Small space, big learning

After spending a good year and a half serving in the Swedish Submarine force (in the late 90’s), I often thought about whether it was simply a duty or whether this had brought me some learnings for the future as well. I was uncertain for a while but almost two decades later working within finance, I have found a few very useful learnings I can attribute to my time submerged in the Baltic Sea.

1. It is interesting

The first thing that struck me a couple of years afterwards was that what started as an interesting story to tell people in a bar turned into an interesting story to tell people in job interviews. Most people are either fascinated or scared to death about the fact of being locked in a submarine but regardless they still want to talk to you. Over the last ten years I have had more people wanting to discuss underwater acoustics and the realism level of The hunt for Red October than financial planning with me during interviews. The experience I have from naval warfare has turned out to be a larger asset for me than any university diploma. In the end, everyone who applies for the jobs in my current line of work has attended university. Not many have played hide and seek with helicopters and corvettes in the narrow waters of Sweden, the very same waters where live depth charges were dropped on suspected foreign submarines in the eighties.

2. Accountability is key

The general rules for a Swedish submarine (UBR:FL allmän) states that the failure of one man to complete his task may put the lives of the entire crew in danger. In the finance departments I work in today we try to avoid real danger, but to assign (and let people keep) absolute accountability with no exceptions is a big step towards creating a high performing team in any environment. This has been a very good lesson to remember because, personally, I think this is one of the major problems many companies have today. After almost six years as a management consultant and countless “current state assessments”. Number 1 issue is always (ok, loose use of the term always): Unclear roles and responsibilities.

3. “Feel”, and the discipline to follow it

When having a coffee in the mess you can make a joke about the Captain’s new haircut or his inability to lower his golf handicap. When you are in the command central there is no fun and games. You will be alert, you will pay attention and you will obey commands without hesitation. Blind obedience may not be something for civilian life but to have a well developed sense of how to relate to others in different situations is extremely useful, not to say necessary, also in the business world. When is it ok to make a joke about a client and when is it not? There are no real rules on that, but it is annoying when people lack the “feel” to realise when to act one way and not another. Needless to say, honing these skills in an environment where you would be properly punished for using them incorrectly was very useful.

4. Staying on target

To keep the goal in your sights is a challenge in most offices. I have spent time in many open office spaces with direct line of sight, and hearing, from a lot of people. When half of them are on the phone I sometimes tend to lose focus, get frustrated and annoyed and it slows me down. Could you imagine sleeping, eating and working in the large conference room together with these people for weeks at a time? That makes it even harder to avoid being drawn into unnecessary discussions that, if you look at them with some perspective, are completely unimportant. During my time in the service the credo was to just get on with it. If you have problems with someone or something, that can be solved later but you do not, never ever, let yourself get drawn into disputes or discussions that will take your attention away from the task at hand.

To wrap it up

These were just a handful of important things I learned during my time in the Navy that has been immensely useful also in Civilian life. I think this highlights the military’s ability not only to train people for war but to educate people to contribute in the civilian world as well. With this in mind I no longer have doubts about how useful this experience was for me. If I could go back and re-think my choice to check the box that said “submarine service”, I would do it again.

The original (Swedish) version of this article was printed in “Flottans män” (Men of the Navy), a Swedish Navy Alumni organisation magazine, in 2008.

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