Life on an Aircraft Carrier – Lessons for Business Owners

By Jenny Vance, an EO Indianapolis member and president of LeadJen.

At the end of May, I was lucky enough to experience something very few Americans ever will: I landed on an aircraft carrier, spent the night aboard the USS John C. Stennis and flew off the carrier the following day.

Landing on a Navy vessel flight deck is one of the most difficult procedures a pilot can do. With a runway of only about 500 feet, the pilot needs to use the plane’s tailhook to snag an arresting wire. These wires, cables made from woven steel, help to stop a 54,000 lb. aircraft traveling 150 miles per hour in only two seconds.

If that isn’t dangerous enough, the flight deck itself has its own hazards. Those working on the deck must be careful not to get sucked up into an engine or blown overboard. So why in the world would a 30-something female executive from a lead generation company be visiting the USS John C. Stennis? To learn how a well-oiled machine–the US Navy–operates, and to take those lessons back to my company.

I learned plenty of lessons, too, including:

  1. Younger workers can be very effective if trained properly. It’s easy to discount the Millennial generation of employees. They have a reputation for expecting a lot from employers, and for job-hopping when they get restless. However, the Navy appears to have solved this problem by giving its young members a lot of responsibility and clear training about the importance of each job. Even those who performed the most insignificant tasks understood the value of what they were doing to the success and safety of those around them.
  2. Workers need to understand how they’re funded. Like most businesses, the Navy operates with a budget. However, those in the Navy seem to be acutely aware of where that budget money comes from. Everyone I met on the aircraft carrier–from the admiral and captain to the seamen–talked about the ship as “the people’s ship.” A pilot of the Strike Fighter Squadron 192, also known as the Golden Dragons, told me that his plane was actually my plane, he “just got to work in it.” In other words, everyone on that ship understood that they operate via an investment from the nation. Translating this concept to the corporate world could change the workplace dynamic. Employees who understand that a company exists because the customer makes an investment by buying a product or service will operate with a new level of respect for the customer, the workplace and their peers.
  3. Every action is an opportunity to practice perfection. When an airplane lands on a carrier ship it actually speeds up as the pilot pushes the engines to full power. Not only does this make for one crazy landing, it’s also counterintuitive. The reason for the acceleration is if the tailhook misses the arresting wires, the plane must be moving fast enough to take off again. As we left the ship and made our way back to the base, I noticed that an aircraft carrier diagram was painted on the runway and we again accelerated as we landed. I asked the pilot flying with me why we did this at the base. His response was, “Why not take the opportunity to practice?” Certainly my company doesn’t deal in life or death situations, but we could treat everything we do like it’s the real scenario and get in more “practice time.”
  4. Show employees you value them and they will be loyal. I had the opportunity to meet a young mother who was serving as our guide on the ship. While it was hard on her to be away from her family for weeks at a time, she said the Navy offered her other benefits that made this career a better choice than her civilian career experiences. The Navy was flexible with her work schedule, invested in her education and treated her as a valued member of the team. While the Navy has high expectations of her, she is not micromanaged. This was valuable to her.

Finally, I was struck by the prevailing mindset of the naval officers I met. The motto of our armed forces is to serve and protect, and the Navy places a lot of emphasis on the word “serve.” These men and women are true servant leaders and I found them inspiring.

Categories: general


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