Friday, May 11, 2012

To All of the New Admirals

This is to all those who were listed on the message the Navy released yesterday: the list of captains selected for promotion to Rear Admiral.  (For those who may not know, each of the services have a very deliberate selection process for promotion, and the results are provided by a list that is made public once each year.)

First, congratulations, you have just been selected to enter into a very select group.  Bravo Zulu.  (Well Done in flag signals, for those who weren’t in the Navy.)

Second, there are a number of things that you will now be told, expectations that the ‘big kids’ (the 3 and 4 star officers) will insist upon.  Fine.  In the language of the day – whatever.  Because there are a few things no one will say to you, and you probably ought to hear them.  Here is the list of 20 other things you as leaders need to do:

One: the services in fact exist for one thing: to care and feed four star and three star officers.  Everything else is window dressing; ornate, very complicated theater that is staged for the benefit of the ‘paying audience’ (Congress).  Imagine a massive Kabuki theater – you are now a bit actor on the stage.  You can go along with the stage direction in the hope of getting a better part (more stars), or you can try to serve the Navy outside of Washington and most importantly try to serve the nation.  Unfortunately, most of you will choose working for a better stage part – fact.  So, accept that you can do one or the other, but you can’t really do both. 

Two: the 3 and 4 stars (hereinafter referred to as Big Kids) will speak about loyalty.  Reread your oath of office and maybe take a look at the writing inside your wedding ring.  You owe loyalty to the Constitution and the Nation it directs, and you owe loyalty to your spouse and kids.  You also owe loyalty to the kids who make up the bulk of the Navy (and the Army, Air Force, and Marines).  What you really owe to the Big Kids is honesty.  The Big Kids will not, for the most part (and despite what they say), see things that way.  You need to remember it when speaking with those who work for you: loyalty flows down, honesty up.  So, insist on honesty from your people, and promise that you will be loyal to them.  And be honest with your bosses.

Three: nearly every officer junior to you will NOT tell you the unvarnished truth, no matter that you publish it in your ‘standing orders’ or Plan of the Day, etc.  If you didn’t notice, when you made captain a wall went up between you and the rest of the Navy.  It is now taller (much taller) and wider (much wider).  You will need to work really hard to find out what is on the other side of that wall.

Four: captains who want to make admiral – and that is most of them – will be the most difficult of the people working for you.  As one Marine General said: ‘I hate colonels; I hated myself when I was a colonel.’  The desire to make rank is poisonous and it reaches a crescendo when you are a captain.  (There is another, even ‘noisier’ crescendo in the flag ranks, but you don’t need to worry about that right now.) You must work around your captains until you have beaten them into shape and can trust them.  Even if you think you knew them, don’t trust them yet.

Five: look at yourself in the mirror in your underwear - regularly.  See: still human, just older.  You are NEITHER the best NOR the brightest officers in the Navy.  What you are are the ones who best fit the picture Big Navy is trying to paint of what admirals should look like so they can get the most funding.  The real best and brightest never make admiral – and you know that that is true (most of them don’t make captain.)

Six: There is a saw that is often quoted in Washington that goes “When you are explaining, you’re losing.”  Try to forget it.  Explaining is what you should be doing – all day long.  The number of people who really understand what the military does, and what the Navy does, is woefully small.  Talk to them, take the time to explain to them – in detail. 

Seven: Talk to the troops.  A lot.  More than that.  In 33 years of leading or trying to lead, of watching leaders, and of watching would-be leaders, and thinking about it a great deal over the last 5 years, I have identified exactly one (1) leader who communicated enough.  He was a Mustang who made commander.  He was probably the best officer I ever worked with on the whole, and I have worked with some stellar folks.  So, get up from the desk, walk around and talk to the troops – every day.  If you are ever lucky enough to command a large task group, spend time walking around and talking to the troops – every day.  Walk the piers, visit the ships and the squadrons in their hangars, find the kids coming off of guard duty, visit the galley.  Talk to them, tell them why we are here, what we are doing, why it is important.  Spend real time with them.  Listen to them.  This is your real job.

Eight: Write the fitness reports and evaluations of the folks who work for you – really.  DO NOT let people write their own, and don’t let someone write them for you.  Both are terrible forms of cheating on your job.  Get inputs from them, sure, but YOU write them.  It is the single most important thing you do.  Be honest, but take care of them.  The system is imperfect, but don’t use that as an excuse.  Spend time, and debrief in person and do it ON TIME.  People are the most important thing any organization has (even though the Big Kids don’t really believe this – they just say it).  If you don’t think so, take all the people off a ship and look at what you have left: a rusting hunk of lifeless steel.

Nine: Write your own speeches.  Never written and given a real speech before?  Well, spend some time and write one.  If you are saying it, make it mean something.  Your words are how you will be remembered by most of the people who you meet.  Make them YOUR words.  What YOU say and how much it means to you will make much more of an impact then a perfectly worded speech that you don’t really believe.

Ten: Stay in shape.  Work out every day.  Make your people work out every day.  Kick them out of the office.  Let them leave.  Don’t send a piece of paper or a brief back to someone at 0930 and say: “Let me see it at 1300.”  That would mean everyone in that office works through lunch – so no working out.  Set the example by leaving the office and let them follow you.

Eleven: Delegate.  Trust your watch-team.  If you can’t trust them, train them or fire them.  But don’t do their jobs.  You’re an admiral, act like one.

Twelve: Respect your uniform.  Too many flag officers want to dress in BDUs or flight suits.  They are comfortable and they give you the sense that you can still go have ‘fun.’  Remember, with a few exceptions, all the billets you will hold are desk jobs.  Yes, it is fun to put on the flight suit and go back to an old squadron, or put on the cammies and go back to Coronado.  But most of the people you will bump into are young sailors, who have never seen an admiral – that uniform has a great legacy and you owe it to them to wear it regularly and let them see it. 

Thirteen: You have an aide and a driver and a car.  Use them as little as is possible. If possible, ‘lose’ the car, and ‘throw away’ the keys.  The opportunity to do something atrociously stupid with the car, with per diem, with all that stuff is gigantic. Don’t be stupid.  Buy your own lunch (and spring for others every now and then).  Drive yourself wherever you go if you can.  Obviously, there will be times when you can’t – but there are fewer of those then it seems.  A very small amount of planning will eliminate most requirements for a driver or a car.  (One three star I know drove himself EVERYWHERE because he wanted to listen to his own music, have a smoke, and he used it as a way to get some privacy.)  As you get promoted you will get even more ‘bennies;’ be very careful with them – use them as little as possible.  The simple truth is that every time some admiral does something stupid with his aide or his sedan or whatever, we all look bad.  Remember, respect the Navy and respect the sailors – they will still be out there long after you are gone.

Fourteen: Pace your people and focus their efforts.  You are supposed to be a leader: lead.  Tell them what is important (communicate – see above), and also what can wait.  If folks are getting to work at 0530 and working until 2000 every day then something is wrong – and it probably begins at your desk.  There is always more to do and there is always someone willing to stay late to impress the boss.  The simple truth is that there are enough crises that everyone is going to get ‘the blood squeezed out of them’ regularly.  There is no reason to do so as SOP.  When you are ashore set up reasonable work hours.  Even if you insist on 50 hour work weeks you will still get 65 – 70 out of most of your people – that’s just who we all are.  And of course, when you are forward everyone does what they need to do.  But don’t ‘bleed’ folks for the sake of ‘bleeding’ them, and don’t let your deputy do it either.

Fifteen: Paperwork – try to eliminate it.  Are the reports and briefs and all that stuff really being read by anyone or are they being pushed around the staffs because the staffs need something to do?  Remember O’Brien’s Law: “Staff workload will increase a minimum of 50% every 18 months.”  This then becomes a justification for increasing the size of the staff.  Push back.  If in doubt, don’t send out the report or brief; see if anyone notices.  If no one notices, stop doing it.

Sixteen: Training – insist on it for all of your people.  Excellence comes from training.  Don’t let the routine workload get in the way of training.

Seventeen: Part of taking care of your people is letting them go to their next assignment.  Don’t keep someone on your staff for your sake when what they need is to go back to the real world. 

Eighteen: Don’t keep secrets.  The military is a world where lots of secrets that must be kept.  But as much as is possible, don’t keep secrets from your people.  Not only does it create a caste system, an ‘inner circle’ versus ‘the outsiders,’ it also tamps down creative thinking.  Good ideas come from all sorts of people and having more people involved in any given effort offers the potential for a much wider range of possibilities.  Inside your organization, tear down the boundaries and let everyone participate.

Nineteen: Find a few good chiefs and gunnies – the kind who aren’t terribly polished – and talk to them regularly.  Have a cup of coffee with them, share a cigar.  Get them comfortable to the point that they will start to tell you when you are making a mistake and especially when you are making an ass of yourself.

Twenty: Remember the Fleet.  By the fleet I mean the folks who are deployed, everyone who is forward or at sea.  They are the real Navy, not the folks walking around the Pentagon or Crystal City.  Field Marshall Slim, when he was the CG of a division in Burma in 1942, made it a rule that whenever one of his battalions was on half rations because supplies weren’t getting through, then HQ would be on half rations.  He only had to do that a couple of time, then no one was ever again on half rations.  Remember that the next time you see money being spent on REMFs.  The next time someone wants to build a new building in Washington – harrumph.  They don’t need it as much as the EOD guys need new gear or trucks or the a DDG in Mayport needs more maintenance.  The immediate response from the Washington DC wonks will be “Different pots of money.”  It is at this point that you need to scream bloody murder and threaten bodily harm.  The ‘different pot of money theorem’ has been used for generations to avoid hard choices and allow pandering to this or that group.  It may be hard, but it can be done. 

There is more, but this is a good start.  You will soon get a speech that as an admiral you have to give more to the Navy, but what the Big Kids mean is the world of 3 and 4 stars.  In fact, it is now time for you to go all in, to fight for the real Navy and the nation’s interests with those in Washington who are going to try to preserve business as usual.  Remember when you were a brand new lieutenant and you were sitting around with a bunch of other lieutenants and you were bitching about everything that was wrong and what you would do to fix it?  It’s time – fix it.


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