Friday, September 13, 2013

A CPO/LT success story

So today the Navy pins selected First Classes to Chiefs. While I wrote about this process last year, and this year, I realized that I never wrote about a CPO/DIVO success story. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it needs to be written.

(As she doesn't know I'm writing this, I'll simply call her Chief L. And I paraphrase a lot, the exact words said at the time have been lost to my foggy memory.)

I deployed as the OIC of a small flying detachment, and upon arrival I turned over OIC duties with a LTJG. She and I discussed our detachment issues, and one of her concerns was the deployed chief, who simply wasn't doing well by her accounts. I flew my next mission a few hours later, and within 24 hours I assumed responsibility for 15 cryptologic sailors (two officers, one chief, and a whole bunch of PO1 and PO2s).

The detachment was split between two crews, and we were often on opposite sleep schedules, so it was hard to gather the detachment together. I worked out a time so that I, my two officers, Chief L and the LPO could sit down once a week to discuss detachment issues. I immediately noticed that Chief L was left out of the picture on most decisions, and yet when she offered her ideas, they were often the right actions to take. For whatever reason, she had been shoved in a corner and not allowed to affect the decision making at the detachment. In fact, almost all questions came directly to me, without filtering through anyone. While I realize that the Navy is a glorified dictatorship, I didn't like cutting out the experience of my LPO and CPO on detachment issues.

In order to fix this, I started by moving people around so that Chief L was on my flight schedule. She and I, despite being almost opposite in appearance (I'm almost one foot taller than her) and demeanor, clicked immediately. We had a few long talks about where we should take the detachment, what decisions she should be making vs. myself, and how we wanted to work out differences. I let her know that if she ever disagreed with me, to simply let me know in private and that I would always hear her out.

It didn't take long before that happened. I picked a new LPO (ours was leaving soon on a regularly scheduled rotation) without talking to anyone and announced it to the crew at quarters. Right after, Chief L grabbed me and pulled me into my room.

"Sir, you're making a big mistake. You picked PO X, but really PO Y is better. You need to reconsider your decision."

I thought about it, looked at my two officers (who both shook their heads in agreement) and said

"You're right Chief. I'll tell the crew. That's my mistake, and I'll own up to it."

And I did. I walked out, said I had made a mistake with not taking all things into consideration, and changed my decision on the spot.

After that day, I remember that Chief L always had my back. Always. It really was odd, because on my submarine, I had managed to get an EMC that got me into three maintenance critiques (nearly killing a few sailors), a TMC that rarely turned paperwork in on time, and a LELT that later was fired for filing fraudulent records. I never truly trusted my subordinate supervisor because I had gotten screwed so often before.

At least once, when I moved the detachment to a new online system for sharing mission reports, I overheard one sailor complaining about the new system, and listened in as Chief L defended my position and supported the new system's use. I was in another room, so she likely didn't know I was listening. She didn't have to defend me...she could have complained like most the sailors did at first (the new system gave us more time off, at the expense of a learning curve), but she chose to defend my decision even when it may have been politically expedient not to. I used to struggle to understand why loyalty was listed on the E7 precepts, but I didn't after that day.

That loyalty made me work twice as hard to be the best OIC I could for her. I spent the extra time showing her everything I knew on technology, which was one of my strong points, so that she became an expert on how to share our mission reports. I brought her in on all discussions I had with outside leadership. I did everything possible to make her as good as I was at the different technological solutions we used for mission reports. Not only did it make her better and more efficient, but the sailors began to go to her, instead of me, for answers, which boosted her authority in the detachment.

After about a month, the detachment was doing great. Mission execution was up, healthy competition existed between crews on who could be the best, and Chief L was completely in her element as the detachment chief. She and I set a local record for mission reports in one flight, and we were pioneering new ways to do our job better. Nothing came to me without going through her, and mission accomplishment and morale climbed. Both of us fed off of each others knowledge, getting better every day.

Then disaster least for me.

While we were coming in to land, some idiot near the airport pointed a green laser pointer at our plane. One of my operators noticed it and immediately notified me, so I told the whole crew not to look out the lased side. Unfortunately, both my operator and one other crew member had to be examined for possible retina damage (luckily there was none).

I was furious. What jackass points a laser pointer at a military aircraft? I posted about it on Facebook.

Bad idea.

It reached my Commanding Officer quickly, and I was told to arrange a VTC to "chat" with him.

I was devastated. Here I am, on the up and up, everything going well, and as far as I knew it, I was going to get fired for a stupid Facebook post.

The time difference meant I got to wait five agonizing hours before the VTC with my Captain. I went to the cafeteria to eat lunch alone, wallowing in my own misery of being a complete moron while I munched on my salad. Chief L came and sat across from me and refused to let me wallow.

"Sir, you and I both know you made an honest mistake. Heck, I could have done the same thing. The CO isn't going to fire you. Just own up to it and move on."

I was unconvinced, but she wouldn't let up. She simply refused to let me sit there and mope. Between a combination of humor and therapy, she got me back on my feet. I didn't get fired, I owned up to making a mistake, and we continued to lead the detachment together.

I realize that to the outsider, getting scolded by the CO probably seems minor, but it's a big deal from the Junior Officer's perspective, because unlike most enlisted personnel, the CO signs your FITREP, calls you by your first name, sees you at regular wardroom functions, and can administratively end your Naval career very quickly with a simple pen stroke. Even for a guy like myself used to working with Flag Officers, angering your Commanding Officer enough to call you to the carpet via VTC is frightening.

Chief L didn't have to support me during that time. She could have waited on the side lines to see what would happen. Who could blame her? For all she knew, I'd be gone and a new LT would be out in a few days. She didn't have to be loyal to me at all...and yet when I was pushed down fairly low, she refused to abandon me.

I'll never forget talking to her afterwards about the VTC, and feeling relieved that I still had a job and could continue to move forward with our detachment.

We spent about 4.5 months together, and I learned a ton about small group leadership. All the things I should have learned on my submarine I learned on my air deployment, and Chief L was instrumental in teaching me how to lead and inspire our sailors. She wasn't perfect by any means, but between the two of us, we always came up with the right answer and our detachment's performance showed it. I know she picked up new ideas from me, and the exchange of ideas made both of us stronger, and helped make our sailors stronger too.

Near the end of the deployment, the ground crew notified me that the plane was returning with some equipment issues, and the mission commander wanted me to meet them on the ground. I agreed, but I laughed after hanging up the phone because I knew that my equipment knowledge was not nearly as good as Chief L's. I called her, and we both put on flight suits and walked out to the aircraft. I couldn't help but notice that we resembled a Top Gun scene: flight suits, sunglasses, perfect weather, and us walking in step down the tarmac to go and save the day. It still brings a smile to my face today.

THAT is what a good Chief/Officer relationship should be. It doesn't mean you're the best...Maverick wasn't the best at the Top Gun school, but you couldn't pick a better wingman. It certainly doesn't mean you get along on every issue.

It does mean you trust each other, and that trust is based on a mutual respect that difficult circumstances cannot break. It means that you push to excel at your job, not because of your rank, but because you owe it to your fellow Sailors, above and below you on the chain of command, to be the best. It means that you and your chief meld together, minimizing your weaknesses and amplifying your strengths, so that together you provide more for your sailors and your mission than you could alone. It means that when you sit and reflect on what you accomplished as a team, you realize that both you and your chief truly kicked butt, and had a great time doing so.

I've seen too many extremes: commands where the officers run roughshod over the Chief's Mess and vice versa, and neither outcome is pretty. We need the strong officers to lead our Navy into the future, and we need a strong Chief's Mess to back them up with the technical expertise. One without the other makes us weaker in the end, and for either to become a means unto itself is deleterious to our Navy core values. We don't emphasize the teamwork aspect enough, and we often focus on division. Looking at the image I sent to CDR Heritage's blog, I realize that the slash between the Chief's Anchor and Officer bars is not an accurate representation of what should be, and that a plus sign would have been better. True excellence can only be achieved through mutual respect and teamwork.

You know a good DIVO/DIVC team when you see it...and seeing it will always make you smile.