Ship of Gold

Ship of Gold

Tue, August 26, 2014

(August 2014) Earlier this year I read a news article about Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc.’s renewed efforts to retrieve additional gold from a U.S. shipwreck known as the “Ship of Gold.”   This reminded me of former GHSP President Jerry Scott’s vision for collaborative thinking and our annual theme of Problem Solving and Innovation. Many new employees have not heard the story behind Ship of Gold, a term we use at GHSP. In support of our value of Stewarding the Legacy, I asked Jerry if he would be willing to share his thoughts with all of us.  Enjoy!

Jeff Smith, GHSP President

A GHSP legacy of collaborative problem-solving

This is a story of one man’s interest in maritime history and how it helped to drive a culture change at GHSP.  The journey begins with a book: Ship of Gold by Gary Kinder.

Ship of Gold tells the story of the sinking of the SS Central America, a side-wheel steamer carrying 600 passengers returning from the California Gold Rush in 1857.  The ship sank 200 miles off the Carolina coast and over 400 lives were tragically lost, along with 21 tons of gold.

In the 1980s, Tommy Thompson, a young engineer from Ohio, set out to do what until that time no one, including the US Navy, had been able to do: conduct archaeology and recovery on the deep-ocean floor.  After years of searching, Thompson and his group found the SS Central America in 8,000 feet of water, and in 1989 successfully recovered gold coins, bars and nuggets, along with trunks filled with artifacts.

In 2004, Gerald (Jerry) Scott, who was President of GHSP from 1996 to 2008, picked up a copy of the Ship of Gold because of his deep interest in maritime stories and history. However, the book resonated with him for different and quite unexpected reasons.

“As I read about how Tommy Thompson progressed through his journey, there were some things that jumped out at me as being critical to his ultimate success,” says Scott.  “The more people he got from diverse backgrounds to agree on something, the better the idea.”

Scott also realized that Thompson created an environment where no one in the group worried that he would be judged by the others. “Ideas were not discussed in terms of ‘good ones vs. bad ones’ but rather ‘what might work vs. not work.’ The team would then find the best parts of ideas, and build on this until a consensus was reached.  This was exactly what I wanted to create for GHSP,” says Scott.

After reading Ship of Gold, Scott discussed portions of the book with his team and a new collaborative problem-solving process was born.  “Ship of Gold eventually became part of our culture. It came to represent a way of thinking that could be applied to almost everything we did,” says Scott.  “It was about helping each other achieve common goals. In my observation, while many companies claim to have good teamwork, people still have individual goals which often put them in competition for personal advancement.”

Scott explains that this paradigm shift was not easy and it didn’t happen overnight.   “The process will not work if ideas go unspoken, and oftentimes this happens in subtle ways – a look, a sly comment, a misinterpreted humorous remark, or a nod that gives a false sense of agreement.  I started with small things and tried to set an example through my own actions,” he says. 

Looking back, Scott says it was a time of both personal and professional growth for him.  He enjoyed trying to apply what he learned to help the GHSP team be successful, interact differently and learn from each other.  He also tried to apply these principles to his relationships with family and friends.

Members of Scott’s team at the time recall that Scott used Ship of Gold as an anchor to help teams understand how to remain focused on a common goal.  The vision being that by effectively sharing and problem-solving together, a team can come up with solutions that are more innovative than one or two individuals can achieve working on their own.

Scott retired but his legacy lives on.  His former office is officially known as the Ship of Gold Room. It’s a meeting space where egos are supposed to be left at the door and a culture of sharing and building ideas through teamwork prevails, leaving no room for “Who is Right,” only “What Works.” 

When you walk into the room, one of the first things you notice is that it is lined with white boards. When plans are posted on white boards it creates more transparency and openness. When everyone can see everyone’s plans at any time, it encourages comment and critique.  However, Ship of Gold is not limited to what takes place in the room, it’s about relationships. This collaborative culture is meant to permeate GHSP – in all meetings and across departments, functions and facilities. 

“This is a story that I hope will continue to resonate with all employees,” says Jeff Smith, GHSP President.  “It’s so important for us to keep this collaborative culture alive and well within our company as we continue to grow. It’s human nature to try to solve problems quickly, but Ship of Gold is not about the loudest voice in a room winning or using limited data to jump to an incomplete solution.”

“The term Ship of Gold means as leaders it’s important for us to set the goals but then be open to influence on the solutions,” says Smith.  “It’s about getting knowledgeable, egoless individuals working together who can focus on WHAT truly works instead of WHO believes they have all the answers.  By using effective problem-solving we can collaborate and build on each other’s ideas to come up with the most innovative solution possible.”

Upon his retirement, Scott fondly recalls that the GHSP leadership team presented him with an actual $10 gold piece that was recovered from the SS Central America.  “The coin is constant reminder for me of the culture we created at GHSP, and how it can be successfully applied to any organization,” says Scott. 

That’s something all GHSP employees – past, current and future – can be proud of.