WELLESLEY -- Back from a breakout session at his executive education course, Navy Vice Admiral Lewis W. Crenshaw Jr. was talking about a Procter & Gamble case study he'd just read.
``This is about squeezing more toothpaste out of the toothpaste tube," Crenshaw, who works on the Navy budget in the Pentagon, said in an Alabama drawl. ``There are a lot of parallels with the Navy."
Executive education isn't just for business people anymore. At Babson College here, about two dozen Navy admirals gathered in civilian clothes last week to learn how to think like entrepreneurs, create a culture of innovation, and influence officials outside the chain of command.
It's all part of a Navy push to provide a new generation of leaders with the management skills to drive change, do more with less, and adapt to new technologies -- the very issues their Fortune 500 corporate management counterparts come here to grapple with.
``Fundamentally, these people are asking us to question and challenge the assumptions of our organizations and look for some new ways of doing business," said Vice Admiral Walter B. Massenburg , commander of the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md., who commutes to his home in Wellesley on weekends.
Babson, which offers similar custom-designed programs at its executive conference center to companies ranging from Siemens to New York Life Insurance Co. to France Telecom, has seen growing interest from the US military services. Leading the way, the Navy shipped its first group of 20 admirals to Babson's campus in June.
Babson management accounting professor Lawrence P. Carr , a retired Navy captain, said the admirals, who command ships and squadrons with thousands of sailors, are eager to incorporate ``best practices" from the business world into their war-fighting operations.
Like executives in the private sector, admirals typically move up the ranks by excelling in operational skills that have little or nothing to do with their new responsibilities. ``Now they have to move to new capabilities of managing the business of the Navy," said Carr. ``We're not teaching leadership. These guys know that. It's the other skill sets -- innovation, creativity, taking an idea and making it operational."
At last week's program, called ``Transformation Through Innovation," they engaged in role-playing to improve negotiating and problem-solving skills and read case studies on reducing staffing, sparking innovation, and installing better systems and processes. It was a kind of finishing school for some who previously had studied financial management, economics, and organizational design at the University of North Carolina and the University of San Diego.
Like many businesses, the Navy has been streamlining and changing its focus during the past decade in response to new threats. While its post-World War II strategy had been designed to deter the conventional forces of the Soviet Union, the service today is deploying new assets and tactics to counter terrorists, drug smugglers, and pirates.
At the same time, its fleet has been reduced from 575 to fewer than 300 ships since 2000, while its uniformed force has dropped from 590,000 to 340,000, said Navy executive learning officer Phil Quast , a retired vice admiral. ``This is an organization that has to think more creatively about what they do," Quast said, citing new ``minimally manned" vessels like the Littoral Combat Ship and the DDG 1000 Destroyer that rely on high-tech combat and communications gear.
The changes have affected everything from procurement to recruiting technology-savvy sailors. ``One of the things we're discussing is the value chain from street to fleet," Quast said. ``We're attracting the kinds of people who can run these new kinds of high-tech assets. We're raising the bar for quality. Meeting the numbers is not the issue. Meeting the quality is the issue."
At a session titled ``Creating & Sustaining a Culture of Innovation & Change," Neal Thornberry , faculty director at Babson's executive education school, talked about the importance of empowering entrepreneurial-minded officers within the Navy bureaucracy -- just as some corporations have done by setting up in-house skunk works.
``These are people who believe they can control their own destiny," Thornberry said. ``If you tell them they can't do it, what'll they say? `Just watch me.' If you put a barrier of control in front of them, they'll figure out how to get around it. You might need someone with a little chip on their shoulder. And you know what? They're not easy to manage. If you tell them no, they want to go out and prove you wrong."
The Navy's interest in Babson has caught the attention of other military branches and some executives in the private sector. ``We've had a number of calls from members of other services and from defense contractors," said Elaine Eisenman , dean of Babson's executive education program. ``They say, `If the Navy wants to learn about innovation, then we want to learn about innovation.' "
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.