From the Sea to the C-Suite Cover

From the Sea to the C-Suite

Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office

Cutler Dawson

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2019, 152 pages

Book Review published on: May 29, 2020

Between 2004 and 2019, Navy Federal Credit Union’s (NFCU) assets quadrupled, and its membership more than tripled. During that time, Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson served as the president and CEO of NFCU. Dawson believes lessons he learned in a thirty-four-year career as a naval officer were directly transferable to his performance at NFCU. He further believes these lessons were instrumental in enhancing the climate of the organization, thus allowing the organization’s culture to be fully operationalized. As he says, “We needed to stay focused on our North Star-making Navy Federal Credit Union a great place to work so that our employees could provide great service to our members.” Dawson organizes his book From the Sea to the C-Suite into eleven chapters and presents a convincing case.

With titles like “Go to the Deckplates,” “Focus on Targets that Count,” and “Listen like a Sonar Tech,” each chapter details a lesson that Dawson learned at some point in his career and explains how that lesson applies at various levels within NFCU. He relates the essence of his lessons learned with a “sea story” from his career in the Navy. He then illustrates how he applied the principles of that lesson within the culture of NFCU and relates the way these interactions empowered employees to work within that culture to the benefit of the members. Each chapter loops back to his main point: NFCU grew because the climate allowed employees to provide superior service to its members. Each chapter concludes with a “Foot Stomper,” which is Navy speak for a take-away point or an axiom. This is a very effective technique. Each chapter is short and to the point. The author is an excellent storyteller and uses compelling examples to convey his ideas. This in turn makes for easy and enjoyable reading and leaves the reader with several solid principles to apply.

One of the overriding themes is organizational culture and organizational climate. The author makes the case that the underlying culture of both the Navy and NFCU is extremely solid and is strongly held by the members of each organization. In nearly every chapter, Dawson applies his learned lessons to the employees of NFCU to demonstrate how the organization was able to improve its climate in various branches and departments. In the improved climate, employees felt empowered and were able to fully embrace the culture, which states, “Our members are our mission.” This point is made over and over again, making this book an excellent case study when considering culture and climate in organizations.

The book is unusual in that it shows how military culture can be used to energize a civilian organization. As such, it would be an interesting read for different audiences. Younger naval officers would benefit from the leadership lessons learned in the Navy; leaders gain a solid body of advice concerning how to lead and act as a naval officer throughout the different stages of a career. It would also be an interesting read for naval officers who are transitioning from the service to the civilian world. It provides excellent insight into the usefulness of military leadership styles as applied to a civilian organization. And, it would be an engaging read for civilian organizational leaders. The book provides a people-centric leadership style that may sometimes get lost in corporate America.

Dawson makes a convincing case that lessons learned in a long military career have direct application to the corporate world. His ability to tell good “sea stories” coupled with a short and concise style make this an easy and enjoyable read. All readers should come away with a better appreciation on the interplay of culture and climate within organizations. Overall, the book is a good read and would make an excellent addition to the reading list of a graduate-level leadership seminar.

Book Review written by: Richard T. Anderson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas