Toxic leaders are certainly a pain to deal with, and more so to get out of. But regardless of its challenging aspects, the leadership lessons they impart are indeed noteworthy on all levels. Dr. Kevin Sansberry II sits down with Jon Rennie, Co-Founder, President and CEO of Peak Demand Inc. He shares how he got out of a toxic workplace and made him appreciate his own professional worth. Jon also talks about bringing his experience as a nuclear submariner to his current entrepreneurship ventures. He explains the similarities of managing a business team with the role of a submarine captain when it comes to ensuring a smooth-sailing operation.
Listen to the podcast here:
Explore Toxic Leadership Lessons with Nuclear Submariner, Jon Rennie
Our episode is with Jon Rennie. He is a business leader, bestselling author, speaker and podcaster. He’s also the Cofounder, President and CEO of Peak Demand Incorporated, a premier manufacturer of critical components for electrical utilities. He is a former US Navy Nuclear Submarine Officer who’s made seven deployments during the end of the Cold War. It’s good to hear about Jon’s experience and how he translated his leadership from the Navy into the corporate world. I’m excited to hear how he leveraged his underlying principles, knowledge and experiences from the success that he had under the sea to how he leads high-performing teams on land.
We have Jon Rennie. How are you?
I’m great. It’s great to be here.
I’m excited to talk to you about the past experience with many years of leadership, a submarine Captain, and now working in your own private business. Before we get into the Toxic Leadership portion of the session, I want to get to know you. Tell me a little bit more about yourself, what you do, and how you got to where you are.
I started in undergraduate school as a Mechanical Engineer. I’m an engineer by training but right after university, I went right into the Navy. I was a Naval Officer and I served on submarines. I did that for five years of my life, then I left that and went into Corporate America. I served in various different roles until I became a plant manager. Eventually, I led eight different manufacturing plants over 22 years. I decided to leave Corporate America and start my own business.
The worst result of toxic working cultures is making people apathetic.
I run a manufacturing business now. I’ve been doing it for several years but through all this time, I’ve been in a leadership role. I’ve been leading people ever since I walked out of college and went into the Navy for the first time. What’s remarkable was that experience in the Navy, those years I spent under the ocean cemented my leadership style and part of my expectation for leaders throughout my career and life. Those five years in the Navy were instrumental for me to develop my leadership model and how I lead, how I take care of people, and my concepts towards leadership. I’ve been using that for a long time now.
I’m sure with your experience being unique in a submarine under the ocean, you can’t just say, “I quit and I’m going to leave.” I’m curious about your experience. You’re on The Toxic Leadership Show and when you hear that terminology, what comes to mind? Have you had that experience before and witnessed some of that? Tell me more about that.
After all these years of working through it, I’ve had all kinds of bosses. I’ve had ones that I liked and I learned a lot. I had ones that were absent, they were never around. I had ones that were micromanagers. I did have one experience with a toxic leader that was caused me to leave a company because of that experience. In my case, it was the Chairman of the Board. It was my boss’s boss. He was a screamer, yeller, belligerent, used foul language all the time. We had worked hard to get approval for a new piece of machinery and he kept denying it.
They came on a factory tour and for the first time, he walked around the plant. He came to pick a piece of equipment and he said, “Why is that machine down?” I said, “It’s an old machine. We’ve been making parts for it but we can’t get approval. You won’t approve the new machinery.” Right there on the shop floor, I had an entourage with me. I was the plant manager at the time. A lot of my employees were around me. He proceeded to chew me out, using the F-bomb, call me every name in the book, told me that I was an idiot in front of all my employees.
This was his personality. He was tough on us all around. It was at that point that I went to my boss and said, “Just so you know, I’m looking for another job.” It was one of those situations that is embarrassing. It was frustrating because he’s the one that would say no all the time we were trying to get approval. He was telling me that I was an idiot for not going out and buying the machine on my own and I should have ignored him. It was one of those things where you couldn’t win. He’s one of those bosses that was demeaning towards everybody that worked for him. That was the final straw with him.
It shows you that those kinds of individuals are alive and around at work all the time. They feel like their way is the only way. They don’t treat anybody with respect, whether it’s the people that work for them, their peers, they leave problems in their way. Everywhere they go, there is a disaster in their way and that’s the type of individual he was. I was glad to leave that company and get to the next part of my career.
How did they respond when you told them about it and it was like, “I’m looking for another job.”
He graduated from West Point. He has served in the military and is a good leader. He said to me, “I completely understand and there’s nothing I can do about it.” He knew the situation was toxic. Shortly after that, he left as well. In that case, dozens of great people left that business because of that particular individual. The problem with toxic leadership. You tend to end up having good people who care leave the company. They leave the organization. You have this brain drain that leaves because people are frustrated and they’re not treated with respect.
Unfortunately, another thing that happens is people stay and become toxic themselves to survive.
It’s toxic or the other side is apathetic, “I’m going to keep my head down. I’m not going to say anything.” I’ve got a good friend of mine who works at a company that has a toxic leader. He says, “I’m just trying to make it to retirement. I keep my head down. I don’t care anymore. I’m trying to keep my income and that’s it.” How many people are unplugging because they have that situation that they are frustrated? They either leave, become toxic themselves or they’re apathetic. They are just walking their time until they get to retirement or they can find another job.
It’s sad because I know a lot of companies that I worked with, we want employee engagement. We want people to be engaged in the work. It’s like, “Why do we allow the toxic leaders to be toxic?” In your example, that’s the Chairman of the Board. You got shareholders to report to but they don’t have a boss. That gets difficult. Related to your lessons learned, you were a Submarine Officer on a nuclear submarine. I’m curious first off, what’s it like to lead on a submarine? How does that translate into business leadership?
It’s a unique environment. If you can imagine, it’s like going into work one day, and then they lock all the doors. No one can leave for three months. You have to get along with people and bosses that you may not agree with or may have personality differences. We learned to get along with people that we had differences with and deal with different types of personalities. We can’t leave. You’re stuck with the people that deploy with you. In our case, there would be about 155 sailors and officers on board. The people you deployed with, you went home with. That’s the part of it so you had to get along.
The other side of it was, there was a shared responsibility for the safety of that boat and also a shared vulnerability. Your most junior employee could turn a wrong valve and cause everyone to perish. It was an important environment in which you had to train up the young people and the new people to whatever the standards were, the culture, the norms, the procedures in that organization.
Failure is an important teaching tool because there’s an emotional response to it.
It’s something that I truly understood because we were all in this shared environment of which if one person would make a mistake, we would all perish. In order for us to complete our mission and get home safely, we had to do it together. My latest book is called, All In The Same Boat because we were all in the same boat. It wasn’t just an analogy. It was our story.
One of the things I noticed when I came into the corporate world was the opposite. We weren’t in it together. We were all in it for our own individual goals and objectives. I’ve worked for 22 years in Corporate America. What I saw was a lot of leaders were focused on their own department, bonus check or P&L in their organization at the expense of maybe another group within the organization or a particular unit.
You might see differences between engineering, marketing, quality assurance and production. There were always these constant internal battles. The big takeaway was bringing the idea of all of us in it together towards a common mission and goal. What I always try to bring to the organization is that same mindset that we’re in it together.
The enemy is outside the four walls, not inside the four walls. That’s one of the big things I’ve been trying to push and teach throughout the years as I’ve run these different manufacturing businesses and now my own business. It’s that the enemy is outside the four walls. It’s your competition. Those are the people you got to beat.
I was in during the Cold War. It wasn’t just the Soviets that we were worried about. It was the sea pressure that wanted to get in the boat. That was the enemy. We had to keep that seawater out of the boat if we want to survive and go home. Many people don’t get in that mindset that the enemy is outside and not inside.
Part of what you do is eliminate the us and them. In most organizations, you have us and them, whether it’s white-collar, blue-collar, engineering, marketing, your division, my division. You’re trying to eliminate those and bringing everybody to a common goal and objective. That’s a big part of what I’ve tried to do over the years. We try to eliminate that us and them, that we’re in that together. An example of that is I run my first manufacturing plant. In the Navy, we work together. Officers and enlisted work together in the same small spaces. In most companies, if you think about it, people are physically separated.
The blue-collars are in the shop. They’re in the factory. The white-collars are in some office someplace. Blue-collars don’t know what the white-collars are doing all day, and the white-collars don’t know what the blue-collar guys do all day. There are no common experiences. One of the things I do is try to bring everybody together. We have this thing called Fridays on the floor where every first Friday of every month, the white-collar employees went and worked for four hours on the shop floor together.
What we did was we built relationships. We learned about the processes and how difficult it was. We gained respect for each other. It helped us to see what was going on in the business. We physically went out there and worked side-by-side with our colleagues on the shop floor. It was a big reason why morale has improved in that business, the communication has improved, and the animosity between departments has improved. That mindset is what I try to bring from my days in the submarine, that concept of we’re all in it together.
As you talked about leading and translating your submarine experience into business leadership, I’m curious how can business leaders run their companies more like a submarine Captain? What else can they do as it relates to running a tight ship?
One of the big things that happened was every time we came back from deployment, we lose about 20% of the crew. They’d move on to their next roles or what have you. We always had this 20% turnover every time that we came back from the sea. We’d have these new sailors and officers come to the boat, some with experienced and some fresh out of school.
A big part of leading your ship like a submarine Captain is making sure that everybody is trained up and ready to go for when we deploy. We talked about this shared responsibility and vulnerability. Everybody could affect the outcome of the mission. They spent time making sure that every officer and every sailor were qualified.
What did that mean? That meant that they spent time with senior sailors, senior officers, and they learned how to do the jobs. They stood under instruction watches until they were prepared to fully stand the watch and take the watch. One of the things that the Captain did well is he put us in situations where we would fail in a controlled manner.
Managing a business is about motivating them and accomplishing great things together.
You’d be under instruction, you’d be standing watch with a senior officer, and he would put you in scenarios where it was difficult and you were likely to fail. In most cases, you would fail. The reason why failure was important as a teaching tool is because there’s an emotional response to it. When you fail, it’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. You don’t want to fail. We all want to succeed.
In that failure, there’s an emotional response to that learning. You never forget that lesson when you did something and it didn’t work out right. The Captain allowed for failure. It wasn’t like if you fail, you’re fired, you lose your job. He used that as one of the tools for teaching. He was always putting us in situations where it’s testing our ability to handle difficult situations. As we became more senior, we learned those lessons through failure. We failed less and less, and we became more competent in our craft.
Failure was a big part of the teaching tool and I liked that idea. Think about it in the business world. We give our most difficult tasks to our most senior employees because we don’t want them to get screwed up. What ends up happening is your most senior employees, your talented individuals end up getting thousands of piles of work on their shoulders because they’re competent. They know what they do.
What ends up happening is those young people never get those opportunities. One of the things I’ve taken away from that and brought into the business world was to give those difficult tasks to young people and let them have a chance to learn through stretch assignments, stretch projects, things that were slightly outside their skill sets. Give them a chance to learn and give me a chance to observe how they can handle situations that are outside their comfort zone.
You don’t grow until you do things that stretch you. They did a good job in the Navy to stretch us and we learned. I try to do that in the workforce as well. I try to find opportunities that take people and give them stretch assignments to give them a chance to shine or say, “It’s not for me. Thank you for giving me this leadership role. I can tell I’m not into this. This is difficult for me. Let’s go back to me being an individual contributor. I like being an engineer. I don’t like being an engineer and manager.” Giving them those chances to make some decisions.
I’ve always found that if we can find whatever our people’s passions are and they’re excited about doing it, we can put them in a role where they can do their passion, and it helps us get to our goals in business, we’re going to be much better off. You can’t learn that unless you give people those opportunities to fail and to succeed. What you can’t do is leave them in a corner and say, “You’re not experienced. I’m not going to give you any stretch jobs.” That’s the worst thing we can do for new people. We don’t challenge them. We don’t give them those opportunities to shine or fail and learn.
What you explained is another way to perpetuate trust. You’re getting the most important thing here and I trust you. I love the fact that you allow your mentorship to rapidly become a way for your early or lesser experienced folks to get on the front lines, to get into the trenches in a way. A lot of times, people feel they’re revving the goal but they don’t get enough experience. They get disengaged and do the bare minimum now because they didn’t get it.
When you talked about this, it got me thinking, does putting people in that position to fail also lets you see how they are under pressure? One thing I’m thinking about is you see them under pressure but then you also can get those out the way like, “You messed up but now we’re going to learn it.” Is that another way to do that?
Yes, 100%. I call it pressure testing. The Captain always pressure-tests us. Let me give an example. I was a young sailor on my first patrol. I qualified as Engineering Officer of the Watch, a very difficult process. That meant I was in charge of the engine room and there’s a nuclear reactor back there. You can imagine the difficulty of qualifying for this position.
The Captain made an announcement over the whole ship. He said, “I just want to let everybody know that Ensign Rennie is now qualified as an Engineering Officer of the Watch. He’s worked hard at this. I’m proud of him.” He told the whole crew how proud he was of me. He said, “Mr. Ronnie take care of my plant.” As he said that, they ran a drill on me. They did what’s called a reactor scram. They put all the control rods to the bottom of the reactor and shut down the reactor at sea, underwater, and I had to recover the plant.
The message there was twofold. One is, “I trust you with my plant. You’ve done good work.” He told the whole crew that I was qualified and he trusted me to run his plant. The other thing he did was scram the reactor. He said, “I want to make sure that you know that I’m watching you and that you can handle the pressure.” The funny part was once he scram the reactor, he sent the shift photographer into the room and they took a picture of me on a Polaroid. That picture was part of joining the club. He shared it with all the other officers. Look at Rennie’s face when I scram the reactor. Everybody said, “I remember when that happened to me. You did a great job.”
It was almost like a membership to the club. The Captain did a lot of things through that whole process. One, he trusted me. He told the crew that he trusted me, but he also tested me on my first watch. He’s like, “I’m not going to let you sit back there and do nothing. I’m going to see if you’re really qualified to do this job.” Some powerful lessons in that one little experience.
What makes you a leader is what you do with people.
By him doing that, you had to act quickly to get everything turned back on.
The thing is I was trained. I knew what to do because I stood many under instruction watches so I knew what to do. It wasn’t like that at the beginning but over time, we developed muscle memory. You hear about NFL quarterbacks. They say that the game slows down as they get more experienced. That’s what happened to us too. As we gained more experience, the game slowed down. We knew what to do. We anticipated what would happen because the Captain kept putting us in those situations and testing us, so when the real thing happened, it wasn’t even a big deal. We knew exactly what to do. It was muscle memory at that point.
You then became part of the club.
I joined the club. I still have that picture of my face. The thing is every alarm went off at the same time. You’re in this small room and you’re like, “What just happened?”
I want to thank you for your time. A unique experience with a lot of lessons learned that a lot of business leaders can take hold of and implement if they want to. What words of wisdom would you like to leave our readers with?
This is The Toxic Leadership show. I say on my podcast and my books that leadership is a people business. We can come up with all the great plans. We can be trained in everything from accounting to marketing, to engineering and all these things. We can run these big organizations but at the end of the day, nothing gets done without people.
Leadership is a people business. It is about getting people together to accomplish great things and motivating them to do great things. We get lost sometimes in leadership. We think that you have a title that makes you a leader. What makes you a leader is what you do with people. Leadership is a people business. It’s something that’s really important to me and something I talk about all the time.
How can people reach you? What are some other things you’re working on that we may want to know?
I’ve got a couple of books that are out there. The latest one came out called All In The Same Boat. It gives you those leadership lessons from the submarine and how I took it to business. That’s at AllInTheSameBoatBook.com and I have a website, JonSRennie.com. All my stuff was out there. I got a new book coming out soon but everything’s out there on the website.
All the links are on my website.
Jon Rennie, I appreciate getting to meet you and talk to you. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you. I enjoyed it.