First Aid for Mental Health Education

#17 Creating a sense of family at work – Rear Admiral Stephen Hughes, Royal Australian Navy (s01ep17)

Sep 24, 2021

Rear Admiral Stephen Hughes has been in the Navy for 35 years, both on ships and on land. He is now the head of the Defense Intelligence Group. For those not familiar with military terms, Rear Admiral is equivalent to a Group Executive or Divisional Director. Managing in the military is similar to managing in any other industry and Stephen shares insights into how to keep the paths of communication open and what the building blocks of a high performing team are.
"I suppose the biggest indication or warning is asking ‘are you okay?’ Because 9 times out of 10, it’s “I'm fine.” But that one time someone says “you know boss, I'm not” you might have caught it at a point where you can turn it around and put a plan together before it’s too late. "
- Stephen Hughes


  • The sacrifices that sailors have to make.
  • How crucial the support of family is to all defence personnel.
  • As a commander of a ship, you can’t ‘lead from your cabin’.  You need to engage with your workforce on a personal level.
  • How the military term ‘Depth of fire’ applies to managing issues in your workforce
  • How the resilience that the Australian people have shown throughout the Covid pandemic is reflective of experiences in the military.


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Transcript from the interview

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Graeme Cowan, Admiral Stephen Hughes

Graeme Cowan  00:02

Hi everyone, this is Graeme Cowan, and welcome to the Caring CEO podcast. We create this podcast because we believe that every leader is number one priority is to build a more caring and resilient team who enjoys growing together. It is my job to interview CEOs and other senior leaders who value building both a culture of care and a culture of high performance. I’m very keen to understand how they do this, and I’m sure they’ll be lots of insights and tips for anyone who wants to build a high performing team. It was a real pleasure to catch up today with Stephen Hughes, who is a Rear Admiral in the Royal Australian Navy. For those that aren’t familiar with Navy titles, this is very senior. In a sense, he reports to the Admiral or the CEO of the Navy. So in industry, this would be equivalent to role as a group executive or divisional director. Stephen’s been in the Navy for 35 years, but each couple of years has taken on a new role. His current responsibilities is overseeing an inaugural position, head of the Defense Intelligence group. And it’s really interesting to hear his approach to building something from scratch. I first met Stephen when we launched, R U OK?, on the Navy Frigate HMS Adelaide, and he was addressing 600 sailors before they left Australia for six months, I was really impressed with what he had to say that day. And I often repeated in my keynote address, I just think it was really spot on. He also discussed some of the sacrifices that sailors had to make and shared that when the Iraq War broke out, he was required to be away from his family for one year, it’s really hard to grasp that. And it really made me feel very, very grateful for his service, and the service of all defense personnel. Navy is an amazing place to develop leadership skills. Because there are so many different types of teams, Stephen developed a reputation for building High Performance Team. And it’s really interesting to hear his beliefs on the critical building blocks to achieve that, I really enjoyed hearing about a world that I didn’t know much about. But one thing I learned is that a caring CEO in the armed forces has a huge amount in common with a caring CEO in industry, enjoy. It’s a real delight to have Rear Admiral Stephen Hughes hit with this day. Welcome, Stephen. 


Stephen Hughes  02:25

Thanks Graeme. It’s a pleasure to be here. 


Graeme Cowan  02:27

Thank you, Stephen, what does care in the workplace mean to you? Because you have a very varied workforce and then heavy and you’re 35 years they have been on the ships and also sometimes in office, but what’s the common quality around care for you?


Stephen Hughes  02:42

I think care in the workplace, the environment that your people and your leadership team need to operate in. And whether you’re in the Navy context, it’s been at sea and ships or alongside the and ashore, posting in a in a headquarters or a joint or mixed public service military environment. But I think it really comes down to creating an environment where people feel welcome, they feel safe, they feel that it’s an inclusive workspace, and that their contribution is valued, whether it’s leadership, their subordinates or their peers, feel that any ideas or their contribution is worth something and valued. So at the end of the day, when they go home, they’re going alright, it was a tough day, it was a hard day. And now I might have got in trouble, or I didn’t quite deliver or I’d done something really well, but they feel they’ve been valued. And it’s a safe place to work. So I think it’s around the environment that you set, whether you’re a leader, or a participant in the workplace, and it’s a collaborative space.


Graeme Cowan  03:45

When you commander of a navy ship, or a frigate, how do you assess if that culture of care is on there as a commander? How do you know whether it exists?


Stephen Hughes  03:55

But I think, as the CEO, or the commanding officer of his ship, the first thing I would say to anybody who’s gonna do that role is that I think it’s most probably got similarities in industry, you can’t lead from your cabin. In other words, you can’t shut yourself in the office. And they expect to know what’s going on, on the deck plates or in various parts of your organization. And I think any commanding officer or business leader, whether public or private, you get a feel for your organization by actually getting out and about and talking and engaging with your workforce, but also having multiple inputs, whether it’s your external stakeholders, or your workforce, or your boss’s, bosses, if you get the drift there. And I think it’s important that you stay open to multiple feeds, and you get a sense of the environment that you’re trying to create. And part of that is being willing to accept feedback. go in with your eyes wide open that you know, nothing’s going to be perfect, but sometimes it’s just Having that one or two minute conversation the passage way, you know, with a sailor or one of the employees, yeah, well, how is your wife or your family and by here your dog was sick. And what that sometimes does, it sort of opens the avenue to a larger, more broader conversation or a longer conversation. You’ve got to have trust in your subordinates or your line managers in them having the confidence to also put their feelers out and then feel in a safe way they can come back and go, you know, boss, that last policy you put down or that decision you made that didn’t really go down very well and lead balloon, maybe there’s another way of doing it. But I think to understand what that workplace is, is, you’ve got to get out of your cabin, you’ve got to get out of your office and be seen, not just to show interest and tick the box, but give the opportunity to open up those communication paths. 


Graeme Cowan  05:52

Yeah, fantastic. I was very fortunate that as a board director, I okay to attend the launch of IU. Okay, and HMS Adelaide. And it was a wonderful experience. It really was. And you may recall that we started with Gwen Cherne, who was an ambassador for R U OK?. And she spoke about her husband, a service person who had lost his life to suicide, and then you spoke, And do you remember what you said? Because I remember very well.


Stephen Hughes  06:22

Yeah, it’s funny, I, it was one of those on the spot, sort of analogies or something to try and explain to a lot of sailors, why the mental health and not just mental health, but you know, a whole raft of issues, which you could pack under that. And I suppose it was around the bottom line up front about getting after issues early. And I think what I said to them is, if you can deal with something at range early, it gives you a number of opportunities to attack it again. And it’s what we call in a military sense, a depth of fire. In other words, you can do your first hit out, and you either get it first time, and it gives you to go after another problem. Or if you miss, you’ve got another shot at it or another shot. And the lighter you’d leave bad news doesn’t get, you know, get well with time. But if you wait until it’s now, right in front of you that last self defense, were using a machine gun to shoot down something, it’s too late. I think where I was really going there is telling people that if you get indications of warning, you get early signs, you think things aren’t just don’t be passive and expect it to go away or somebody else will deal with it to have the courage, the commitment and the vision to lean forward. So that we know yourself or your team to try and deal with it early. Because you never know you may avoid that. What are the eyes last minute desperate, I’ve now got to pick up the piece. And so I think that holds with a whole bunch of things. And I suppose the biggest indication on warning is that, you know, going back to my learning about that listening culture, the communication culture, asking, you know, are you okay? Because nine times out of 10, okay, I’m fine. But you might just get that one time where somebody goes, you know, boss, I’m not, and you might have caught it at a point where you can turn it around, or you’ve got a whole bunch of opportunities to put a plan together to get after it, not deal with it. You know, to be brutally honest, where you wake up one morning, get a phone call from your duty officer or one of your subordinates, who says, Hey, such and such committed suicide last night, then you start on picking that go, Oh, I saw this. And three months ago, if I did that, well, you know, try and be attuned to your workforce, get after it early. Anyway.


Graeme Cowan  08:45

I really liked what you said there because it didn’t really seem to resonate. You first of all mentioned that we don’t want to lose anyone from the Navy family this way this is following what Gwen had described does it feel like a family, you know, on the ship is that what the sort of thing you tried to engender?


Stephen Hughes  09:02

I think you could use all sorts of descriptions or community a family, I prefer to put in the sense of you come to work with a common purpose. And that purpose is set whether by the government, you know from the chief of Navy, or whoever. And through that common purpose, you create multiple teams. So whether it’s the engineering team, the chef’s, or the supply department, or the boatswains who handle the ropes and the small weapons through to what I call the command team, which you know, sort of supposed to make a bunch of decisions, but all those small teams come together as one entity. And yes, at the social level, we all live in the accommodation, the ship, the sailors. Yeah, this stack sort of two or three high in a bunk arrangement and anywhere between six to 12 in some of the older ships, you know, larger numbers so socially you are a family Because you’ve got to put up with the good and the bad, and everybody has their own family experience. But yeah, there’s some days where you got to get told by the wife that what you did was the wrong thing. And other days, you know, everybody gives everyone a big hug. But I think it’s the community have a common purpose, and people understanding their role, you know, their function from a professional career or a skill set, and how you contribute. And by natural processes of what I call good leadership, developing the right culture, I think you then can say, you’re a family. But it’s not just the people on the ship. And defense and Navy over many years has put a lot of resources and effort in trying to support not just the sailors on the ship through what we call the divisional system, which is keeping them up to date on the latest policy or procedures, work health and safety, but also the welfare of the broader Navy family, which is, you know, partners, loved ones, families, the community. And you can’t get it right all the time. But I think there’s a lot greater caring, and not necessarily responsibility, but providing the tools and the opportunity for a serving personnel, you know, in the Navy, who come goes to sea in the ships, or works in the office environment where we genuinely look at the whole person, not just the employee. And you know, we’ve got the defense community organization, there’s a number of other organizations or things we’re putting in place to build what I call the broader Navy family, and across defense for that matter. And I think mental health has been a huge, maybe it is an awakening that there’s more to it than just making sure they get three square meals a day, and they have good working hours. And we provide them, you know, Internet access at sea. I think there’s a whole bunch of components now to what the Navy is. So, you know, is it a family? I think so. Because through a positive culture, you know, in the right leadership, people feel there’s more to it than just doing the job. But at the end of day, it is a community. And it’s the sum of the number of teams that you train and bring together to deliver the mission effect. I’m sure it’s the same for industry, you’ve got people in production, you’ve got people in sales and marketing. And unless those teams are integrated, they feel they’re all contributing against a greater vision. And then the families are important. Why? Because they’re the ones who’s sending their loved ones off to work, whether it’s in the mining industry, which is complex and risky as the military is, depending on the work environments. It’s an interesting discussion, whether it’s a family or whatever.


Graeme Cowan  12:54

One thing that I would I guess, just make the observation about like, after that presentation, we all went up to the top of the deck with the HMS Adelaide, former big R U OK? And that was a great experience, because I really thought back to our founder, Gavin Larkin, and who sadly died from cancer. And what an amazing thing he would have thought that was I couldn’t help but think about that. But then we went down stairs, and I’m not sure if you stay there. But there was promotions announced and a morning tea. And what really was very surprising for me who’s only ever worked in industry was that the family were there for the sailors getting promoted, you know, the kids were there. And, you know, I just thought that was so unusual, but also really, really powerful. Because I guess you have a situation where sailors are away for a long time. And it probably helps that the kids see the environment and also feel proud that their parents, male or female have been promoted.


Stephen Hughes  13:49

Well, I’ve been doing this Navy thing for 35 years. And I remember for I sort of became more deskbound, first 14 years of my career, I was at sea, pretty much non stop, and every milestone in terms of my own career progression and promotions within you know, those first 14 years, I could not, you know, I got married mid 20s side note, I had a bit of time under my belt, but I had a young family. And I remember, you know, back in 2003, sort of the Iraqi war back there where we deployed away for a whole year and I remember my two young daughters one was, I think six months and the other was just over two years, I suppose a couple of years apart. And I remember saying goodbye. But when I came back a year later, after many weeks at sea, my youngest didn’t even know who I was. And my eldest I think, had an inclination sort of realized it was me and the youngest ended up just fine along for the giggles to see who this guy was. But the reality is I could not have done that year with the support of my wife, and my kids and my family. And when you then extrapolate that out to the broader Navy community, our Navy people and our defence force people, and it’s not just Navy alone, the family sacrifice a lot for the service we’re giving to the country. And I think all our Defense Force personnel and military staff public service and serving for that service, but I also thank the families for trusting in the Defence Force, and our values and our mission. So when it comes to us getting promoted or elevated, by inviting the families, it’s really very important recognize the support our families, given, I’ve been lucky, my wife, you know, every step of the way has been, you know, by my side support me, she’s given up in her early years of career, and it’s only now, you know, she’s getting after a career where it’s sort of everyday question, you know, at what point do I give it away and support her, and I’m open to doing that, just in case she’s listening. But I think the reality is, the reason we bring our families is because it’s recognition of the contribution families make. And we always and it’s not a box ticking exercise, we always acknowledge the sacrifices the families make, I mean, a wife at home with two young kids for 12 months, while we’re off in a war zone, I can’t even imagine the stress and the turmoil. But you know, my wife got through it. And I see, every time a ship comes back on a news, I see the families on the wharf with both relief, but also immense pride for their resilience and their support for the mission and what the serving people do.


Graeme Cowan  16:48

Yeah, it is quite extraordinary. When you hear being away for a year, we’ve had all the country going in lockdown and feel a little bit isolated. But yes, not on the same scale isn’t it’s really extraordinary.


Stephen Hughes  17:02

I was just gonna say on interest, you know, with the national response to COVID, and are talking about the government system response, but the resilience the Australian people have shown, I think is reflective of the experience I’ve seen in the military, we can come together as a community in hardship. We recognize that individuals are reacting or families or communities reacting different ways. And it’s not we’re ignoring it. I mean, I see the support that many mental health organizations, community groups, nonprofit organizations, and what the government’s various state and federal are doing, but I remember walking through Sydney in the worst of the COVID period last year, where there was nobody walking around Potts Point, Kings Cross here near the Navy base. But every single bus stop, had the R U OK?, yellow and black sign on it were a company obviously donated that space. And it made me realize that we as a country, no matter what the hardship is, whether it’s drought, fires, we always step up to the plate. And I thank the Australian people for the support they’ve given, you know, the military and defense over many years, but I also take my hat off in the way the Australian people have dealt with the crises we’ve had over the last couple of years and things like R U OK?, you know, near Beyond Blue, various helplines have all contributed to making Australians feel they’re supported. And I look then at a number of industry and businesses that I deal with, or I have social engagement through other means to tell similar stories of how they’ve responded to make sure your people can work safely from home. They’ve got the technology, they’re checking in with their workforce, they’re having, you know, what I call social, like events to bring the workforce back together. So, you know, the military is not alone in providing this, what I call this caring environment, for the people that make their company or their community for whatever motivation they exist, to grow and be resilient through these times.


Graeme Cowan  19:24

Yeah, very nice, very, it is very relevant because there has been, you know, remarkable pulling together and people, the largest extent have cooperated and in the best possible way, and that has been a really interesting thing like my father passed away earlier this year is 91. But he just couldn’t believe that things like the pubs were closed and all this sort of stuff because he could remember back to you know, the wars and the after, after the Great Depression and the pubs was open, and you know, you can go there so it was unique. What is unique is it every single This person has been affected. And that is a very unusual situation.  If you believe like we do that leaders number one priority is to build a more caring and resilient team who enjoys growing together, you may be interested in these three free resources were provided that our website, The first one is the week care credo poster. And this contains the mindset and values of team surprise, self care, crew care, and red zone care. The second resource is a post called How to support a teammate in distress. And this provides easy to follow instructions on how to identify someone who’s struggling, how to have the conversation with empathy, and how to guide them to the help that they need. And the third resource is a building a mentally healthy culture checklist. And this provides items to think about before you launch your initiative, how you do a great launch. And then thirdly, how to get momentum going. Following the launch. These three free resources can be found at  You’ve obviously been in lots of different environments within the Navy. Stephen, can you just give our listeners who may not be familiar with a naval career just a little bit of a brief background about how you got to where you are now? over 35 years? What were the various roles you had, and what did you What did you learn from those roles?


Stephen Hughes  21:34

I grew up in a Navy family, my father was in the Navy and to be told I actually wanted to go and join the Air Force and do something completely different. But for one reason or the other, I ended up with a naval career, maybe I wasn’t smart enough or good enough for him. I started off initially as an engineer, and my father was a electrical engineer. And I went into engineering because I liked technology. I liked doing things. I went on a number of ships when I was a young Midshipman, you know, the sort of the lowest officer rank, where we’re getting work experience, and one of my reports, right, this officer has no interest in engineering. And he should become a seaman officer. Yeah, you know, a ship driver. And the reason was, I was fascinated by the capability of what ships could bring, and their teams could bring in the technology in the ships. And I was more interested in the operation of the capability rather than the maintenance. So the sustainment of the capability, the I had experience on frigates and submarines, and I sort of went, you know, I actually enjoy this work. And then the other component of it, I remember, I asked somebody, you know, could you get command of the ship if you’re an engineer? And the answer was, you know, back in those days, no, and why would you want to, and I suppose that built the courage to have a conversation with my father and said, Dad, I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to drive ships, which he was very supportive. And then I had to go through the whole process of convincing Navy, as a young engineer that I should go and drive ships, and they weren’t too happy about the investment they had made in education. But in the end, I think they thought they might have something to evaluate. But when I got to sea, I went through a number of career continuums, which built on skills of ship driving and fighting the ship and leading the ship and ultimately commanding the ship over sort of 10 to 15 years. Plus, I had some experience in the Canadian Navy in the US Navy. And then I landed for the very first time really in the Canberra, Russell environment, the strategic headquarters in Defense where I got introduced to developing capability, you know, ship projects and stuff and including that was the Hobart class destroyers back in early mid 2000s. And I found I had a little bit of engineering, background and thinking plus the operator understanding experience, and I brought that together and I really then found myself in a bit of a niche environment of developing capability and delivering projects through requirements and concepts in between going back to sea or going back to a command position like I was the last couple of years up in Sydney and then two, partly in the right place at the right time, which I you know, I think is with any successful career, you know, there’s a bit of that but also building a reputation to deliver and deliver in a way that keeps teams together and as more holistic integration or building a broader relationship with stakeholders and a community to deliver a program. And you know, and as I got more senior, I got more responsibility. I continued to deliver I continue to lead the teams and then now accountable for a whole environment of capability. again, 12 months ago that environment didn’t exist, decisions are made and an opportunity opened. And here I am. So I think my career has been built around, you know, developing experience, taking hits along the way, seeking advice from people, and just taking opportunity continue to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. And as a consequence, you know, my case. So I’ve been very lucky and very fortunate and proud, proud to serve. 


Graeme Cowan  25:32

Yeah. And I know, so your father was Rear Admiral Stephen, did you feel pressure through that, that, you know, he risen to those ranks? Which, you know, for other people, I guess, one level below, right, the, the head of the Navy, did you feel pressure to want to match him or?


Stephen Hughes  25:51

I always respected what my father had a chain that I never, I sort of didn’t want to live in his shadow. Part of the decisions I made was not, I don’t want to do what dad did, but I wanted to be my own man. And that brought its own challenges. Because, you know, I had enormous respect and a blessing, I want to do this now, let your father down. But I felt the further I went down a different path, the closer he and I became. And I remember a time in the mid 2000s. And for the first time in my life, he asked me for some advice. That was the change in sort of, you know, early mid 40s, where I realized that I no longer needed to live in that shadow. I mean, given the fact that I’ve been retired from the Navy for nearly 10-15 years, it didn’t matter, I was still an Admiral. And then, you know, he passed away, four or five years ago, and I remember he, he got advice from the chief of Navy visiting hospital and said, Look, we’re gonna promote your son, Commodore in a year. And then when I made Rear Admiral, I must admit, I thought, Well, hopefully he’s looking down. And, you know, I think we’ve done all right here, but I never felt I was, I was in a race, or it was a competition, I felt it was me being my own man. And I had him as that support. But I had my family and my close friends who were there for the journey. Everybody has their life story around the role of their parents or all their friends, when you bring it back to this caring co like conversation, you’ll be surprised the number of people in the workforce or in your organization, who all have their own unique story. And sometimes it’s worth just spending a bit of time to find those stories, because it makes you reflect and think what a diverse and inclusive and brilliant, you know, country we live in. And so I’m just lucky to have one part of that story and as many of them, 


Graeme Cowan  27:56

Yes, yeah. As you just described, you know, you’ve had a really varied career in the Navy, and now right at the top, but the common element is that you’ve been able to build capable teams and deliver what have you found to be the really essential ingredients for a capable and high performing team?


Stephen Hughes  28:19

It’s around having, firstly, a vision, it’s around developing a purpose, and then explaining that purpose in that vision to your team. So they understand what part of the team or that vision, their role is all their accountability, their responsibilities, and it’s also understanding to how they contribute to the value of the mission. And like, they don’t all have to agree with it. But they need to understand why it’s important, and why we’ve got to do it. And you know, whether it’s the Navy or industry, somebody’s got to clean the toilets. And it’s just one component of achieving the mission. Nobody wants to clean toilets, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to, so it’s not focusing on individual tasks, it’s around people understanding their role in that and then communicating that, but also then being sensitive to your workforce and the team around their risks. They’re managing whether personally, or as part of the outcome you’re trying to do, having that open communication, continue to update it, because no plan survives first contact, you know, as soon as you start realizing risks, yeah, they’ve become issues and you’ve got to change course, creating that environment of you know, when we go back to the beginning of the conversation around that inclusive, safe environment. And then the other component is once you’ve built the team, and they understand it’s actually now letting them get on with it. And having the discipline in terms of a manager or leader when you delegate something. You can see hold them to account, let them get on with it, check in how they’re going. But also have your door open and they can have a conversation boss, you told us do this, we’re doing this, is this what you want, or we’re struggling with this, can you help us, but once they’re on the path, it’s also been clearing the runway for them to get on with the job and keep now all that process and bureaucracy and things out of the way and try and let them get on with the job now, not your low level managers, they’re the ones who got to deal with, you know, the reporting up the chain and filling in the spreadsheets and writing the reports and reporting in because that’s part of, you know, the accountability and the management of a complex project or whatever activity you’re doing. But I think the way to create a good team is through strong leadership. And then also building the team with the skills you need. And letting the team understands that they don’t have to carry the load themselves, it’s the sum of the parts. So you’ve got a good commercial area, you’ve got a good technical area, you’ve got a good project management area, or whatever your business in, and then they feel they’ve got those networks and communication feedback loops. But at the same time, it’s also ensuring the team understands who their stakeholders are in Melbourne have access to the stakeholders so that they can have those conversations, they need to live the project. And then if it goes, Well, you swim to the next one. But if you start getting into problems, you’re having the dynamic pneus and flexibility in the organization to know to be resilient to change, or whatever it is, because a lot of the projects that we’re doing the fence, you know, take many years to design and deliver. I mean, just you know, it’s not something you do overnight.


Graeme Cowan  31:36

As I understand you have taken on in all role hitting the Defense Intelligence Group, what does it involve? And it’s obviously hadn’t been done before. So how are you planning things for something that hasn’t been done before?


Stephen Hughes  31:52

within this new intelligence group, which is bringing together a number of agencies, my area is sort of third leg of the stool, that’s around intelligence capability. And I work for three star Attorney General. And what the vision was, is a lot of the capabilities. And we’re talking like, really dull stuff like data and networks and collection systems are all being done in isolated silos. The other services, you know, Army, Navy, and Air Force were doing their own thing. And what they wanted the vision was is we integrate the capability aspects, which allows us to get after decision advantage we want from information and it doesn’t have to be classified or anything. It’s just how do you bring all that together? So that was the challenge. What I needed to work out is how do you build a number of teams with the right expertise, and integrate them and then engage your stakeholders, your partners, both across the national community and the international community that synchronizes and integrates all the some of the parts to deliver a more effective outcome. And I think when you turn up to an organization, and there is no plan, you have a scattered workforce of resources, which you got to work out. And then you know, you’ve got gaps. You just you’ve got to lay out what is success, like, what resources they given, and then start prioritizing. Again, you can’t own all the bright ideas, you might own the intent or own the logic of what you’re trying to do. But it’s your junior managers or your middle level managers and your workforce who had that expertise. This intelligence thing was something I knew nothing about, you know, I driven ships and I’d built ships. And suddenly, they want me to do this thing. And so I didn’t have all the answers, but I had the experience of dealing the organization and understand the capability lifecycle without getting too technical. So I had to be very reliant on my senior leaders and my subject matter experts. And what we’ve done over the last six months, is we’ve co located in the sense of, you know, we understand who we’ve got, we now have a pretty good firm on what the vision looks like. And we understand what are the important things we’ve got to get after. And now we’re laying out what I call the formal plans and strategies. That in case I get hit by a bus tomorrow or somebody else, you know, it will have some longevity beyond your posting cycle of a couple of years. There’s an intent when you look at what government wants out of the fence with the challenges we have ahead of us to bring forward a lot of these capabilities and put all these enabling systems in place before new ships and new aircraft etc. Come along, so I have to create this High Performance Team and then listening to the advice which most probably is my weaknesses. Being an active listener is hard work as a leader especially when you’ve got lots of bright ideas floating around your head and you’re trying to deliver something quickly. I think once we get the fundamentals in place, and we can then articulate that vision and the plan, then you’ll get that external and leadership buy into your program. And we’re starting to see that now that the fruit of the last six months is doing that. But then because we are now delivering at pace and planning at pace, there’s a lot of pressure on the team. And then of course, we’ve had the recent lock downs and impacts I mean, the ACT, we’re just hoping like, hell, it doesn’t come across the border. But no, I look out to our compatriots in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, I mean, it’s got to be a matter of time, but it’s not trying to be half glass empty, but there’s other pressures on the workforce. So we’ve really ramped up to some extent our communications around the COVID piece, but also, at the working level, making sure that if people need time off work, go and have some time. 80% is good enough, it doesn’t be 100%, we’ve got to apply some sort of sensitivity to the work. And then my role is to communicate outwards to make sure people realize the risk they’re carrying by the fact that we’re only going to get an 80% solution here, or whatever it is.


Graeme Cowan  36:05

Yeah, yeah. You mentioned before that, you know, in terms of influences on you, what about, you know, throughout your career with particular mentors that really provided lots of insight, and I guess, suggestions to really, if you gain, Can you think of any that fit that picture?


Stephen Hughes  36:23

And there might not be just individuals, I mean, you can narrow it down to individuals, but I put it down to experiences, both the good ones and the bad ones. So and then there are a couple of individuals, which just gave you a life lesson, which at the time, you may not have appreciated, but it has set you up for success. So I saw a lot of commanding officers through my career who weren’t necessarily the best, their approach to leadership didn’t fit my natural tendency in the way I’d like to do it. So you saw what worked, what didn’t work. And then I had an the bulk of my CEOs at my personal command officers who were really set very high standards and gave me insight into why, you know, they were successful. So it’s experienced based, it’s picking and choosing and then matching it up against your own value set. And, you know, my case, I had a very clear view of what I thought was the right thing to do. At the end of the day is a leader. It’s an individual journey, and you can reach out and go and get a mentor for the people who had a successful career. But I learned a couple of lessons very early on as an officer, and individuals who took the courage to stand up and say you know, Steve, that is not how we’re going to do it, you need to be aware that if you continue on that behavior or continuing that path, you’re not going to serve the sailors you’re supposed to lead. And I take one example, there’s a petty officer, so the senior noncommissioned officer, like a sergeant rank, and I was at the defense Academy, and I was a squad leader. So I was marching, maybe 20-30 people in a squad. And we were there’s a beautiful day marching along, everybody was having a good chat. It was just a bunch of young officers or having a hell of a day. And out of nowhere, this Petty Officer sort of jumped out of a trail, who knows where he came from. And he hold the squat up now stop that squad. And he said to me, what’s going on, you know, you’re talking the ranks and sort of got quite grumpy. And my response to him is, well, it wasn’t me PO it was them, Oh boy. He let us go. But he wanted me to see him I think at the lunch break or something up in in the office, he called me up there, everybody in the office left, and he put me in, in the senior officers office in that area, and he closed the door. And he just he said, if your team screws up, you need to be accountable for your team. And you need to do things so your team doesn’t screw up or they behave right. And it was that accountability piece. And from that day on, if I ever screwed up, or my team screwed up, I always stood in front of them went, hey, it was my fault. I’m accountable. It’s my problem, I’ll deal with it. But there’s some of those key life lessons that shaped you as a human. And I’m sure a lot of your listeners have had that experience good or bad. I’ve had a mentor who’s helped him get through something and the family is very important to me, but I’ve had a wife who’s been extremely supportive. And she does, she’s not shy of coming forward with advice. And that perspective, that your wife or your friends or a mentor or another officer, the fact that they have the courage to either identify something in you worth preserving or moving forward or they just see disaster and they just want to stop disaster. But at the end of the day, I think everybody is shaped by things, but it comes down to your values, the values of the organization you’re working in. And what is important to you in your life? You know, is it serving a nation? Is it your family? Or is it just the paycheck at the end of the day? personal decision, I know where my mind sits. So, yeah.


Graeme Cowan  40:21

Knowing what you know. Now, Stephen, if you had the chance to go back and talk to yourself as an 18 year old, just when you’re joining the Navy, what what advice would you give yourself?


Stephen Hughes  40:32

Oh, boy, it would be most probably confirming that what I did most probably was the right thing. I mean, there’ll be lots of things in my life. I go, I wish I had done that. And I’ll go find a timeshare. I’ll go back and change that. You know, I didn’t say that thing. I didn’t lose my call. Because I was tired. I think most probably I would have spent more time early understanding where my weaknesses were, you know, what are the things that trigger a behavior that I don’t think is appropriate? Like, I remember one day I was in command time we’ve been I’ve been up for God knows probably 30 odd hours, you know, just not getting a really good solid night’s sleep. And my principal warfare officer, the guy who runs the operations room where we fight the ship, they were doing something and I just lost it. I I just creamed him in front of all his people. And I walked away and went, Whoa, where did that come from? I actually write him a personal letter of reflection apologizing for that behavior. Because it wasn’t me it wasn’t appropriate. I tore shreds off him for really no reason. Most probably that would be that’d be a bit biases, know your weaknesses and know where that trigger is to that weakness, whether it’s behavior or you know, in your professional weakness, or whatever it is. But in terms of knowing what I know now and talking to myself, would be just do your job, do your job, don’t worry about am I going to get promoted? Am I going to get more money? Just do it and do it well. And I’m not talking about only just doing to make your bosses happy, or the habit, just do what is right. And then you just never know what happens, you’ll you’ll get another opportunity, which I suppose leads insane is your look for opportunities that that excites you, or will challenge you, and will stretch you, because it’s so easy to fall into your comfort zone. Yeah, the thing that’s always kept me resilient is by the challenge, or the mental challenge, or the physical challenge of doing something differently and not sitting in your comfort zone. And then getting to the point where you get bored and your brain starts wandering or your body starts wandering in different shapes and forms, you get what I mean. And then I think the other thing, which I would most probably have told myself to read more broadly, you know, actually read and become more worldly around what’s going around, because not just what is your interest in my case woodwork or whatever it was, but other things, because then you know, if you’re in a social environment or something, you’ve got something else to talk about than just your job. So anyway, I don’t know if that answers your question.


Graeme Cowan  43:18

I think it definitely does been a real pleasure catching up today, Stephen, and thanks for providing some insight into a career in the Navy and sincere thanks for your service. I just some of the things you mentioned there, particularly the deployment for one year away from your family just sounds extraordinary. It really does. And I can see why the Navy values the families so much as well. So thanks for adding great insights to the caring CEO. 


Stephen Hughes  43:44

Thanks Graeme, thanks for your time appreciate it. 


Graeme Cowan  43:48

Thanks for joining us today. I hope you’ve learned something new and heard some practical tips you can try with your team. If you enjoyed this interview today. Please rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. When you rate us It helps other people to find us. We also welcome any comments. If you are interested in seeing details about our scalable weekend Mental Health Training Programs, please visit us at Our goal for these programs is to make them accessible, practical, and ongoing. If you’ve been impressed by a CEO that you would like us to interview please email details to support at please subscribe by clicking the button below. We really would love to have you as part of the care movement. Thanks for joining us.

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