3 Crucial Lessons from Coast Guard Training During a Government Shutdown

Everyone on your team should understand these crucial business realities.

My eldest son began eight weeks of basic training in December, just in time to witness how his new employers managed operations during Washington’s unprecedented abdication of responsibility.

While we’ve narrowly escaped another U.S. government shutdown, our elected officials continue to play games in the name of strong borders. In the last shutdown, the U.S. Coast Guard, a military branch charged with saving lives and the protection of our aquatic borders, missed their first paycheck in over 200 years.

As a tax-paying U.S. citizen, I found the shutdown reprehensible, but I never worried about my son. Basic training is an all-inclusive deal, so I didn’t worry about him finding food or shelter. I was concerned, though, about what unintentional lessons he’d receive. It would be so easy for new recruits to become jaded, disillusioned, and even anxious about their decision. During the shutdown, they watched their shipmates intercept over 35,000 lbs of illegal drugs on behalf of a government that refused to pay them, and then head to a community donation center to find food for their children.

My son graduated boot camp, and to my great relief, didn’t come out jaded. Instead, he picked up three key lessons that I wish I’d learned earlier. As a business owner, I also know it’s critical to make sure my employees get these same lessons, and we don’t have to traumatize their families to teach them. 

1. Employees need to know how the money works.

Where does the money come from that fuels your business and how is it spent?  What happens when cash flow is interrupted? Most importantly, what can each person do to increase cash flow stability and overall profitability?

Photo provided by Elise Keith

I’m sure my son had a vague sense that taxes fund the Coast Guard, just as business employees understand that investments and sales fund their companies. But since most people never see how those dollars get spent on rent, insurance, taxes, salaries, equipment, inventory, shipping–all the ways a million-dollar sale can be just enough to keep the lights on–they mistakenly believe that the owners are getting rich and that the decisions made by employees have no impact on their paychecks.   

During the shutdown, several branches ceased operations, but not the Coast Guard. They had to figure out how to keep working with cash on hand, making each person’s stewardship of that limited resource evident. Careless with equipment? Wasting food in the galley? Not acceptable when you know there’s no money for replacements. My son, who was previously unmoved by my pleas to care for household resources, came home brimming with advice about how we should trim our laundry expenses.

When an employee understands how the money works, they can make decisions that put that money to work well.

2. Employees need to understand the decision-making process. 

Some failures have nothing to do with the quality of your work, the value of your service, or anything going on in one part of the organization.

The shutdown taught my son that the decisions leaders make about money matter more than the amount of money in the system. Previously, he had no interest in politics. That changed because it’s now clear that our political leaders can and will make decisions that impact the well-being of thousands for personal reasons. 

Before this experience, he couldn’t care less about politics. Now, he knows that pretending politics isn’t his concern means he’s likely to be blindsided.

It’s hardly uncommon for someone to be uninterested in politics, but I’m always surprised to see this same attitude within companies. People act as if they’re constantly blind-sided by the decisions made by others in the organization. 

Any time employees talk about other departments in slurs–as in, “managers only care about money” or “you can’t trust sales” or “engineering is so out of touch”–you’ve failed as a leader because your employees don’t understand how the decisions get made.

3. Employees need to know that people and systems fail. Strong communities are resilient.

Money is just one form of capital. 

The Coast Guard lives and works within the communities it serves. They are neighbors to those they’ve pulled from the waves, so when the shutdown stopped their paychecks, these communities pulled together for them. Donation centers opened for Coast Guard families across the nation, providing food, diapers, gas cards, and support. 

My son learned that when you provide excellent service to the community, you bank social capital – an asset that’s far more resilient to outside disruption than cash. Every organization encounters lean financial times. When all employees serve and build a strong community around your work, your organization gains loyal customers, a strong brand, and steady referrals to keep you afloat. 

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