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As a Navy veteran, I have empathy for the crews of the U.S. Navy Western Pacific based ships that have experienced recent collisions and groundings. My experience, albeit from decades ago, has been echoed in the press and in private conversations I’ve had with former shipmates. Being at sea is a dangerous and high stakes business. When people screw up, others die. While the stakes may not be as high in your business, I believe there are some common themes from these situations that can be applied to your company.

Vigilance is the Price of Safety

At sea, a bridge watch is commonly referred to as “hours of boredom, interrupted by moments of stark terror”. All who stand watch must be “situationally aware”, anticipating any unforeseen circumstances that might require split second decision making.

Are you situationally aware of your company? Have you thought through how you would handle it your largest client or most promising successor leaves? What will you do if there is a fatal accident on the shop floor or a natural disaster that threatens your manufacturing facilities? How about a supply chain interruption at the busiest time of the year or troubling regulatory issues? This is referred to as Risk Management, but it really about being situationally aware and working with your board and leadership team to anticipate actions needed in any of the above scenarios and being ready to deploy on short notice.

Ask for Help Early

When I was the Officer of the Deck I called the Captain twice in 10 minutes in the middle of the night because the situation changed that quickly. It was clearly stated in his standing night orders what was expected of me in that situation. He came on to the bridge and sat there for about 20 minutes until the situation passed, without saying a word. Could I have handled the situation without his assistance? Yes, but I earned his trust because I did what he had trained me to do to avoid a problem AND I followed the standing night orders.

Are you too proud to ask for help at your company? A wise mentor once told me that “bad news doesn’t get better with time”. Don’t wait until a problem turns into a crisis to enlist your board of directors or advisors. They have valuable insights that can possibly help avert or minimize a catastrophic situation. Plus you will have the added benefit of affirming their trust in you. If they respond negatively or chastise you for not handling it yourself, you have the wrong members on your team.

Set the Proper Tone

The tone at the top is right up there with “culture eats strategy for lunch”. The best shipboard situations I experienced were when anyone, even the lowest seaman, could call out a safety issue by saying the word “silence”. It meant everyone, including the Captain, needed to stop what they were doing, take a step back, and critically assess the situation.

Do you have that kind of environment at your company? Will someone offer a different viewpoint during a strategic discussion or high-risk decision? We get so engrossed in getting to whatever end state that we are charging towards that we sometimes miss that the best alternative may be to retreat, cut our losses, and live to fight another day.

Even though you may not need to make life and death decisions in your business, you can still use some of the principles employed on successful Navy ships to ensure that the mission gets accomplished while bringing everyone home safely.

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