Navy wisdom can help landlubber leaders.
hanks to novelist Tom Clancy and others, I have had many opportunities recently to reflect on my nine-plus years in the Navy. I served from 1968 to 1977 and was trained to work on the Polaris and Poseidon missiles, which were at the heart of the Navy's submarine-based strategic weapons system. My assignments included shore duty in Virginia Beach, Va., and Charleston, S.C.; three years aboard a nuclear submarine; and a couple of years on a sub tender in Scotland.
Twenty-three years of civilian life as a manager in several organizations have blurred the details of my life in the Navy into a medley of beautiful Pacific sunsets. Some things, however, remain amazingly fresh, and among these are some practical lessons that were passed along to me by many of my supervisors.
What have stayed with me are insights, techniques and problem-solving methodologies that for generations had been accepted as dogma by older, experienced sailors. These people seemed to be mostly from rural America and spoke with accents that challenged my Chicago ears. Their management styles had been shaped not by formal classes and textbooks, but rather by years of hands-on experience directing a diverse workforce.
In the following basic principles I have tried to distill the management wisdom available to me in the Navy.
Be smarter than the equipment you operate. I've never regretted my decision to volunteer for submarine duty, but I can't remember what motivated me to become a technician. To this day I am inept with tools. When I emerge from the garage with an electric hedge trimmer, the neighbors gather, murmuring in adjoining yards, much like bystanders at the running of the bulls in Pamplona or folks waiting to watch Evel Kneivel attempt to leap river gorges on a motorcycle.
The Navy had considerable patience in training me to operate and repair expensive and delicate equipment. I was never given responsibility for a piece of equipment without training, and I was never asked to perform a task that had not been demonstrated to me several times. But inevitably, one or two people in the organization would overestimate their ability to understand a piece of equipment. These people scorned instructions, manuals, wiring diagrams and blueprints.
This attitude led to difficulties, not to mention disasters. In today's workplace, inattention to the technical training needs of workers is the worst sort of false economy because it inhibits productivity and erodes morale by frustrating the people who are making the most of the technology available to them.
An organization should never invest in equipment, high- or low-tech, without making a corresponding investment in training. The time and money one of my previous employers spent on training its staff on a wide range of sophisticated computer software applications paid off in a dramatic increase in the company's ability to serve its clients. More than ever, the staff was on the same page regarding the creation and maintenance of databases, the organization of correspondence and other documents, and the management of clients' finances.
If you must bring the chief a problem, bring a solution. Bringing bad news to a chief petty officer-a guy with anywhere from 10 to 29 years of service-required a particular blend of timing, tact and courage. In the Navy, such problems might include failure to submit a requisition properly or, more seriously, an improperly maintained sea valve that leaks as the boat submerges.
Master chief fire control technician Lyle Trapp was a true graybeard on our boat. After 25 years of service, his aversion to any disruption of routine operations bordered on neurosis. I'll always remember the look of sublime relief on his face the first time I had to report a serious problem that had been quickly and effectively resolved. We were in Guam, standing topside just aft of the machinery room No.1 hatch. When he processed the news, he blinked, swayed slightly, smiled and thanked me, reached into his pocket for a House of Windsor cigar and walked away.
I had engaged in damage control, and managers at all levels learn quickly that such scenarios are the rule and not the exception. In a nonmilitary organization, this type of problem can take many forms. A publication deadline may have been missed, the hotel room block for an educational meeting might be inadequate, or legal fees incurred during a quarter may have taken on a life of their own.
Managers, particularly senior ones, should assume that people at the highest level will seek their advice, and thus should always be prepared to offer direction. An offering of prompt, crisp guidance not only will give your boss a solution, but it will also inspire confidence that the staff is on top of the situation.
If you ask the chief for advice, you probably will be stuck with it. The massive hatches that covered the 16 vertical missile tubes on our submarine required repainting. Painting the exterior of the submarine was not a pleasant task, particularly in Guam's midday heat.
The undersides of the hatches usually were painted gray or black. Six of us were on deck preparing to do this job, when a member of the team asked Chief Emerson what color he wanted us to use. Five heads swiveled in unison, and five pairs of eyes fixed on the chief's face.
"What boat is it that's got them hatches painted 1 through 16 and looking like pool balls, all different colors and solids and stripes?" the chief said. "Now that looks slick. Civik, you and this guy figure out how we can do paint 'em like that. Shouldn't be too tough."
Painting the hatches black would have been tough enough, and the chief would have been happy. But painting them to look like pool balls? To this day, when I find myself bending over the pool table in my friend's basement, I think of the nitwit who complicated an already unpleasant job by seeking the chief's opinion.
Twenty years ago, as assistant director of education with the Illinois Bankers Association, one of my earliest responsibilities was to prepare a promotional brochure for a conference. It would be prudent, I thought, to request advice on the brochure's color. I would be acknowledging the boss's experience and judgment.
What I did not understand was that he felt neither qualified to make design decisions, nor a bit interested in acquiring such skills. He ended up spending more than an hour poring over color swatches and called in the communications director and two clerical people for their opinions. All this time his phone kept ringing, and he interrupted the process to speak with a number of other people about issues of far greater importance as we stood by. The colors the boss chose were not what I would have selected, but I felt obliged to accept his recommendation. After hearing a few ungenerous comments about the brochure, my boss shrugged, smiled and said, "What do I know about colors?"
An employee at any level must learn to identify the hierarchy of decisions that fits the supervisor's style and level of confidence in the workers. On some issues, the boss prefers to be involved directly, and on others, he or she is comfortable delegating to others.
Always try to resolve a problem at the lowest level possible. In the Navy, this approach to problem solving evolved naturally in most working environments I encountered. All that was necessary were the desire to solve the problem instead of bumping it up an echelon and some familiarity with bringing bad news to the chief.
Even the youngest crewmembers quickly learned that identifying, evaluating and implementing solutions fostered independent and creative thinking. Since so many day-to-day activities in the Navy were governed by ritual and strict procedures, opportunities to demonstrate initiative were to be embraced. The efficiencies associated with resolving a problem directly and immediately became a matter of intuition.
The higher you ascend in an organizational hierarchy, the more complex and lengthy the decision-making process. Often, the problem itself becomes distorted, which can set the problem-solving process completely adrift.
Avoid putting yourself on report. This is a tricky one, and it involves an understanding of when and how-or if-to point out some serious mistake you made.
Sometimes, however, this will not be your decision-like the time the dryer in the submarine's laundry space caught fire. The seaman in charge had wandered off to watch a movie in the crew's mess, and the whole crew had to don emergency breathing gear while the fire was extinguished.
Under other circumstances, problems or mistakes can be remedied before a crisis takes place. For example, less than two days before leaving on patrol I discovered I had failed to order a critical spare part. Normally, it would take two weeks to get the part, but armed with a requisition and a big case of Planter's cashews, I approached my old friend Melvin Tubbs. He was the main gatekeeper in the squadron supply department. Twenty minutes later I had the part.
Do I tell the chief? Traditional Navy wisdom argues against such action.
Every now and then, as I walk through Chicago's Loop and get a whiff of diesel exhaust, I am transported to Pearl Harbor or the Weapons Station on the Cooper River in Charleston, S.C. Many of the faces, and some of these lessons, are refreshed in my mind. I imagine myself standing on deck near the hatch leading down to machinery room No. 1, listening to the sounds of young men preparing the boat for two months at sea.
And I wonder again whether I should have told Chief Trapp about his precious cashews.
Jim Civik is a certification specialist at the Chicago Regional Office of the Health Care Financing Administration.
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