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Admirals embrace sea change in thinking

With budgets ever-tightening, the Navy is sending its "CEOs" to school to learn to think like entrepreneurs.

Published June 19, 2006

WELLESLEY, Mass. - Professor Neal Thornberry looked at his new class of students and could see the jitters.

"They were a little antsy," he said. "They're not used to sitting around on land for so many hours."

The U.S. Navy, in an effort to run more efficiently, is sending its admirals back to school to learn how to think more like entrepreneurs. A dozen admirals and a handful of other naval leaders recently completed a week of executive education classes at Babson College.

The admirals spent four days attending sessions on such topics as "Organizational Innovation" and "Using Effects-Based Thinking." They ditched their uniforms in exchange for khakis and casual sweaters and dispensed with formal titles to call each other by nicknames like "Sully" and "Arch."

Emphasizing collaboration and negotiation is new for many admirals, but retired Vice Adm. Phil Quast, one of the architects of the program, said things are changing.

"There was a rice bowl mentality where people would protect their resources and not share with others," he said. "People who are dictatorial don't command ships anymore."

One of the biggest challenges for the new students was applying principles from the for-profit sector to the Navy. Thornberry explained that in the business world, an opportunity is a way of creating economic value. In the Navy, however, an opportunity is a chance to use resources efficiently.

After Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laid out plans to transform the Department of Defense, Quast got a call from Adm. Vern Clark, then chief of naval operations. Clark told him it was time to send leaders back to school to equip themselves with modern business skills, Quast said.

It made sense to Quast, especially given the huge size of the Navy's operations. There are 280 admirals in the Navy who have a collective budget of $190-billion and command a work force of 700,000 people, including active and reserve officers and personnel and civilians.

Recent budget changes have forced the Navy to function more efficiently. Facing rising war costs, the Pentagon has had to re-evaluate its defense plan and scale back some Navy funding.

"Readiness at any cost was never looked at as being bad in the past," Quast said. "Now it's readiness at the lowest cost. We are no longer an institution of consumption."

Since that phone call four years ago, Quast, a former adviser to the California State University system, has helped set up executive education programs for Navy admirals at the University of California at Berkeley and San Diego, and the University of North Carolina.

The Navy plans to send 20 more admirals to Babson Executive Education in September.

The latest four-day program focused on innovative and entrepreneurial problem solving. Though other branches of the armed services have similar executive development programs, the Navy is the first to push its leaders to adapt a modern management style, Quast said.

During one session called "Influencing Without Authority," the admirals formed small groups to practice negotiating win-win agreements. That gave them a chance for a new way of thinking after one admiral complained of another's "take-no-prisoners" attitude.

"To be successful, you have to see the other group as an ally," Thornberry told them. "People in power who are arrogant about their power almost always create common enemies."

Vice Adm. Paul Sullivan, who manages a staff of 53,000 as the commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the business education programs have helped him improve productivity and interpersonal relationships. He said he's better equipped for negotiations.

"I own the people, but I work with five other admirals that own the money," said Sullivan, who attended the UNC training. "I want to influence them to go down the same direction."

Rear Adm. P. Stephen Stanley, who is deputy chief of staff for capabilities and resource integration based in Italy, said the courses at Babson and UNC have helped him make his organization less hierarchical.

"We don't flog sailors at the mast anymore," Stanley said. "But will it ever get to the point where we're throwing around beach balls on the mess deck? I don't think so. Because we're also sending people into battle, so we need to protect the formality of the military."

[Last modified June 19, 2006, 06:34:25]

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