Training for Competitive Advantage: Lessons from the Silent Service, Part II

by Ryan Hilger, Lieutenant Commander US Navy

Note: This is the second of a two-part series. You can read the first part here.

If people are your top priority, train them like it. In Part Two of a two part series, a former submarine department head offers lessons from the U.S. Navy’s submarine force on how to turn training into a competitive advantage.

The first part of this series looked at how companies can learn from the nuclear navy and their rigorous approach to training and workforce development. We looked at how to adopt the mindset of developing the team that you have, aligning workforce development to enhance your company’s operations, and why training and development must become a core part of your company’s daily work. This second part can be read alone, but it will be more impactful to have read the first part already.

The Art of the Long View

Managers and workers alike in every organization often find it difficult to see past the here and now. The needs of today’s deadlines trump preparing for future work, easily. But the relentless pull of today prevents you and your team from rising above the pressures and learning to succeed more easily. The repeated pivoting, 24/7 working culture, and lightning fast pace of business place both workers and managers at great risk of burnout. While increasing the amount of training for your team seems counterproductive here, it actually allows employees to handle the stresses of the job far better than they otherwise might.

The submarine force is no different than most organizations in this respect. In my first month as the Engineer on an attack submarine, I found myself working 100-hour work weeks, which isn’t uncommon in some parts of the Navy. I was barely keeping my head above water. During this time, our training schedule was barely meeting the minimum requirements, let alone actually preparing the crew for maintenance and operations. Critiques were at least a weekly occurrence, if not several times a week, and they weren’t for small issues. As a crew, we struggled to get the day’s work done, and lurched from crisis to crisis. You could see it in the Sailors’ faces. We detached several great Sailors from the boat for mental health issues or alcohol abuse because of the strain they were under. As the Engineer, I found myself coming into work each day thinking of where I personally needed to be to prevent big problems from occurring.

My greatest moments of peace in this crucible were the hour or so I started taking on Fridays or Saturday evenings, after things had quieted down on the boat and I could pause to catch my breath and actually think before I went home. This time allowed me to pick my head up above the horizon and look to our future schedule and start making plans for what was coming. Most submarine department heads go through this same period of growth as they adjust to the new job and the demands it places on them. Periodically taking the long view allows you as a manager to see future events on the schedule, even if they are 6-, 9-, or even more than 12-months out, allows you to start incorporating plans to prepare your team to meet those challenges.

Senior Chief Machinist’s Mate (Nuclear) Adam B. Burkett, assigned to Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, trains students.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class, Darren M. Moore

Four months into my tour as the Engineer, somehow my crew and I had made it onto deployment in the North Atlantic. About halfway through the six-month deployment, I took one of my weekly strategic planning sessions and started to look toward the myriad of testing that we still needed to accomplish after deployment and before our boat would transfer to a naval shipyard for a midlife overhaul — a major operational change for the ship. We had very high consequence testing and maintenance events to perform which would bring a lot of external scrutiny on the crew. Even though most of that testing was 6 months away, and the transition to the shipyard several months beyond that, I knew we needed to start preparing and training for it now. Procedures needed to be tailored, team assignments prepared, supply orders placed, and so much more. Starting a few weeks later, we began incorporating elements of the needed training into our weekly training schedule. Nothing major, at first, mostly building blocks, but enough to start shifting the mindset of the crew to what was coming. The training regimen ramped up as we approached the testing period, and by the time the day came, the crew was ready. To say that I was proud of them would be an understatement. In an evolution that normally starts before the sun rises and goes late into the night, my team executed flawlessly and we were all home for dinner with our families. The months of training and preparation had paid off. We would repeat these feats several months later when we sailed to the shipyard, where we quickly developed a reputation for being a well-trained and efficient crew who pushed the shipyard to keep pace with us — the reverse is more common.

Taking time to look toward the future does not require an immense investment of your time. An hour or two a week usually suffices, and it allows managers and the workforce alike to think through the coming challenges and how best to prepare for them. Engaging your workforce in these strategic planning sessions increases ownership of the plans and motivates them to succeed. Even if the events are annual items, like budget cycles or contracts, taking the time to ensure you and your team are prepared allows you to execute on a higher level, and take the emergent issues on without much stress.

Fifty Shades of Training

The key to increasing the amount of training you do is to broaden your view of what constitutes training. The submarine force trains weekly at the supervisor, department, division, and watchteam levels, at a minimum! This doesn’t include running drills or other training evolutions. Nearly all training sessions are an hour, and we always offer at least two sessions of each to ensure we reach every member of the Engineering Department; some may be sleeping or standing watch. Taking the wider view of training allows a manager to see more events as opportunities to accomplish training objectives: align people to the mission, reinforce expectation and values, and help develop your workforce to better accomplish their work, thus adding value to the company.

This view is reinforced at the highest levels of the Nuclear Navy. Since the time of Admiral Rickover, commanding officers of nuclear-powered ships and submarines have had to write a letter to the Director every quarter — more frequently in some cases. The letter communicates many things, but training is a key focal point, and the Commanding Officer and the Engineer must attest to the amount of training that they have done in the last quarter, including assessments of training effectiveness. Not putting sufficient detail about what you are doing to train your crew can result in a call directly from Washington D.C., sometimes from the Admiral himself, and the calls are never congratulatory.

Lt. Cdr. Robert J. Labrecque, President Jimmy Carter and Adm. Rickover on board the USS Los Angeles, Cape Canaveral May ‘77.
Lt. Cdr. Robert J. Labrecque, President Jimmy Carter and Adm. Rickover on board the USS Los Angeles, Cape Canaveral May ’77. Photo by Senior Chief Journalist Archie N. Galloway

Writing a letter to your Chief Executive Officer every quarter is probably stretching things, but the act of thinking critically about who, how, and why you are training, and whether not it was effective, is a powerful tool to understanding the development of your team, and whether or not you think your team is meeting the benchmarks that you have set for them. In the first time doing this, many Engineers are struck by either how little or how much training their Department does on a quarterly basis. If the numbers are low, it helps educate them as to different ways to improve the amount of training — widening the aperture — or to the myriad of ways that we take credit for the work we are already doing. After that first letter, many Engineers go through a period of intense improvement as department heads as they look at their training plans and people in a new light, seeing interconnections, opportunities to improve, and taking a more realistic look at how the training plan prepares the Engineering Department for the ship’s operations and maintenance schedule.

From a team or organizational perspective, the leader must understand that every person in their organization can fit into multiple different training groups, all with different training needs, in addition to their needs for individual performance management, mentorship, and personal growth. Training exists at multiple levels, each with a different purpose. Training as a team or organization is used to maintain baseline levels of technical knowledge about your products or history, reinforce norms and expectations, and more. Small groups could consist of professional training for continuing education credits, preparing a select team for annual budget or contracting cycles, or getting a team ready for a new company effort that they will be leading. Taking the time as a manager to understand the different ways that your people can be organized and reorganized can broaden your view of their training and development needs.

Finally, not all training needs to be in a classroom with PowerPoint presentations. Lectures have their time and place, but they are not always the right answer to improve performance of people organizations. Onboard a submarine, at least one third to even a half of the training conduct is considered evolution-based, whether with a watch team supervising reactor and propulsion plant operations, as preparation for special evolutions on the plant at a later date, or demonstrating proficiency at certain operations that were needed for routine operations and maintenance of the plant. Similar parallels could be drawn with corporations, where recurring processes take hold annually: budgeting, contracting, strategic planning, etc. How are you preparing your people to execute at a higher level? The endless cycle of training for submariners reinforces the mantra we have adopted: “do routine things in routine ways.” Not routine to get complacent, but in the sense of effective training, processes, and supervision to do the routine things the same way, every time, as well-trained teams of people.

You Are What You Repeatedly Do

As the Engineer, every day I had to issue my “Night Orders” to provide guidance to the watch team or duty section on how I wanted the reactor and propulsion plant operated — after all, I had to sleep sometime. The Nuclear Navy requires every member of the Department to read and sign for them on a daily basis. Early in my tour, I put a quote from the historian Will Durant at the top of them, who, paraphrasing Aristotle, captured my view of training succinctly and eloquently: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a virtue.”

Building a high-performance, high-reliability organization takes immense time and effort, and training plays a foundational role in that development. Training cannot be viewed as it often is today, as a one-time thing that is done to satisfy various stakeholders or employees. Training must be viewed as a diverse, continuous process that allows individuals, teams, and organizations to achieve higher levels of performance and execution. It builds greater capacity for critical and creative thinking, aligns organizations toward shared norms and expectations, and allows for more efficient and effective operations. The Nuclear Navy has lived by these principles since the 1950s, and their record of safety and effective operations gives a model that leaders in all organizations can adapt to help unlock new levels of performance and competitive advantage.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a former Submarine Engineer Officer who carries these lessons wherever he goes. His views are his own and do not represent the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy. You can find him on LinkedIn.

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