Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: Many executives in leadership positions also served in the U.S. Navy. That little tidbit comes up so often, it’s led us to wonder if there’s something in the water. So, what’s the link between Navy service and being a successful leader in government contracting? We recently took that question to several top executives, and they returned with a list of leadership lessons they’d learned from their Navy days. Check out their list below.
Brad Antle is president of Bradford Strategic Consulting Group, and former CEO of SI International (since merged with Serco), which he helped steer toward growth in excess of $575 million. Antle served in the US Navy for eight years as a surface warfare officer. He was also deputy department head for systems engineering at one of the Navy’s software development facilities for tactical embedded systems.
Lesson 1: Be on time
It says a great deal about the importance you, as a leader, place on everyone else’s time when you’re punctual. I always made it a point in the military to show up early to relieve the watch. To this day, I try to show up early for meetings. In corporate life, my instructions are simple: If I’m not at the meeting on time, even if I called it, start without me. I have never believed that my time was more valuable than the folks who are working with or for me.
Lesson 2: Support your team
It’s critical that a leader be available as necessary to remove barrier for the team trying to execute against a plan, whether to expedite delivery of a critical part for a required maintenance action prior to an extended deployment or to make sure that all resources are available to a proposal team pursuing a “must win” opportunity. Leaders help align their teams with the strategic and even tactical views, but then they need to get out of the way and be facilitators to enable their folks to be successful. We can’t accomplish much by ourselves, but we can achieve anything as a team. Leaders give their teams all the credit and save any criticism for themselves.
Lesson 3: Be flexible but committed
Few things happen exactly as they are planned. Strong leaders encourage their teams to push through bumps in the road and keep them motivated to succeed. In the military, every operation or exercise involves many moving parts. A team that is motivated, trained, and prepared for the mission wants to achieve success quickly. Delays and miscues, which are commonplace in military and civilian endeavors, demoralize teams. Leaders keep their teams focused on the prize and not distracted by detours.
Bill Hoover is president and CEO of AMERICAN SYSTEMS. Since joining the IT services firm in June 2005, Hoover has helped steer its course as one of the largest employee-owned companies in the United States. Hoover is a veteran officer of the U.S. Navy and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering.
Lesson 1: The concept of “ultimate accountability”
In the Navy, the commanding officer (CO) is “ultimately accountable” for anything and everything that happens on his ship, regardless of circumstance. I believe that as the chief executive officer, I am “ultimately accountable” for the performance of my company.
Lesson 2: Importance of an effective team
During my 1st class midshipman training cruise while underway in the North Atlantic Ocean, I remember being awakened unexpectedly by the general quarters alarm at about 01:00. Word quickly spread as we arrived at our duty stations that there was a fire in the engine room. I remember thinking that the ship’s company (our team) had to deal with the issue; we couldn’t “dial 911” … we were “911”! The team had to be prepared, focused, trusting, and effective, otherwise tragedy would result. As CEO, I must ensure that my team is properly trained, and has the necessary tools available to them to deal with the issues that invariably affect our contracting community. Finally, I must provide them the authority necessary to do their job.
Lesson 3: Trust your instincts
On my second ship after I was commissioned, we were in the midst of a pre-deployment training exercise. We had been underway for over three days, with no sleep. We were conducting a “silent” (i.e., no radar or radio communications) underway replenishment as part of an aircraft carrier task group. I was the conning officer of my ship, responsible for driving our vessel alongside the refueling oiler. At about midnight, as I began my approach on the oiler, the task group commander executed a “corpen starboard niner,” meaning the formation’s base course was changed 90o to starboard. Total “chaos” ensued as ships changed station assignments while executing the corpen movement. As I maneuvered the ship to simultaneously complete the approach on the oiler, to maintain relative bearing on the aircraft carrier (the guide of the formation), and to avoid collision with other ships in the formation — all at flank speed — my CO was asking me about every 30 seconds or so, “What are you doing now, Bill”? I vividly remember that I trusted my gut “to tell” me when to alter course and/or speed until finally on station, alongside the oiler with lines across. I have trusted my instincts ever since.
Jim Sheaffer is president of CSC’s North American Public Sector, the company’s largest business unit that provides solutions and services in support of agencies of the United States and Canadian governments worldwide. Sheaffer spent five years in the Navy as a supply corps officer, with nearly two years of that time on a destroyer.
Lesson 1: Be accountable
The Navy has a history and a tradition of accountability that I won’t say is better than the other services but it is different. The Navy has always had this concept of the “captain of the ship” being held accountable for everything that happens on that ship. So I think early on you get real ingrained in the Navy from the managerial point of view; you internalize the concept of accountability and responsibility. I think that is one thing that is necessary for people to be successful in business … to believe you have responsibility and accountability for whatever piece of business you are responsible for managing.
Lesson 2: Never ask other people to do what you aren’t prepared to do yourself
The Navy encourages the view that the people who work for you are important. We have to look out for their benefit and their welfare and be responsible and accountable for that as well as the other aspects of the mission that we carry out. Part of that is the feeling that you never want to put someone in harm’s way if you wouldn’t be prepared to do that yourself.
Stan Sloane joined SRA in April 2007 after 22 years with Lockheed Martin. Looking ahead, Sloane aims for SRA to reach $5 billion in revenue by 2012. Sloane served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, with service spent on the USS John F Kennedy and USS Eisenhower.
Lesson 1: Be resourceful
When you go to sea, you better be prepared. You have to operate effectively with the resources you have. This is a good lesson in business. The answer to problems isn’t always, “give me more budget.”
Lesson 2: Be responsible and accountable for your team
Operational effectiveness is highly dependent on the team, their morale, and general well being.
Lesson 3: Results matter
Performance can be a life or death situation. In business, the consequences may not be so dire, but it’s a good way to think about the competitive landscape.
Did you serve in a branch of the military? What leadership lessons did you learn? Share your comments here.