Monday, December 27, 2010

Turning The Tables

Just as with any holiday season, I have made the time for thoughtful reflection as I both appreciate the past and consider the future. This year is a little different in that as much as I am enjoying every day of the present, the thought of nearing the 20 year milestone gives me more reason to think about the fork in the road that is the 20 Years of Service decision gate. Whenever I come to an important decision, I consult my Personal Board of Directors. This time around one of my valued board members turned the tables on me when I asked him for his thoughts. His words resonated so strongly with me that I felt compelled to share with others and gained his permission to just that. Enjoy...

Short excerpt from my e-mail:

"As I near the 20 year mark, I need to know if we are truly interested in changing the norm or if I need to find another team on which I am the norm."

Excerpt of his response:


"So ..., "are we really interesting in changing the norm?" My answer from this part of the "we" is, "absolutely!" The second part of the question is, are we moving out smartly in that direction? My answer to that part of the question is like we hear in the rental car advertisement "not exactly!" Changing the norm is really about changing culture. Like an aircraft carrier doesn't turn on a dime, culture doesn't change overnight or even in a tour.

Let me throw some questions back your way.

Are you still proud to wear the cloth of your country?
Do you still get goose bumps when you stand in front of a formation of sailors or salute as a color guard passes by?
Do you think the missions of the Navy are important to our nation and our way of life?
Do you believe the Sailors of our Navy deserve quality leadership?
Do you believe you still have the talent to help the Navy accomplish its many missions and the leadership skills to make a difference in the lives of our Sailors?
Do you believe your Navy seniors (whether you agree with them all the time or not) conduct themselves and make decisions to further the best interest of the Navy and the Nation vice their own self interest?
Are you still willing to serve? (in the true meaning of the word)
Are you willing to accept that you are unlikely to change all that you believe in your heart of hearts needs to be changed?
Are you willing to accept that things will never change as quickly as you would like?
Do you believe it is still important to try?
Are you willing to believe me when I tell you that the minute you take off the uniform you will have less influence on the culture of the Navy than you do today or you had as a Lieutenant? (I don't care if you grow up to be the SECNAV or the POTUS, ... Navy culture changes from within!)

I ask these questions because I believe the answers are important to the decision you face. The answer to some are what gets me out of bed at 0415 to commute to the Pentagon, when I could be comfortably retired and sleeping in every morning. The answer to others I didn't understand until I took off my uniform.

Don't get me wrong, there are wonderful opportunities on the outside. You can be perfectly happy there and no one will think the less of you or your service. So ... Do you need to find another team on which you are the norm? Only you can answer that question. But, first you should ask yourself many of the same questions regarding your future situation. Also, ask if you would really be happy being the norm anywhere!

My belief is that the Navy is better organization today than it has ever been. Does it frustrate me? Yes. Are there a few people I believe are either self-serving or not pulling their weight? Yes. Do I also see young Captains and Commanders who are swinging way above their weight class and making a huge difference. Absolutely! Are they always fully appreciated and rewarded for their efforts. Nope!

Then comes the most important piece of advice I can give you. Whatever your decision, make sure it is a family decision. Call anytime if you want to talk."


I can honestly state that I have read this e-mail more than a dozen times. Just as countless others with whom I serve, I can answer just about every one of the questions posed with an emphatic "Yes!" Unfortunately, I have had some trouble of late with the question regarding my seniors and their ability to put self-interests above the Nation, Navy and Shipmates. A few seniors, peers and juniors for that matter seem to be overly focused on their career progression which is disappointing but I remain hopeful that they will either course correct or the system will weed them out. I will also admit that he nailed me when he asked if I would truly be happy being part of the team where I was the norm. Good, bad or indifferent, I have always made it a point to not be the norm, but a complementary role player filling a void and attempting to play to the strengths of those around me. Truth is, the norm is usually accepting of the status quo, doesn't yearn to be more and will eventually become irrelevant. His message, coupled with great conversations with a few other board members have removed any doubts I had. I am "All In!"

Whenever I contemplate retirement in the future, I will refer to this e-mail and when I can no longer answer "Yes" to these questions, it will be time to leave. I hope you find similar value in the words shared by this Great American and consider using them to turn the tables on your protégés.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Delete Button

Last Friday, a great time was had by all at our Command Holiday Party. Our Holiday Party Committee did a great job creating an opportunity for all of us to have some good fun with some great people! It was especially gratifying to be able to meet so many of the friends and family who make up the extended NIOC Pensacola Family. There were many good memories from the night (i.e. scavenger hunt, door prizes, etc) and my favorite was interacting on a personal level with so many people. I particularly enjoyed the dance lesson I received from a valued Petty Officer who felt my life would be more complete if I knew how to "Dougie.” As you might imagine, it was good for a few laughs as I am many things but a good dancer I am not.

When I awoke the next morning, given the make-up of OUR team I was not surprised to see that a portion of my dance lesson was posted via YOU TUBE on our command Facebook page (note: No link provided, as you need no visual evidence that I have little rhythm). Admittedly, my initial reaction was one of concern as I wondered how the video might have been edited in an effort to have fun at my expense. After reviewing the 17 second clip, I saw how harmless it was. Some of my peers thought it odd that I didn’t delete the link immediately and ask the Sailor to remove the video from YOU TUBE altogether. I thought it odd that they would feel threatened by the post. I interpreted the playful addition to our site as acknowledgement that Sailors know:

- I don’t take myself too seriously
- It is safe to openly participate in OUR Social Networking Forum
- We are serious about strengthening OUR family based culture

Some might have deleted the link only to find that they inadvertently undermined many of the desired effects intended when committing to creating an on-line presence. The purpose of OUR forum remains “To share unclassified information, enhance OUR collective situational awareness and foster OUR command culture of teamwork, effective communication, continual improvement and entrepreneurship.”

I have stated on many occasions, I love what I do and more importantly, I love with whom I do it. It is the personal connections created over time that bring me the most joy. The dance lesson, the posting of the video and the good-natured laughs we continue to share serve as validation. Validation that we are building something special at OUR command, validation that we see ourselves as a family, and validation that we appreciate who we are as much as our customers value what we do.

Just as is often done when we are directed to "Cancel Reference A" (Military jargon for "My senior wants me to publicly acknowledge I showed too much initiative"...tongue in cheek), deleting a harmless video for reasons of personal pride would have undone far more. I still can't "Dougie" but I appreciate what the whole experience says about the family I enjoy at "work".

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Giving Ourselves Permission

I grew up the son of a (now retired) police officer and, as you might imagine, he and my Mom created a rather specific environment in which to nurture my brother and me. As children, my brother and I would often times contrast the specific rules under which we lived to those of our friends. Back then, such analysis would leave us angry as we realized that "Jimmy" got to stay out later than us, and "Jennifer" had a larger allowance than us, and "Johnny" wandered from house to house without telling his parents unlike us. Now that I am older (and a parent), I see those "facts" (and so many other things) very differently.

My parents had very specific rules and as long as we operated within the boundaries we were fine. Because they were clearly communicated, we completely understood them. If we were operating within the guidelines, there was no need to ask for permission. Likewise, if we had good reason to believe a deviation was in order, all we had to do was explain why we were going to operate outside family standard operating procedures. In essence, the foundation of my childhood was two-way communication: clearly articulated expectations and mutual trust. It should come as no surprise that as a parent I am doing my best to perpetuate a similar cycle.

Admittedly, my seven year old son is treated a little differently than most of his classmates are by their parents. My son knows our expectations and he knows that asking for our permission to eat a snack, use the family computer or retire to his room to play games is not required. At the same time, he knows when to inform us of his desires to stray from the stated boundaries. He has permission to act on his own initiative, as well as both make personal decisions and mistakes (though somewhat controlled…he is seven, after all).

Although I have been a part of the Navy for over 22 years, I have come to really question the culture we continue to build by placing such an emphasis on asking for permission. As a midshipman and a junior officer, I submitted my share of special requests and like most good Sailors, I followed protocol. All the while, though, I was wondering why I needed permission to do some of the things for which I intended to do. Now as a Commanding Officer, I continue to both understand the intent and in many cases question the practice. I question the culture we continue to create when we require our juniors to "Submit a Special Request Chit.” My concerns are validated when I hear stories of staff officers lined up outside a Flag Officer's office asking for permission to take action. By forcing ourselves and/or feeling obligated to ask for permission, opportunities are lost, progress is halted, initiative is stifled and a culture of contentment is perpetuated. I don’t believe our seniors want us to ask permission, we are just conditioned to not give it to ourselves.

I hope that my son continues to give himself permission to realize his dreams, just as I’d like the Sailors with whom I serve to see “Request” chits as a communications vehicle used to share “Intentions” and enhance the situational awareness of the chain of command, and not as a tool that promotes submissive behavior. Truth is, some of the things for which the Navy forces grown men and women to ask permission is insulting. And to those of us continually looking up the chain for guidance, please consider giving ourselves the permission necessary to truly execute our individual charter and make the most of our existing platform.