Management lessons from the U.S. Navy

After spending a little time on the Dark Side, Senior Tech Editor Rich Merritt learned that if a company wants to succeed, it has to care about subordinates, make the tough decisions, and share the wealth.

Rich Merritt, Senior Technical EditorBy Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

I RECENTLY read a management book, "It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy," and my memories of bad managers came roaring back.

When I was fresh out of school, working for a major aerospace contractor, I learned my first lesson: companies don’t care about you. One day, about a dozen of the technicians I’d been working with were fired. This was because they’d been with the company for 24 years, and would have been vested in their pensions in one more year. Can’t happen now, you say? One of the hottest tricks today is for a company to spin off a division, and transfer all its retirees to it, or get acquired by another company. In either case, pensions and benefits can go away. Pension reform is a joke.

A few years later, I learned my next lesson: management is a bunch of weenies, afraid to take risks. At the time, in the 1970s, I was writing software for automation and process control. Systems Engineering Laboratories ran a classic series of ads in the control magazines that read: “The Board of Directors Just Bought an IBM 1800.” The ad showed a big conference table with a dozen live chickens on it.

The message was that “chicken” management bought IBM because it was the safe thing to do. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. We’ve all had bosses that were afraid to try anything new. That ad has stuck with me all these years. If I had a copy, I’d frame it.

When I went over to the Dark Side (the public relations business), I learned: if you want a company to succeed, share the wealth. I worked for a $100-million advertising/PR agency that was the best in the Midwest. At 11 p.m. at night and all weekend, cars filled the parking lot. My clients included Square D, Xycom, Ircon, Omron and others. The company paid five-figure bonuses to its top performers, recognized its achievers, threw parties, and won hundreds of awards. Life was good.

Then the founder of the agency retired, and a bunch of empty suits took over managing the company. We were owned by the largest ad agency in the world, who regarded us as a cash cow. They took our profits, distributed them among their other divisions, and eliminated our bonuses. Our local managers said nothing, because they were still getting their bonuses. Our top performers left the company. Today, that $100 million agency is bankrupt and gone. Greedy management forgot to share the wealth.

To me, bad managers don’t care about their subordinates, are afraid to make tough decisions, and don’t share the wealth with their staffs. I’m sure you can add many other attributes to that list, but those are my biggies.

It seems our U.S. Navy has exactly the same problems, but the author of the book, Capt. Mike Abrashoff, managed to overcome them. He devotes a chapter to each of his ideas and techniques: Lead by Example; Listen Aggressively; Communicate Purpose and Meaning; Create a Climate of Trust; Look for Results, Not Salutes; Take Calculated Risks; Go Beyond Standard Procedure; Build Up Your People’s Confidence; Generate Unity; and Improve Your People’s Quality of Life. All are completely against the policies of today’s business managers, whose only business rule seems to be “what’s in it for me?”

You might say managers in the Navy have a different situation. Their employees/sailors can’t say “I quit” and walk off the job, so manager/officers can say or do anything they want. However, Abrashoff says sailors have many ways to resist management and some are quite effective. You wouldn’t want your refinery or process plant employees acting like pissed-off sailors.

I highly recommend reading this book. If you’re like me, you’ll be nodding your head in agreement on nearly every page, remembering the idiots you used to work for, and wishing you had a boss like Abrashoff. He appreciates his hard working sailors, does everything he can for them, encourages them to excel, promotes them, and then reaps the benefits by winning all the ship competitions, meeting all his budgets and objectives, and getting the top ratings in the fleet.

When you’re done, leave it on your boss’ desk. Maybe some of the lessons will get through that thick skull, and he or she will listen to you the next time you have an idea.

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