Monday, September 18, 2006

In The Navy

Admirals train to think like executives, an article in today's Boston Globe, caught my eye. The piece profiled a Babson management program that a couple of dozen admirals are enrolled in. This interested me for a couple of reasons. One, when I worked for Genuity (one of several alas-and-alack companies where I spent much of my career), I participated in a weeklong mini-MBA program at Babson's Exec Education Center in Wellesley, to which Genuity spent mega-bucks to send 50-60 directors and VPs. The program was focused on developing a strategy for Genuity, but it was pretty clear even while we were all earnestly throwing our ideas up on flip charts, and signing up for following committees to make sure that nothing on those flip charts was lost, that the company was beyond redemption. (I may have the chronology a bit off, but I think that Genuity filed for bankruptcy within the next six months.) Nonetheless, the Babson program was one of the better management off-sites I ever participated in (and that wasn't just because of the vats of M&M's that they put out for everyone to munch on).

But the real reason the article struck me was that it reminded me of my many years with yet another company that no longer exists, where I spent the better part of a decade. Softbridge was full of very brainy techies with great ideas, but for years we stayed afloat largely through tin-cupping our investors for what turned out to be pretty something akin to a McArthur Foundation Genius Grant for all of us. At one point, the someone (investors? management?) decided that we needed to get a little more rigorous and business like, so Softbridge imported a real-live, just retired admiral in the US Navy to become our COO. Jim seemed like a very nice guy, and I recall him quite fondly, but did he ever meet his match at Softbridge. I'm sure there were others, but the one accomplishment of his regime that I remember was an elaborate process for ordering supplies (complete with flow charts). Everyone ignored it.

So, let all the Babson Admirals beware: if they do leave the Navy and take up employment in a business, make sure that it's one with some semblance of lines of authority and accountability to begin with. It's really not all that easy to make order out of chaos when chaos is the organization's lifeblood. (As was once observed to Softbridge's Admiral: if you had 17 legs your couldn't kick ass fast enough and hard enough to get anything done around here. And the Admiral agreed.)

A third note on the Globe article: if we want admirals to "think like executives" let's make sure we pick the right executives as models!

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