensive or not, you know, maybe backroom, cigar filled, uh, smoke field room, <laugh>, right? Uh, talk about, um, trivia for two hours, and then in the last 90 seconds, uh, you know, uh, pop the, uh, the big question and, uh, you should be good to go. I, I purposely kinda exaggerate and, uh, trivialize, uh, this, but, uh, I think you nailed clearly


There is, that's exactly that, that's exactly the recipe. So no, actually


Something important happened, right? Uh, yeah. And, uh, I mean, so can you just walk us through, like, as an engineer, you know, what is it that, uh, was happening that went from, you know, zero trust to enough trust to conclude in 90 seconds?


Yeah, one, one, I think it's really important that, uh, when you're doing this, when you're connecting, you know, sort of, you, you have to connect at the right level, right? So bosses need to talk to bosses, right? And so, you know, I, I was sort of past, uh, working out this, uh, you know, staff to staff type problem, right? We were, I just wasn't gonna do that anymore. It hadn't been fruitful. And, uh, you know, I was kind of new and you know, this, this is also repeatable gene, right? This is not a sort of one episode I, this I can point to you to right off the top of my head, a half a dozen or more examples where just getting together and having this conversation, like, how does this person think? Right? This is not about where we had dinner or, or back rooms and cigars.


Nobody had, there was no cigars where, or, or hurt in the, in this dinner, you know? Uh, but it was sort of like, Hey, you know, what's this person really thinking about? Right? Uh, are they gonna co is this coming from the top, this sort of hostility? Uh, and, uh, you know, remarkably it worked out in that case, but there are also instances where I've been approached by folks and you read, at the end of the conversation, you really kind of go away with a completely different understanding. Like, you know what? I'm not sure I do trust this person <laugh>. And, uh, I'm very reluctant. You know, we're gonna continue with the, with the hard oversight on this one. And, uh, and, and maybe find somebody else to do that for me. Uh, because I re you know, based on sort of the interaction, uh, it is just really hard for me to, to understand where this person's coming from. And so, you know, a lot of oversight, right? Is gonna be required Yeah. <laugh> to make sure this thing stays between the guideposts.


And I think one of the things I'm just so excited about, uh, not just in this conversation, but this is also hinted at in the other sort of leader development, uh, career talks, was this sort of, uh, um, understanding of like, what does it take to sort of get those mirror neurons, uh, firing a sense of trust and confidence that, uh, you actually have common objectives and you can trust this person with, uh, um, uh, confidence and to do ever-growing things with less and less oversight. Uh, and it, to me, that's very exciting. Uh, but it defies easy explanation. <laugh>


It, it does know one of those,


But it's recognizable when it is.


Yeah. You can kind of get a sense for, you know, I mean, you've, you've had a lot of the sense, you, you come out of a conversation like that, it's like, okay, you know, that seemed to go really well, right? And, uh, then the other thing, gene, which is important is, you know, that's just sort of the opening volley, if you will, right? To, to get this thing really humming. You know, you, you've gotta follow through, right? So I had to go back and sort of, you know, round up my team and say, Hey, look, you know, just as we had hoped this thing went really well last night, uh, I committed to <laugh> that leader that we were gonna behave this way, right? So that's the way we're gonna behave, right? And so, you know, let's make sure that we are following through on all of that because we'll never recover if, uh, if I come back from that meeting and we don't change the way we behave, we right.


We don't, we don't do what I committed to do. And so, you know, and, and that's me connecting with the team, right? So Yeah. And, and getting a sense as you're having that conversation, you know, just reading the room. Yeah. I used to train, uh, commanding officers of submarines and, um, we did a lot of, uh, you know, we, we would put this, this, uh, candidate in a commanding officer scenario and, and just increase the stress. And there's a lot of times where they have to brief, you know, their team as to what their, you know, the ship's gonna do next. And you could really tell just by watching them, gene, are are they talking, you know, two, a group of people, or are they talking at a group of people, right? And you know, some of these people, until you, you sort of counsel them about how, how to do this, right? Were just sort of, they, they weren't looking for any feedback at all, right? They were just, they might as well have been talking into a, a, you know, an empty room, and it would've been just as satisfying for them, <laugh>. And the, and the team is confused. You can see it in their face. They don't know what's going on. So anyway, you know, this idea, it, it's a dynamic thing, right? And, um, so you gotta follow through. This is


So good. Uh, is there any, uh, what advice would you give, uh, supporting advice for, you know, technology leaders who feel like they, they don't have ample connections across or up, what, uh, what advice would you leave them


With? No, you've gotta, I mean, you, you've got to really think about how you're gonna deliberately develop. So, you know, as you think about what you're gonna do to become a better member of the team, a better leader, however you wanna think about your role, um, you know, both, uh, you know, however, up horizontally, right? Your peers, uh, to your team, however you want to think about it, you really do have to invest in, uh, this idea of, of just spending time connecting with people. It's harder as you're doing so much more stuff virtually, it's, it's harder to make that connection and get, you know, all of that context online, this session being, you know, a highly qualified exception. But, uh, you know, but you, so you really have to work at it. And, um, you know, the other thing is that, uh, in, in, in the age of increasing technological advancements, like you just heard from Dr. Rock that are going to, they're gonna take care of that competence thing. And it is just like he said, how you grew up and the things that you got rewarded for, those competencies, if you will, you know, a machine is doing those a lot better than we are right now, right? Or soon will be the teams winners in competition are be more creative, uh, have better character, and are more highly connected at a human level. That's gonna be the competitive advantage. And so, you know, there's, there's real value in doing this.


Amazing. Uh, well, I don't, I wanna make sure I don't make the same mistake I made in Las Vegas. So one of the things that, uh, you had made an offer previously that, uh, this is, uh, some, an area of interest for you, and that, uh, you are interested in hearing about the problems that, uh, technology leaders are facing as they try to, uh, you know, create connections across and up. Um, can I get your permission to, if they're interested, just, uh, direct message me or, uh, gallimore actually me, and then I'll get all of that sent to you, and then you'll probably get added to a mailing list, uh, so that you can learn from directly from Admiral Richardson. Would that work for you?


Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And, you know, in, in a longer session or something like that, not only do we kind of cover all of this in more detail, but then, then what, right? How do you actually like, take the next steps and, uh, you know, from very practical ways to try and, uh, just go ahead and make some progress here and get started. So yeah, whatever I can do, I'm happy to help out.


Oh, sounds good. Hey, Jeff, if you can sort of, uh, get that sort of, uh, offer on the, uh, slack channel, uh, let's, uh, let's, uh, see, let's make that happen. Uh, Richard, thank you so much for again, sharing your wisdom. And I'm just always dazzled by just the clarity and uh, uh, just how much you have to offer in terms of, uh, how one creates competence, character, and connections. Thank you so much.


Jane is one nerd to another. It's a pleasure. Thanks very much, <laugh>.


That sounds good. By the way, software engineers are top of the list, so, uh, yeah. Uh, so thank you.