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Finding that Higher Gear: Lessons Learned from the Seabees

Finding That Higher Gear: Lessons Learned from the Seabees

By Lowell McAdam
Chairman and CEO, Verizon Communications
Seabee Diamond Anniversary Ambassador

It’s amazing what you don’t know when you’re 18 years old. I had just graduated from a small high school in Barker, NY and was about to head to Cornell on a ROTC Navy scholarship, grateful for the opportunity to earn an engineering degree at a prestigious university. My brother and a close family friend were in the Air Force, but I really hadn’t decided if I would be a career military man, and while I was proud to serve my country after graduating college, I only had the vaguest idea what that would entail. 

Four years later, degree in hand, I began my military service with the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), assigned to the Seabees. I spent the next six years with the Seabees in Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines and San Diego. I drove every type of construction equipment imaginable paving the runways at Cubi Point in the Philippines. We poured concrete in 24-hour shifts to repair bridges washed out by monsoon rains, built hospitals and community centers for the good of the troops and the local community, and rebuilt facilities after devastating typhoons. We did work for aircraft carriers when they came to port in exchange for steak dinners and cases of beer. Sometimes we’d make concrete targets and hide them in the reefs offshore during the day so our friends in the Seals could come and blow them up at night. (We had some great parties after that.)  We even built some of the sets for the movie Top Gun near San Diego. Remember Tom Cruise wearing a Seabees patch on his flight jacket?

Lowell BW-1
Lowell BW-2

LEFT: Lowell with the Men of NMCB 3 (1976-1977)

RIGHT: ENS Lowell McAdam (standing) and EO1 James Green

First, the Seabees were a master course in what we now call STEM skills – science, technology, engineering and math – which are the bedrock of a career in any technologically complex industry. In my tenure in the communication’s industry, we’ve deployed four generations of wireless networks and are working on the fifth, transitioned from copper to fiber technology, and helped invent products and applications that are changing the way the world works. And in the future the pace of change will only accelerate; one estimate suggests that 80 percent of all jobs in the future will require STEM knowledge. America is way behind the rest of the world and needs to catch up fast. That focus on STEM literacy is a major reason I’m supporting the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, California.

Second, I learned what it means to lead people during challenging times. At Verizon, we have a saying that’s memorialized in our company credo: “We run to a crisis, not away.” That propensity for taking risks and taking charge in times of stress is ingrained in the Seabee way of operating.  No matter where the crisis, they’re first on the scene – not just with bricks and mortar, but also with innovations and life-saving technologies:  from desalination processes and solar power to temporary field hospitals for treating Ebola and other health emergencies. Now, when hurricanes or floods threaten the communications network, I see that same Seabees ethos as the Verizon team mobilizes to run to the crisis and get our customers back on line.

Finally, my management team would tell you that, if there’s one phrase I use over and over, it’s this:  “There’s always a higher gear.” The most successful people I’ve met in my life all believe that every day presents an opportunity to improve and raise the bar on your performance. And the first place I truly saw that philosophy in action every day was with the Seabees. They call it something different – “Can Do” – but that commitment to continuous improvement is deeply embedded in their culture and evident in their long history of excellence.

I observed this spirit in action as a CEC officer, serving with NMCB 3 from 1976 to 1978 and with CBU 405 from 1978 to 1980.  On my tours in the South Pacific, we were responsible for critical infrastructure like bridges and runways. Runways were paved in sections, each of which needed to be ready for aircraft to roll over on schedule. You had to be efficient … and you had to be perfect.  No excuses – not even when materials weren’t up to spec. We always had to find a higher gear, improvise and innovate, and get the job done because our troops were counting on us to get it right.

These three lessons – know the fundamentals of STEM, run to a crisis, and find the higher gear – have stayed with me through three decades in business. I can safely say I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.  That’s why I am thrilled to support the Diamond Anniversary Campaign to celebrate the Seabees’ 75th Anniversary in March 2017. Our goal is to raise $10 million to install informative, interactive exhibits that highlight how Seabees use technology and innovation to help our troops and improve the world. I’ve signed on as a Diamond Anniversary Campaign Ambassador to support the museum’s expansion. Please consider becoming part of this campaign to uphold and promote the Seabees’ legacy.

The museum will also raise awareness about the many benefits of serving your country. If you’re considering a career in the military, construction, engineering or other trades, you can visit the museum to learn more.

Who knows – maybe you’ll be inspired to sign on and see how the Seabees can kick your life into a higher gear, like they did for a kid from Barker all those years ago.

Click here to make a contribution.

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11 Comments
  1. My father was a Seabee for 20 yrs. We lived in Subic bay for almost 3 yrs.

  2. Great read! Thanks for sharing Lowell!

  3. Have a great day Seabee!

  4. SPENT 30 YEARS WITH THE SEABEE`S ,NMCB 3 , NMCB 4 , NMCB 74 ,AND NMCB 40 , JUST WISH I WAS YOUNG ENOUGH TO DO IT AGAIN . IF YOU HAVE THE SAME QUALITIES AS THE CEC OFFICERS I NEW YOU WILL US GET A LEADER AT THE TOP THAT WONT’S TO MAKE AMERICAN GREAT. IN THE EARLY DAYS THE MEN WOULD KISS THE DIRT , AND AND SAY HOW PROUD THEY WAS TO BE HOME WITH THEIR FAMILIES .

  5. Excellent short essay. “No excuses”–get the job done working with what you have; maintaining honesty and morality and not cutting corners, burrowing through difficulties to complete a project with what you’ve been given. Then critique the job just completed and thinking of how you could have made it go smoother. Then applying what you learned to the next job. CAN DO!

    MCB-128, MCB-74: Hurricane Camille Clean-Up; Danang, Hue, Ham Tan, Gitmo; 1968-1972. EOCA to EO2

  6. Lowell was a Seabee Top Gun!

  7. Sir
    you are wrong . the picture on the left was taken in Guam NBCB62 Year 78-79

  8. I don’t suppose Lowell would back up his praise with a service plan for Bees- would he?

  9. There everywhere CAN DO!!

  10. NMCB-3, Better Than Best! Hoorah! I served in 3 during Operation Desert Storm. Came away with a ton of skills and attitude.

  11. My father also served with NMCB3, in Guam and Okinawa, based out of Port Hueneme, CA, from 1959 to 1962. He was an electrician. In 1962, he transfered to NMCB8 in Davisville, RI, and was deployed to Keflavik, Iceland where he served until 1964, and then Bainbridge, MD until 1965. He had quite an incredible military career.

    He passed away on 9/28/2016, at age 75. He was a proud SeaBee.

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