Congratulations! You have done it. That final monkey has just been dislodged from your back. What has felt like years of never-ending qualifications, stress, and pressure is finally over. You are a qualified engineer. So now what?

It is time to move beyond survival mode and use your remaining time onboard wisely. You now have the opportunity to learn more about yourself, your job, and your people than at any previous point in your career. Here are a few recommendations:
  • Read. Take a few books on your next underway. The CNO’s Reading List or The Leadership Bookshelf from Adm. Stavridis are good starting points. Start with some submarine classics like Tuohy’s The Bravest Man or Anderson’s The Ice Diaries. Other topics: Thinking Fast and Slow, Legacy, The Fleet at Flood Tide, Peak, or The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error. Take advantage of the Navy’s free e-library to load up your e-reader and consider subscribing to the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings.
  • Journal. Capture leadership lessons in a professional journal. I am not talking about something you need to write in every day or something detailed enough to write a chapter in Fluckey’s Thunder Below or a Tom Clancy novel. I’m talking about experiences and lessons you may want to revisit and scars you will never want to forget.
  • Pick your leaders’ brains. Talk to your leadership about how they make decisions. After a key event, allow an appropriate amount of time and ask them how they dealt with it. How did they craft the email to the commodore? How did they make the risk assessment for the watchbill? How did they generate guidance to achieve their desired effect?
  • Learn how to handle bad news well. The way you handle bad news is a shaping moment for you as a leader. Those interactions play a large role in how transparent your Sailors are and how likely they are to approach you the next time. You can still have high standards for what and how information is presented, but keep any anger and frustration at bay.
  • Define and foster trust. Unpack the elements of trust: character and competency. It is no coincidence that the CNO’s recently published Navy Leader Development Framework (Version 2.0) focuses on developing both. Your job as a leader is to build both of these in yourself, your fellow officers, and your Sailors.
  • Learn the department heads’ jobs. Start with the one you know the least about. Maybe you have been stuck as #CRA4LIFE. Go spend time in Radio during comms, qualify to assist in a weapons load, audit a program, or volunteer to plan the next major event. Get uncomfortable.
  • Print out a Command Qual card. It will continue to keep you challenged by looking for opportunities to learn, and frankly, your interest will likely motivate the department heads to get moving on their own command quals.
  • Become an expert. “Expert in what?” you might ask – people. Learn how to read people, particularly how to spot their talents and weaknesses. Learn to ask the right questions. It will be your job to help balance the team.
  • Lead more training. Challenge yourself to learn to teach effectively. Struggle with how to keep your Sailors engaged and assist the department heads in determining if what you presented actually stuck in the Sailors’ brains.
  • Take the time to go see the broken widget. There is so much pride that goes into successful troubleshooting. When the fried card, busted O-ring, or worn out valve stem finally makes its way into the light, take the time to go see it. You will learn more about the components/system involved, and the Sailors want to share their successes.
  • Peer leadership. Help shape the wardroom you want by training and mentoring junior officers. Build camaraderie, assist in writing watchbills, and coordinate team-building events.
  • Humility. Embrace and learn the power of humility. In this line of work, we live and die by feedback. Be humble enough to learn from your mistakes. We expect this from our people, and we lose credibility if we cannot do it ourselves. Being unresponsive to feedback is a slippery slope to failure.

This is not a time to atrophy, but a time to get stronger. It is about stretching, failing, learning, and growing. The weight of qualifications is off your shoulders, which means you can run faster than you ever have before. The day you walk off your ship you need to be ready to be a department head, regardless of your future plans. People frequently change their minds on a shore tour. Give yourself options. What do you have to lose?

All your life it has been about your grades, your accomplishments, your class standing, your qualifications, you, you, you. You are starting one of the biggest transitions of your career where life no longer revolves around you and your individual performance. In your next step, your individual performance will no longer be the key to your success. From now on, you will be judged on your team’s performance. That, my future department heads, is a tough switch to flip.

Lt. Cmdr. Kelvington recently completed his tour with OPNAV N97 as the Columbia Class SSBN Requirements Officer and has commenced the PXO pipeline. Check out his article at USNI.org titled, “Check Your Ego at the Hatch,” wherein he describes lessons learned from his department head tour.