The more I write these posts, the more I discover what’s required to build a successful business,It is my hope that by examining my past experience, I will be able to avoid the rocks and discover new land.
I moved from the U.K. to Canada almost 13 years ago, prior to moving I was part of Her majesties Royal Naval Submarine Service. The second you pass through the gates, transitioning from a civilian to military personnel, the yelling begins.. If you can’t take being told what to do you are completely and utterly fucked!! Exercises and drills are practiced daily to automate your actions for when an emergency situation eventually arrives. If you have ever served in the military you’ll know that discipline is paramount, If you don’t follow the rules, people die, literally. I have seen first hand what teams can achieve when they are well disciplined and work together. herein lies one of the necessary keys to building a successful business.
I spent 6 years underwater patrolling the seas surrounding the UK often playing cat and mouse with Russians (think Hunt for Red October and Yes .. I’m Jack Ryan) You would expect that I must posses the ability to be disciplined and more importantly, practice self discipline.. I don’t and I can’t. I think this is one of the reasons entrepreneurism is so difficult for me. If you can’t control your own actions, how do you expect to control the actions of others?I want to dissect military practices and see how valuable they could be in the business world.
If the military ever became a business under the same governing rules, I would buy as many shares as I could. Its practices and routines should make it an instant success, delivering its product on time and on budget. Therefore its logical to assume that if you operated in a similar fashion, with a few tweaks, you would likely enjoy success the likes of which you’ve never seen.
The Military ‘s secret ingredients are Training, Routine and discipline, which in turn creates muscle memory. You don’t have to think to act. Let me share with you a story where routine and muscle memory could have saved my life.
After spending years training to be a submariner, a 22 year old me, travelled to Scotland to catch my first ‘sea ride’ onboard HMS Trafalgar, a nuclear powered hunter / killer class submarine. I remember seeing the ‘boat’ appear slowly from a distance. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a seen a submarine but they are pretty impressive machines. I was nervous, she was my first, I had no idea what to expect.
As luck would have it, ‘Traf’ was about experience a major emergency situation that could have killed everyone onboard, training, routine and muscle memory would be put to the test. Once the boat transfer of a relief crew and myself was complete the main access hatch was shut and our fate was sealed as she dove under the water. As the days turned to weeks, I realized that below the waves there is no natural way to determine what day it was, every minute seemed to be exactly the same, it’s a bit of a mind fuck.. but ill always remember November 6th 2002.
That day I was ‘given a shake’ (woken up) to start my watch in the sound room. It was no different from any other day, my shipmates were going about their normal daily duties, there was never any deviation from our routines. I sat in the back of the dark room, watching the more experienced guys work the bow and flank sound arrays (Sonar panels are one of the ways you ‘see’ on a submarine), listening to what they were saying ,trying to learn what was to be my new job. All of a sudden the normally black screen turned white… The operator in front of me shouted “major cavitation on the bow array” (A submarines propeller makes a chirping sound as air pops on the blades, this is one way to detect a submarine and very its bad for business) the blades on the propeller were chewing up the sea bed.. Seconds later we were all thrown forward as the submarine crashed into the rocks of the Isle of Skye.. “Emergency stations, Emergency stations, Emergency stations, Flood, flood, flood. Flood in the forward escape” came across the tanoy system “ This ment the collision had created a hole in the submarine and water was flooding in.. All I could think was “we are soo fucked…I am going to fucking die..” Listen, I may have been panicking,.. but my shipmates seemed pretty calm.. “Strange” I thought.. “They know the submarine is flooding right? They know we are all going to die, right?..” within 20 seconds “29 bulkhead shut down” came across the broadcast system (when a submarine is involved in a collision we completely shut down structural walls between compartments, an 8 ton hydraulic door and many valves) . I finally breathed a sigh of relief. The people within 29 bulkhead were fucked,..but I’m not dying today.. I felt a massive thrust and was thrown back into my chair as the submarine filled its ballast tanks with high pressure air which catapulted us towards the surface.
As it turned out, people were injured, but nobody died that day. The Petty Officer caterer had pressed the flood alarm with his face during the collision, there was no flood. Had the submarine actually been flooding, the quick actions of my shipmates would have saved many lives (including mine) and the submarine from being a total loss. In training it takes several minutes to completely shut down a structural wall, but training, routine and muscle memory had made that possible in just just 20 seconds .
Imagine if employees could act in the same manner. Every day they go about their work productively.. Nothing is left to chance, you have established a routine, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). You have trained them to do their work so well that they don’t have to think about how to do it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but labor costs were the one of the biggest contributors to the demise of my first business. If your employees are not streamlined and productive, they will burn through your limited cash supply. One thing you need to remember is that your business is your dream, not theirs, to most employees, it’s just a job. In my experience, 90% of employees want the maximum amount of pay for the minimum amount of effort. I estimate that untrained and poorly managed labor pushed my costs up from 60 to 90% of gross sales. Once you create your SOP’s you will need well-trained, experienced ‘Sergeants’ to train your soldiers and enforce the routine.
In the 1920’s Henry Ford employed a similar idea. Mr Ford is well known for the creation of the Ford Motor Company however not many people realize why he was so successful. Henry created one of the very first production/ assembly lines and by doing so he ushered in the manufacturing era. Henry Ford removed all variables and opportunities for the employee to ‘think’ about how to do their job thereby eliminating errors, stream lining the production of his new T1 car. By increasing productivity he was not only able to dramatically lower the cost of the car, he was also able to create new buyers by doubling his employee’s salaries, This eventually allowed Henry Ford to sell one million T1’s. Pretty fucking smart right?
So how would the military run their employees?
During my military career I spent more time training than doing actual work. The military invests in long-term goals as did Henry Ford. The better trained you are, the more productive you will be.
Your soldier should be held accountable for their work. They should be penalized for poor performance ( locking them up might be a bit much though). A captain is not afraid to berate his subordinate, (however, this might not work in business, unfortunately people choose where they work), but they should assume that there will be repercussions for their shitty half-assed work. (Maybe we should half assed-ly pay them?) If an employee has potential, but fucked up royally, he/she needs more training. If an employee keeps fucking up he should be locked up.. or let go, your choice.
The military promotes talented people from within its ranks, that’s why it’s seen as a career,.. not a job. We should do the same. Observe which employees are trustworthy, reliable and talented, these acting-sergeants should be elevated up the chain of command quickly to lighten your workload and keep your lowly ratings in check. People naturally want to feel like their life is ’going somewhere’, Reward loyalty and hard work with more responsibility, a promotion and a raise, instead of recruiting from elsewhere. Everyone wins!
One of the biggest differences between the military and business’ is innovation. The military never innovates from within, there is no room for free thought, you think as a team and you never stray from the SOP’s. The military looks to the outside world, 3rd party subcontractors for innovation. I’m not sure that I would want someone else to innovate for me.
Links in a chain..
Every morning I go to home depot and see the employees do their “team talk” at 7:55am. Its so fucking annoying and frankly I feel embarrassed for them, its so fucking fake with their stupid Hi Fives!!.. Nobody does team work like the military.. nobody!! Is this because you live and eat with your team members? Is it because you’re in this shit together? Probably both.. We spend so much time together its like we’re one big family, but how can we recreate this team environment?
Steve Jobs managed to do so, but not on purpose I think. Steve would only hire the most talented, hardworking individuals. New potential employees would have to be vetted by each member of the team. Being on team L.I.S.A (which eventually became team Macintosh) was not for amateurs or people without vision. They were pioneers pushing the technology world forward. Steve demanded excellence from each and every member, drop the ball and you were off the team. Steve would settle for nothing less than a perfect product, he wasn’t afraid to berate his soldiers for poor performance in front of the whole team. As you might have heard, nobody wanted to work for Steve jobs, he was a complete asshole.. So why did his team stay? Why did they keep working for in such a stressful environment? In my mind it was Pride and belief in the vision.,they were part of a team that was creating history, they were the tip of Apple’s spear (something Jobs would constantly remind them of), he was pushing them to their creative limits every single day. He showed them what they could create together as a team. He had installed in them a vision, a sense of pride and a purpose, this job was more than just a pay check. For good or for bad they were in it together.
In later years these team members would go on to say that it was the most difficult time of their lives, but they had never been prouder of themselves for what they had achieved.
I believe that you build team spirit when you push a team past the limits they had originally set for themselves. You need to give their actions purpose, inspire them and help them navigate the unknown. One thing I noticed during my time in the Navy, the teams that endured the most difficult of times usually had the closest connections. Look at Navy seals, they are pushed way past the limits they thought they had, they then emerge cool, calm and super fucking confident in themselves and their team.
To be a successful entrepreneur, you must first have a vision that you completely believe in. Now all you need to do is build a team that will adopt your vision and make it their own.. easier said than done, chose your soldiers well and never stop pushing them to do better.