Management Skills Learned from My Time in the Navy

You learn about "hurry up and wait" pretty quickly when you're in the military. Everyone who's ever experienced it can relate to how frustrating the waiting can be.

I got lucky and pulled the 11 pm - 7 am shift, where the waiting around was a lot less of a problem. We'd start by getting the pilots and crew off on their training runs. Then we'd complete any repairs and scheduled maintenance on the remaining planes. Sometimes we were able to complete this work before the planes returned. A classic hurry up and wait situation.

To pass the time, we'd settle in for a few games of acey-deucey. On the surface, this doesn't sound like learning good management skills. But we were being rewarded with some down time after we'd completed the day's work. The first-class petty officer who ran the avionics shop turned out to be one of the best managers I ever had.

I was in VAQ-129, a training squadron out of NAS Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle. Back in the day, women were still a small percentage of the military. Despite the progress of the women's lib' movement, the men were still trying to figure out how to work with us. Some didn't bother trying. Often enough, we could see their distrust (or disgust) when they learned that their trainer was a woman.

Our supervisor wouldn't stand for a green, fresh-out-of-school, smart-mouthed sailor in his shop.

There were two women on his crew, and he made us his secret weapon! He took extra time with us, making sure we had a clear understanding of how to do our jobs, and that we were good at what we did. Like a master craftsman teaching his apprentices, he made sure we knew all the subtleties. The ones that weren't written in the manuals. He taught us to work smarter, not harder.

When we were ready, he worked with us on learning how to do a complicated, 3-man job with only the two of us. It was a matter of timing and position, and we practiced until we could pull it off cleanly and quickly. Then he started sending a few of the tougher trainees our way. We would explain to them how to do the job as written, followed by a demonstration. Then we'd have them try it. Inevitably, they would miss the details, and wouldn't be able to do the job with less than three men. They usually became much more agreeable after this.

Another change happened at the same time. We were earning the respect of our co-workers. They appreciated that we were women who wanted to do quality work. They learned that we weren't going to be asking them for help with things that we should be able to do for ourselves. And they made a sport of guessing which of the new arrivals would be our next victims. (Oops. I mean "trainees".) We consistently turned out cooperative crew members. They were proud of us.

What I learned in that shop about managing has stayed with me:

  • Take time to know your employees. Respect them as they are.

  • Take time to train your employees. Encourage them to become better.

  • Take time to challenge your employees. Keep the job fresh with new challenges.

  • Take time to appreciate your employees. Recognize their accomplishments.

Do you have a potential secret weapon on your staff?