Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Building morale

Steve Colbert takes some shots at the low morale among nuclear missile officers:

But it really does beg the question: how do you build morale when your job isn't something inherently sexy?

Much of what we do during the day isn't what you brag about to your civilian friends. Writing EVALs, signing leave chits, counseling sailors, and conducting SAPR stand downs suck the life out of people over time. Most people seem to get into a malaise, where they simply get by, watch by watch, day by day.

That's how it was on my submarine. Every day was draining, and I never really felt like a Naval Officer.

I got a chance to do something different though. I was nominated to fill a spot as a flag aide to a British Commodore stationed in the US. He was in charge of the Combined Joint Operations From The Sea - Centre of Excellence (CJOS-COE), a fancy title for a NATO think-tank co-located with the now-defunct Second Fleet. When Cdre Handley took over, the morale among our group of officers (mostly post-command Commanders from about 13 nations) wasn't the greatest. We were viewed as a good-will dumping ground for NATO officers who wanted a tour in the US.

I only had about 9 months as the aide, so I set about changing that in very small ways:

1. I worked the Cdre's calendar. He struggled with keeping meetings on time, and rather than fight him on how long he talked, I cut down our meetings and spaced them out. At first he wasn't too happy, but he saw how much more happened with less, so he stuck with it. The staff liked it too, because they felt the boss valued their time more.

2. I worked with the staff, and didn't wear my bosses rank. I was the "walker": I would walk around almost every morning and chat with our staff. Whether it was work related or not, I let them know that I cared and that the Commodore cared about what they were doing. Not only that, but the boss started having a coffee hour each week, where he hung out with everyone and relaxed.

3. We connected with everyone. I got my boss in to see anyone that would have him, and we made hundreds of connections. Not all of them paid off, but a whole bunch did, and the staff loved seeing their work being actively used throughout the Navy.

4. I made a personal connection with almost all the staff. I invited every officer to bring their family to my house for dinner. My family and I got to experience a little bit of their culture, and in return we had a chance to share a bit of American culture. It paid off in that when the inevitable friction of working together happened, we all trusted each other and got through it.

In the end, CJOS-COE was an awesome place to work when I left. It was the accumulation of the little things from everyone that made the difference in the end. I got a chance to contribute to making the place better, and it paid off.

Building morale is a long term project. Don't expect some quick project to make it better. It took the whole nine months for me at CJOS-COE. But in the end, it was worth it.