Friday, June 10, 2011

Opportunity, Mentorship and...

Each week we welcome new Sailors to our command, and I am impressed by each addition. Monthly, I get the opportunity to meet with the newest Information Warfare Officers to join our community. The high quality of person we continue to attract to our specific line of work within the Navy ceased to amaze me long ago. Though an infrequent event, last week I had the privilege of chairing three Seaman-to-Admiral Boards and was once again impressed by the caliber of Sailor pursuing the personal evolution from enlisted Sailor to Officer. The word evolution might imply to some that an Officer is somehow better than an enlisted Sailor, which is not the case at all. From a pure capability and potential standpoint, the differences between our officer and enlisted ranks continues to blur (at least in the Information Warfare and Cryptologic Community). As I personally witness such convergence, I got to thinking about why one person becomes an Information Warfare Officer Ensign and another a Cryptologic Technician or Intelligence Specialist Seaman. Furthermore, what makes the enlisted Sailor shift gears and decide to pursue a commission?

There was a time when I would simply answer the Ensign benefited from additional opportunity and mentorship. Opportunity from the standpoint that they had the resources to make the bachelors degree required by the military for direct accession into the officer ranks a reality. Mentorship because they had parents/mentors to guide them through the process of starting life after high school. I still believe opportunity and mentorship to be what largely influences our initial transition into adulthood, but the most important element is missing...desired employment. I say most important because the other two in isolation imply that those who choose to enlist didn't benefit from opportunity and mentorship, which in many cases is absolutely false. It also implies that given the choice everyone would choose to be an officer...another falsehood.

I became very aware of the important role desired employment plays in the decision during my Executive Officer tour. I take great pride in reaching out to talented young Sailors who I believe would make great officers. Back in 2001, I took one particular Seaman aside to tell him about the Naval Academy, why I thought he would enjoy much success there, and that he would make a great officer. After listening to what I had to say, he responded with what amounted to thanks, but no thanks. He politely told me he loved what he was doing and wanted to contribute in specific ways while enjoying certain experiences only available to enlisted Sailors. He respected the role of officers, but did not want to be one. That same (not quite as) young man is currently a Chief serving at the White House and recently approached me about migrating to our wardroom. If he is commissioned, he will have done it by choice after he experienced and contributed to his satisfaction as a rightfully proud member of the enlisted ranks; not because his XO attempted to lure him before he accomplished his rather specific professional objectives.

In my specific line of work, I have every reason to believe that many of our enlisted Sailors would make great officers. I refrain from encouraging them to make the transition because of the lessons I learned through previous "cherry-picking" efforts. I also admit that our most technically proficient Sailors would be wasted talent in our wardroom of today (another discussion at another time). Those who migrate to our wardroom should be doing so because they want to alter their employment, they want to lead larger teams, and they want to grow in ways not already afforded them. Many people are lured by the increased authorities, privileges and pay of a Naval Officer...don't be fooled! Yes, we are paid more, return more salutes than we initiate, and have more authority (generally speaking), but our employment and resulting contributions are what makes us different, no more or less important.

As I consider the Sailors who proudly choose to stay members of our enlisted ranks, I recognize they, too, are taught to enhance their administrative skills and seek out additional collateral duties if they want to promote to Chief Petty Officer and beyond; all along pulling them away from fully developing and leveraging their rating specific technical expertise. There is virtually no way for Sailors most passionate about their technical roles to be appropriately employed, promoted, and monetarily compensated over the course of a career. In the traditional "move up or move out" military model, those who are employed as technical experts are rarely promoted to Chief and beyond; those who are promoted are asked to make administrivia the priority and leave the doing to juniors; and those who see no way out of the cycle are lured by the disparate compensation offered by the civilian world.

In essence, we are quick to create and grow technical expertise, only to make it clear that upward mobility has more to do with administration disguised as leadership than it does mastery of designator/rating specific core competencies. Truth is, we need our Chief Petty Officers to be technical experts who operationally lead, and our Officers to be operational leaders who are technical experts.

At his point, I have veered off-course a bit. However, since I am here, I will conclude by sharing my sincere hope that we commit to making Chief Petty Officer the pinnacle of technical expertise and giving our technical experts every reason to want to become part of our valued "Goat Locker" (some of our best would rather not promote in favor of staying technically focused). At the same time, we must openly acknowledge the primary difference between officers and enlisted Sailors is our respective employment, not our intellect or potential. Lastly, we must admit that in many cases, upon commissioning, we are moving someone away from both their strengths and passions while we think we are doing both them and the Navy a favor. I know more than a few cases of commissioning remorse.


  1. Sean, I'm glad you veered off-course - the 2nd-to-last paragraph hits the nail on the head for me. We don't have a structure in place to reward technical expertise via rank, pay, or other incentives, and by ignoring that gap we create an easy path for some unique, hard to replace skills and people, to move right out of the Navy.

    When I imagine how I'd fix it if I were in charge (ph33r m3!), I hope for a system analogous to the British Navy, or our own Nuke power program, which in the first case provides separate, rewarding career paths for pure technicians (enlisted and officers), and in the second case creates powerful economic and cultural incentives for people to remain technical experts at the same time they become leaders.

    From a selfish, personal perspective, I wish there had been a warrant-like path for officers who wish to focus on technical expertise as well as leadership - now, as when I was commissioned, if you start as an O1, there's no way off the track but up or out - there's no path over to a CWO track.

    But your general point, about there being distinct values in the enlisted path and the officer one, is something that I can't emphasize enough. I've sometimes felt oddly let down by sailors wanting to leave the enlisted ranks for the wardroom - there's so much potential within the white hat community and the goat locker to accomplish things that can't be achieved as an O-ganger. And I fear that some people's flawed perception that "higher rank = better" means they follow a path dictated by their own pride rather than a path towards a job which will use their skills to the fullest, and possibly provide the most satisfaction.

  2. We need to be sure, when we interview Sailors who think they want to become commissioned officers, that we grill them (in the best sense of the word) about their motivations, life plans, personal situation, professional goals, etc. I also offer to have them shadow me for a day or two to see what it's "really" like to be an O-ganger. We owe it to them and the Navy to ensure they understand, as good as possible, what it is they think they want.

    Like Hexsaw, I wish there had been a way to become a CWO after commissioning.