1. Work With What You’ve Got… But Be Prepared To Seize The Moment
In the late 1960s, the successful development of the Polaris ballistic missile submarine by the Special Projects Office led to the creation of several new project offices. The organizational structure allowed personnel and money to be brought to bear in a targeted way to hasten innovation. Also during this time, a framework was set in place to review the development and progress of major projects.
This created an operating structure under which project managers had discretion and independence to work toward their goals as they saw fit, but they also had to routinely demonstrate progress. It’s easy to see how Meyer’s philosophy, “Build a little, test a little, learn a lot,” developed out of this environment.
“You have to work with what you've got, until […] some momentous thing occurs,” he said. “You've got to work with what you've got, not with what you want to wish would be."
Aegis was originally designed as a sensor/weapon system, but by the mid-70s it became clear that because of technological advances, it could be expanded to direct the efforts of an entire carrier battle group.
Meyer had to convince everyone that not only was this new vision of Aegis necessary, but that it was technically possible and affordable. And he didn’t only have to convince them once. Over the 13 years of his tenure, he had to repeatedly justify the program to the same people over and over again, in addition to new people who were unfamiliar with the program. This was complicated by the fact it wasn’t the same program as when it started... It was constantly evolving. Aegis adjusted to not just the operational needs, but to the ever-changing political landscape that shaped the budgetary environment.
2. Technical Expertise Can Build Trust with Outsiders
Trained as an engineer, Meyer studied his trade at three different institutions: University of Kansas, MIT, and Naval Postgraduate School. Dealing with members of Congress and their staffs, Meyer realized that honesty was the best policy.
Rather than just try to directly win people's support for Aegis, he won them over personally by establishing trust in his technical expertise.
“My experience with them was to be as straightforward as I knew how and put it in comprehensive terms,” he said. “Those people over there, in that era, could understand BS fairly fast, but they grasped honesty pretty quickly, too. When you’re in trouble, they need to know you’re in trouble… You’ve got to develop a relationship, and it takes quite a while to work that relationship out.”
Myer knew he was probably never going to convince everyone at the outset of why they should support his vision for Aegis. But even if the people he hadn’t yet convinced could trust in his ability to honestly explain the technical issues, he had still laid the foundation for a relationship of trust. And that trust that often could only be built up over many years. Then they might be brought around later, because they would still be willing to talk to him again.
Meyer also insisted that the people working on Aegis had to be prepared to defend it. He wanted them to answer questions competently, but he also saw that preparing for criticism allowed for perceiving flaws ahead of time and correcting them. Learning to explain and defend the system was not only promotional or a sales-pitch; it was also an excellent development tool.
3. Get People On Your Team, Not Just Into Your Organization
Meyer was skilled in getting people involved-He even got Nancy Reagan, the First Lady of the United States, to christen Ticonderoga on Armed Forces Day in 1981. That not only increased awareness of the importance of Aegis, but also made everyone involved aware that there would be a lot of people watching if they missed their deadlines. The ship was completed on budget and on time.
Meyer wasn’t only building allies outside his organization; he was also building them within.
“One of the things you learn about program management is that it’s not unlike being a politician,” he said. “You have to get the people with you. If you don’t believe this is a democracy, you ought to be a Project Manager for a while. Everybody votes on your performance every day. Success is dependent on getting the people behind you.”
From contractors to researchers to Navy personnel, Meyer created a community around Aegis. As they became experts, they became supporters. Over his tenure, he made sure that everyone wanted to work together and pull in the same direction.
Meyer believed that like conductors, project managers kept everyone going, and kept them on time.
"You’re confronted with a challenge of getting the laboratories, civilians, the production lines, the factories, study groups-Everybody to play in this grand symphony in the orchestra, and playing for just for more than thirty seconds,” he said. “Conductors have to master that or, in fact, they don't last very long."
4. Long-Term Tenure Enables Long-Term Thinking
Of course, Meyer’s lengthy leadership of Aegis contributed to his ability to make decisions in the long-term. After all, it’s definitely easier for people to make critical judgments if they aren’t worrying about their next career move. He never lost focus of Sailors taking ships to sea as the prime mover of his long view.
He also credited a lesson he learned from Admiral Hyman Rickover, another Navy leader, who oversaw the development and operation of Navy nuclear propulsion for 30 years.
Meyer said that while much of what he’d learned from Rickover was widely known, there was one lesson from that was not.
"[Rickover] said, 'You must make all decisions as though you're going to live forever,'” said Meyer. “That is to say, you have to be prepared to live with the decision, meaning you can't make expedient decisions no matter what the cost. You must try to make the right one.”
Using that principle as a guide, especially over a long tenure, leads to making better decisions, and hence outcomes. It removes the short-term incentives that can negatively impact the undertaking's chance of success.
As the Navy's long-term effort to lead and grow the organizations that will develop the tools needed to meet tomorrow’s challenges continues, it’s clearly worth looking back to Meyer and Aegis. Great leaders are irreplaceable, but it’s not impossible to identify and replicate some of the conditions that allowed them to succeed. And what better place to start than one of the most successful programs—and leaders—the Navy has ever had.