Growing up on the coast it didn’t take young Dave Davenport long to give hint that his future life might involve nearly 30 years of being a Royal Marines and special forces commando. While most 14 year olds were evolving from playing with action men to kicking a ball around the park, Dave and his best mate Geoff were packing a box of sarnies to canoe … around the Isle of Wight.
Telling Mrs Davenport he’d be back “tomorrow or the day after” Dave and Geoff set off on their intrepid adventure. “I was a free range kid” he explains over a zoom call to his office in Somerset, a Union Jack and a couple of wet suits hanging up on the wall behind him.
It wouldn’t be unfair to describe Dave as avuncular. There are lots of friendly Dave’s drinking their beers with a bag of crisps in country pubs up and down the country. But speak to him, engage, spend a bit more time with eye contact and the extraordinary man who qualified first in his intake in special forces selection reveals an authenticity and pragmatism that comes with years on deployments most of us just read about in an Andy McNab paperback.
Like the best operators, Dave isn’t a celebrity. He doesn’t look like a celebrity and he doesn’t trade on being a celebrity. Like I said, authentic.
Dave has taken his training, experience, authenticity and pragmatism to create a “finding solutions” approach to teamwork. I was going to write leadership but as I discovered it’s not leadership that counts so much as teamship. As Dave points out, “We seem obsessed by leadership but it’s the team that wins, not the leader”. More on this later…
Dave’s business, DXM, deus ex machina – translated to an unexpected solution to a problem – has been building and engendering the concept of teamship to businesses and organisations with a diversity from the corporate environment to conflict zones.
“I grew up in an environment where exposure to different circumstances was important,” he explains. “When I joined the Royal Marines we were exposed to a whole range of extreme conditions, even oxygen and CO2 poisoning. Circumstances where I learned to face stuff coming back at me.
“ You can’t buy resilience. You don’t get it at the supermarket.”
Experiencing extreme conditions and building resilience are the classic staple of Commando and special forces training and in our millennial social media world are hard to replicate without facing substantial law suits. It’s our dichotomy that we as a society and as people are losing our resilience at a time when we need it but baulk at the tests we often need to face in order to create it. As Dave says…. you can’t buy resilience at the supermarket.
Extreme conditions to build resilience is a first step in the prestigious green lid of a Royal Marine but what makes that organisation unique is not only the toughness of its personnel but the cohesion of its teams. “For me, effective leadership is about getting the best out of each person”, Dave explains. ”Ours was a flat structure based on who was the best person to lead a particular element of an operation.
“Leadership was about how you look after your team. How you best serve your team and how you get the best out of your team. Military leadership is all about shout. In special forces, everyone has a voice. Set up an environment of honesty and trust and create the spirit of getting the job done.”
In Royal Marines training officers and ranks train alongside each other. Officers are visible. Their physical standards are higher than non-commissions and this builds a mutual respect. Given how many senior leaders and executives in the corporate world lock themselves into offices and are invisible to their colleagues it’s little wonder why so many exec teams lack that trust and camaraderie.
“It’s about being proper selfish,” Dave explains. “That’s a key expression in the Royal Marines. You’re my boss and I need your brain to function. I will therefore help you do your job so you can help me do mine. I need you clear and functioning in your role so you can deliver all the things I need you to deliver in order for me to do my role. Proper selfish.”
Brutal in its honesty and simplicity this is again a far cry from modern executive leadership where CEOs are not on trend if they’re not working 24/7 or the leadership badge means leaders have to do everything all the time. That’s improper selfish. The kind of selfish that might appear selfless but leads to dysfunctional teams and leaders who burn out.
“The average lifecycle of the modern CEO is 18 months,” Dave adds.
“It’s little wonder given these perceptions and simply wouldn’t be sustainable in the military. Think of all the time it trains somebody, just to have them burn out and leave the organisation in under two years. It’s nonsensical.”
Resilience. Trust. Teamship. Visibility. Proper selfish.
Dave adds two more to conclude. Faster. And better.
“We didn’t deal in success and failure,” he explains.
“We had very honest debriefs and the objective was very simple. What worked? What didn’t work.? How can we improve? How can we be faster and better?”
Again, in a corporate world where success and fail seems to fill our language of evaluation, focusing on what works, what doesn’t and how to be better seems blatantly obvious.
“You have to make people feel valued,” Dave adds.
“Having a voice, being heard, collaborating to a common goal and knowing the what and why are key. What needs to happen? Why does it need to happen? Then synchronise in order to achieve the mission.”
“My team once visited a school with major pupil difficulties,” he explains.
“We walked in as a famous motivational speaking sportsperson was leaving, crestfallen that he had made zero impact. Our approach was very simple. We created a series of collaborative exercises for the pupils. We gave them a context and a space to have a voice and be heard to achieve their goals. We spoke with them not at them. It was transformational.”
It all seems bluntly simple.
Like canoeing around the Isle of Wight.