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What Nuclear Submarines Teach Us About Leading Millennials

Nuclear Submarines execute some of the most complex missions in our military. These missions are accomplished in Mother Earth’s harshest environments where the only acceptable standard is one with zero defects. These 7000-ton, $2 billion warships are powered by a nuclear power plant, utilize some of the most advanced technology on the planet, and the average age of a crew member is 25 years old.

When a Nuclear Submarine is submerged and executing its mission, there are very few management carrots to dangle in front of the crew. Vacation? Nope. Pay Raise? Nope. Go home early? Nope. However, precise attention to detail must be maintained 24/7 for months on end. This standard can only be achieved with a crew that is motivated, engaged and talented.

Admittedly, the average person that volunteers for Nuclear Submarine duty is not exactly representative of his generation. However, leading the younger generation aboard a Nuclear Submarine has taught me some invaluable lessons about leading Millenials in the civilian workplace.

  1. They crave a sense of purpose. You don’t need a mission vital to national security to provide them that purpose. That purpose doesn’t even have to be of the “save the world” type. However, we must challenge them with a well communicated, accurately measured, and challenging goals. Many companies still accept the notion, implicitly, that it is okay for a new hire to wander aimlessly for a year or two while learning how the company works through trials and tribulations. This philosophy has never been a stellar one, but companies were able to get away with it — not any more. One of the biggest differences between millennials and the generations that preceded them is not an ideological one; it is a pattern of lifestyle decisions. Millennials are, on average, holding off on making binding decisions (marriage, children, houses) in their twenties. Why? I’ll let someone else address that, but it’s true. Their desire to be working towards a “purpose” is no more intense than any other generation, but their decisions to hold off on making commitments that tie them to a steady paycheck provide them with the freedom to explore the job market without being afraid of the uncertainty of the unemployment abyss.
  2. They must feel connected to the organization through senior leadership. On a submarine, most of the crew sees the Commanding Officer daily. The best Commanding Officers make themselves as a visible and accessible as possible. They do this because they recognize that their position as the senior person aboard the submarine provides them a unique opportunity – visibility that represents the organization. It doesn’t take much, but when the Commanding Officer knows your name, your qualification status, your favorite football team, and what city you grew up in – the itch to be connected to the organization through its leadership is scratched. The lamentation that Millennials feel entitled to be the VP of Operations before they can spell “Operations” is just not true. They do however expect the VP of Operations to engage them on a personal and professional level even if they are several levels above them in the chain of command. On the surface, this expectation can appear to be reflective of a disrespectful approach to an organization’s chain of command, but this also isn’t true. They were raised in the most “connected” and “smallest” world that humankind has ever known. They interact directly with their celebrity idols on Twitter daily and hold Bill Gate’s email in the palm of their hand. There is no way to expect this group to embrace a culture where senior leaders do not frequently engage with the future of the company.
  3. Leadership that demonstrates that the organization cares about their future. Millennials are starved for real leadership. Leadership that provides light in the darkness of the professional uncertainty suffered by Millenials in our significantly nuanced professional world of increasing complexity. Where are their leaders? There is no doubt in my mind that the leadership they crave is available in their organization. There is also no doubt in my mind that corporate America is blind to the benefits of schedule “white space. ” As we lock ourselves behind closed doors for hours upon hours of marginally productive conference calls, the future of the company stands on the other side of the door yearning for mentorship which often only needs to take the form of – “How’s your week going? Tell me about project x that you are working on. “At no point in our career do we spend more time hand-wringing our career options and alternative paths than in our first decade in the workplace. Despite what some claim, Millennials are not demanding a roadmap to a C-level position, but they are expecting leaders and mentors that are available to lead and mentor. Because of the 24/7 lifestyle that a Nuclear Submarine demands, each crew member interfaces with their leaders and mentors daily. This availability for interaction, alone, goes a long way towards keeping the younger crew members motivated. A mentor of mine, Captain (retired) Ken Swan once reminded me that “your people won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. ”
  4. Access to information. Millenials are conditioned to have a world of knowledge at their fingertips since they were children. Therefore, if they find themselves in an environment rife with figurative “access denied” or “Error 404 – page not found,” their discontent should come as no surprise. Their desire to know more about the rest of the organization is a blessing, not a curse. Millenial engineers want to know about the company’s marketing plan. Millenial graphic designers want to know about the company’s quarterly financial results. The “stay in your lane” adage was never an award-winning management style, but now it’s suicide because Millenials will not remain in a working environment where they feel locked out. Embrace this unprecedented surge in intellectual curiosity through cross-training programs, more lenient information access policies, and more informal discussions about the company’s operations. On Nuclear Submarines, it is almost impossible not to know about the activities of other divisions and departments. Further, cross-training was not only allowed but encouraged. I was on a submarine where one of the cooks qualified sonar operator, and he became a damn good operator in his spare time between making 150 meals four times a day.
  5. They need to be heard. This desire is the most generationally distinct element in our list. This generation does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom of “wait your turn” and “your day will come. ” From where this change of philosophy stems is deserving of its own article, but suffice to say, it exists. I have observed no evidence, inside or out of the Navy, to suggest that this is a generation that thinks it has all of the answers, but it is a generation that knows that sometimes they do. . . and they are right. In the Nuclear Submarine community, we honor a deeply engrained and time-tested principle called watch team backup. This principle encourages everyone to be constantly listening and processing all that is going on around them, and if they hear something that doesn’t sound right or they believe they have a better way, they not only have the opportunity to voice their thoughts, but they have the obligation to do so. I cannot count the number of times when the most junior person in the control-room saved the day because he saw something or thought of something that no one else did. I’ve observed an unspoken but rather active principle to the contrary in corporate America. The perceived validity of an idea is often more related to the seniority of the person sharing it than the virtues of the notion. This, my friends must change.

Unraveling the secrets behind the mysterious breed of human beings called the Millennials is certainly en vogue. Given the unique nature of the Nuclear Submarine culture, this military community gets a “sneak preview” of each generation. My experiences in the Nuclear Submarine community and outside of it, bestow me with confidence that the Millennials represent a generation full of energy, ambition, and unprecedented abilities. Ultimately, as we adjust our organizations to accommodate their unique approach to their careers, and simultaneously assimilate them to our existing operations, both groups will emerge from the process stronger and better equipped to handle the rapidly shifting demands of our organizations’ future operations.

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