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What the Navy Taught Me About Purpose, Teamwork and Leadership

Aug 9, 2016
What the Navy Taught Me About Purpose, Teamwork and Leadership

The Island of the U.S.S Carl VinsonRecently, Falcon’s CEO Stephen Shang shared highlights of his 24-hour visit aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. He participated in the Navy’s Distinguished Visitor Program, which aims to raise awareness about the Navy’s mission and shine a light on its talented people. Below, Stephen reflects on what he learned and how it applies to traditional businesses, like Falcon Structures.

From the arrested landing on the flight deck to the catapult takeoff that sent us home, I was awestruck by every aspect of our experience on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson (click here for Part1 of this post). At the same time, I was taking mental notes on how efficiently these officers and sailors worked together as a team.

So I asked myself: What lessons have I learned from the Navy that I can share with the team at Falcon and others? This topic came up frequently as I compared notes with other CEOs during our trip. Three lessons really resonated with me.

The FOD Walk

When you have clarity of purpose you can achieve the unimaginable.

My visit to the Vinson really impressed upon me how important it is for Falcon and its leadership to be clear on our purpose. I also realized that it is essential that everyone in our ecosystem be aligned with that purpose.

This concept became crystal clear moments after we first stepped on the flight deck of the Vinson. At first glance you see hundreds of people wearing different colors. It looks chaotic. Then you realize that each color designates a very specific job with clearly defined duties.


For example, the guys in red handle emergencies, purple guys manage fuel, yellow guys are in charge, and so on. In the lean manufacturing methods that we employ, we would call this Visual Controls. Everyone performs a specific function with clearly defined job descriptions.

It’s because of this level of clarity, that the crew is able to coordinate the takeoff and landing of so many planes (10 planes landing) in such a tight space (4.5 acres) with such critical timing (in less than 10 minutes).  It was like watching an “industrial ballet”… truly beautiful.

Planes Overhead

You can’t underestimate the importance of thorough training.

The Vinson had only been at sea for a couple of weeks by the time of our visit. She had gone through extensive maintenance, so people were coming in from all over the world and across different departments. How did they work so well as a team?

We learned that the sailors undergo extensive and repeated training to perform their roles on point. They have the added challenge that most of their crew members are 18 to 20 years old, and they have to operate with 40 percent turn over. That’s how the 4,000 people on the Vinson are able to work together like a well-oiled machine.

This is vital in a military environment, because when it really matters, when faced with a combat situation, each individual’s muscle memory allows them to perform their individual duties precisely.

I found this really insightful. In fact, several of the CEOs – myself included – agreed that we don’t train our employees nearly enough. By amping up and creating systematic training, our team at Falcon could be so much better.

Getting into the back of the COD

Leadership guides the ship.

When it comes to Navy leadership, the chain of command, and what they need to do – if they make a mistake, people die. As I observed the officers, it was clear they spend a lot of time walking place to place, talking with their people, finding out what’s going on, identifying bottlenecks, and resolving those issues.

Fortunately for us, we’re not in that kind of a high-pressure environment. However, as CEO, I do lead the ship at Falcon Structures. In order to operate at optimum efficiency and meet or exceed customer needs, I must communicate effectively with the team, identify problems, and help formulate solutions when things go awry. I need to work with our culture, and then adjust for changes in the climate.

While I learned a lot about purpose, teamwork, and leadership during my visit, what still impresses me the most is the people I met. These brave men and women work sun up to sun down and have minimal communication with their family while aboard ship. They make huge sacrifices to serve our country, and I will forever be in their debt.

Think Inside The Box®


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