Lessons from the Royal Navy

Feb 09 2006 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Lately on my podcast, The Cranky Middle Manager Show, I've been obsessing about the life of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Now, I'm a firm believer that those who don't remember the past are, if not doomed to repeat it, at least going to be unnecessarily surprised every time they open a newspaper or turn on the news.

Which brings us obliquely to the current "crisis" around retention and recruiting of good people. Throughout history, there has been a shortage of good people to do certain jobs, and some organizations do a better job than others of recruiting and retaining the available talent.

The British Royal Navy of the early 19th century seems full of great examples of what does and doesn't work.

Specifically, what it did poorly was:

  • Establish a fair playing field for identifying and assigning their managers, defined here as officers.
  • Work and play well with the other government agencies and branches of the military
  • Engage in politics (literally) that got in their way

What it did exceptionally well was:

  • Recruit people and motivate them to stay in what was, at best, a difficult job
  • Allow superb candidates to do their jobs
  • Encourage mentoring and offer a defined criteria for promotion

This is not to say that His Majesty's Fleet was perfect, or even the best example, but what I've read surfaces the same issues companies today have to cope with, and they could do worse than emulate the best practices.

The Power and Danger of "Interest"
What I found fascinating was the term "interest". Nelson was a young man with "interest". This sounds harmless, but what it meant was that someone in a position of power had to take an "interest" in you-usually because someone in your family owed someone else a favor. Without Interest, a talented officer could starve waiting for a command or never get above midshipman level.

While I would never advocate blatant nepotism, talented people have to network and find mentors

Nelson was smart, he was brave, but he had powerful relatives, including his uncle Suckling…and if you want to know how much power this man had, imagine trying to get through life with a name like Suckling.

While I would never advocate blatant nepotism, talented people have to network and find mentors and companies should encourage cross-function communication. So here's to the power of "interest". Companies should be responsible for making sure the rules are fairly applied…and it's amazing how many don't.

Mentoring and Employee Loyalty
Nelson was renowned as someone good to his men, and elicited unbelievable loyalty from his crews- something every manager should aspire to and every company encourage. A great example was Nelson's right hand (after the battle of Tenerife, literally) Thomas Hardy.

He followed Nelson through four ships, and he once made the statement… The success of their relationship lay in, 'my being First Lieutenant when you like to be Captain, and Flag Captain when you take a fancy to being Admiral'.

In other words, Hardy, while ambitious in his own right- after all he went on to be first lord of the admiralty among other honors- knew how to support the big boss. That's something we all have to do from time to time, whether we're grabbing market share or blasting holes in Spanish gunships.

He flattered when he had to, supported Nelson in the press when things started to get ugly, and stood up to him in meetings when he felt he had to- Nelson having been one of the first leaders in the British Navy to engage in brainstorming sessions with his fellow commanders, a thing which seemed to surprise Senior navy leadership.

Knowing your role is an important skill for those of us toiling in the vineyards. One more thing…, as Nelson lay dying at Trafalgar, among his last words were "Kiss me Hardy" which not only shows the depth of his affection, but since Nelson was his commanding officer, also an HR violation. But heck, he had been at sea for two years and was dying, so nobody wrote him up………..

Recruiting and Retention
Recruiting and keeping talented people was the primary concern for the Navy most of the time. I'm talking about the fact that these ships needed huge crews of men who, not surprisingly, took every opportunity to get the heck out of there when they could.

Not that you can blame them. Cramped quarters, smelly shipmates and the risk of death on a daily basis is tough to deal with. They also had terrible food for long periods of time, but they were British so that was no big deal. Then you finally land in Singapore or Jamaica or wherever you wound up - the temptation to bolt had to be overwhelming.

So how did Nelson and the Royal Navy deal with this challenge? Two ways, recruiting and discipline.

In every port there were Press Gangs - particularly aggressive head hunters, if you will

There were, in every port, Press Gangs - particularly aggressive head hunters, if you will. These were the meanest toughest people on any ship and were sent out to basically round up anyone who looked capable. They'd get them drunk to the point of passing out, or just beat the heck out of them in dark alleys, then haul them aboard ship and they'd wake up .

Okay, an interesting approach… makes you wonder if that would still work….. you need IT people so there's a bunch of guys with bottles of tequila and taser guns hanging around outside Star Trek conventions… and the pickings are easy there because the attendees are almost always painfully alone, unlike sales conventions where they travel in packs and it's harder to pick off the individuals…

Once they were on board, though, there was another problem - keeping and motivating them. Having enough people on board is one thing, but how do you get them to do their jobs well and fight for King and country?

This is something Nelson was particularly adept at. He did it in both positive and harsher ways. He was renowned for being good to his people- this means making sure they get good rations, have every possible chance for promotion, put their welfare before his own many times, and rewarding them when they did a good job.

There was even a profit-sharing plan of sorts in the form of "booty" from captured enemy ships. The idea is good, even if the word would have to be changed for sensitivity reasons.

On the other side, when things didn't go well there was discipline. Nelson was renowned for being "tough but fair". He'd give his people every break, but when it came time for punishment it was delivered consistently and without thinking twice. By the way, the penalty for desertion was severe…. Anywhere from 12 lashes to death, depending on how the offense occurred.

Imagine getting away with that today…. "Captain, we found her going over the side with her resume and a copy of our non-compete agreement..."

By the way, and I'm not suggesting this but you might want to look it up - most HR manuals do not expressly forbid flogging employees who attend job fairs on their sick days. Look it up.

My point is, there were procedures in place to identify good officers (or managers), discipline poor ones and everyone knew the rules. This offered opportunity, inspired loyalty, rewarded good work and helped create a force that could take on any enemy.

Not a bad lesson to take away 200 years later.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.

Older Comments

Typical fuzzy thinking from an American blowhard training type. (He's probably a Canadian from the sound of his arrogant language)

Lord Nelson, while having many attributes, is a bit of a reach for management tips. 'Press Gangs' don't have much relevance.

Termel's advice better suited to chaps selling used motor cars.

Neville Bristol UK

I suggest this bloke actually does some research on the Royal Navy before spouting off. Most sailors were highly skilled professionals who joined at about age 10-12 and served for 15-20 years. Sailors were quite well paid and had the opportunity to earn a substantial extra income by capturing foreign vessels known as 'prizes'. Captains of warships could make a vast fortune by capturing prizes. Sailors were usually the best paid of all working class people. Food was generally very good on RN ships and far better than most civilians ate. Press gangs only operated during wars and they rarely pressed anyone except professional sailors.