USS Harpers Ferry
"First In Freedom"
Voices From the Fleet
II Lessons We Learned From the US Navy "Leaders To Sea" Program

We just completed a day at sea on the USS Harpers Ferry as part of the US Navy Leaders To Sea program.

The Leaders to Sea program is sponsored by the Commander of the Naval Surface Forces and is designed to provide influential community leaders, educators, and business/industry executives with insight into the daily operations of a Navy ship at sea. The goal is to increase awareness of the leadership development and career opportunities that the Navy provides, to provide a view into life in the Navy, and to build advocates for the Navy within the civilian world.

The adventure begins … We arrived at the US Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California at 5:45AM and shortly thereafter embarked on the Admiral’s Barge for a tour of the San Diego Bay and the water front of Naval base San Diego where we learned about the different Navy vessels (aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, missile destroyers, etc.). Captain Chris Engdahl, Chief of Staff for the Commander of the Naval Surface Force, US Pacific Fleet, passionately described the differences amongst all the ships and shared insights and experiences from his Navy career. Next, we boarded a Navy SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter for the 40-minute flight over the Pacific Ocean to the USS Harpers Ferry. Under the leadership of CO Gervy Alota, XO Horst Sollfrank, and CMC Vince Vanterpool, along with many of the other Sailors aboard the ship, we were enthusiastically welcomed onto the flight deck.

The USS Harpers Ferry is currently conducting military exercises as part of RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) which is the world’s largest international maritime exercise. RIMPAC exercises, which are being completed between June 27 and August 2, include participants from twenty-five nations, 46 ships, five submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel.

We spent a full day on the ship learning, observing, talking, and listening, then ended our day with a return flight back to the Naval Air Station North Island. We gleaned a number of leadership concepts from the experience – here are 11 things we learned and 11 thoughts to consider:

1. ACRONYMS AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Anyone who works at a big company will tell you that we can often get caught up using so many acronyms that it sounds like a foreign language to outsiders. We learned that the Navy is no different, and frankly, use more acronyms than most. Like many corporate leadership teams, there is a trusted triad that works most closely together to ensure the strategy, the operations and the delivery are all executed perfectly. We translated this as the Commanding Officer, the CO, is the CEO with overall responsibility for strategy and vision. The buck stops with him. The Executive Officer, the XO, is the COO responsible for all day-to-day operations. The Command Master Chief, the CMC, is the CHRO and represents the voice of all the enlisted sailors on the ship. Thought to Consider: Regardless of what you call them, who is part of your trusted team … who is that go-to group you trust to make things happen?


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2. CULTURE FUELS PERFORMANCE. The culture on the ship we visited was infectious. From the moment we landed, there was a positive energy that we felt from every person with whom we interacted. As we exited the Sea Hawk and looked up, the decks were filled with Sailors welcoming us onboard. Enlisted Sailors, junior officers, and officers all spoke of their drive to “win” and defined winning as getting the job to which they were assigned done well. The vibe, the energy, the drive on this ship that currently has 600 people living onboard was incredible. And it starts with the point leader – more on that in a moment. Thought to Consider: How would others describe the culture in your organization … and is it what you want it to be? How do you (or do you) prioritize culture investments?

3. CULTURE STARTS AT THE TOP. Interestingly, we learned that the culture on this ship wasn’t always as we described it above. In fact, until just recently, the culture on the ship was very different. I asked several of the Sailors to describe the former environment and the response was summed up in mistrust and micromanagement. One person said, “I hated my job and had no passion to go above and beyond what was expected … and all of that has changed now.” Another stated, that people would “hide” to avoid being singled out. What changed? Leadership. The CO and the XO are both new to this ship and in just a few months have been able to improve morale immensely – and thus productivity and performance. Thought to Consider: What does your leadership style say about how you view your culture … and is it observable to others?

4. THE VALUE OF HAVING A MENTOR. In addition to being the voice of the enlisted Sailors, the CMC also serves as the “right hand person/voice of reason/sounding board” to the CO. As the most senior enlisted person on the ship, his role is to push back, provide advice, listen to and coach the CO … without any risk to his career progression or pay grade. No ramifications. No fear. Think of the value as a leader in having this kind of partner at your side. On the other hand, think of the leaders who are scared of this kind of person because they believe they need to have all the answers. In fact, we discussed naval mishaps and one of the primary reasons they happen, and one of the primary failure points is when everyone assumes that the captain knows best and fails to challenge or ask a question. Thoughts to Consider: Who have you let in to mentor, coach and advise you … with honesty, transparent dialogue, and no chance of repercussions?

5. B WITH A DOT! Both the CO and the XO spoke to us about their bias towards asking their officers and Sailors where they want to go, what they want to be, and what they are doing to get there. In fact, this idea is so important to the CO that he has incorporated it into his leadership motto which is “Win Everyday – B GREAT.” What you don’t see written here (but you can see in the photo) is that when he writes this, there is a dot over the B. As CO Alota explains, the ‘dot’ is where you are today, and the ‘B’ stands for where you want to be. If you don’t know where you want to be or what you want to be, how are you going to get there? Thought to Consider: If you look at where your ‘dot’ is today, are you able to clearly articulate your ‘B’ … better yet, are you encouraging your team to think about where they want to be?

6. G.R.E.A.T. The second part of the CO’s ‘B Great’ mantra is meaningful, as well. To CO Alota, GREAT is an acronym (another one!) representing his view of what great leaders do. He strives to make sure all decisions he makes and the way he leads falls within his G.R.E.A.T. framework which means he sets goals, demonstrates resilience, expects excellence, believes in the power of a great attitude, and drives positive teamwork. Thought to Consider: What are you doing to ensure GREATness in your unique leadership style … and how does that manifest with your teams?

7. DIVERSITY OF PERSPECTIVE DRIVES COLLABORATION. Our observation was that the entire crew was engaged and aligned on successfully completing their mission. While we frequently see silos within corporate America each vying for resources or opportunities for their own individual wins, this was not the case on this ship. Everyone knows what the “win” is and how their role plays into that success – the vision and literal mission are defined, understood, and are part of the fabric of the daily routine. The crew was diverse in every sense (age, ethnicity, gender, education, socioeconomic status, etc.). It was truly a melting pot, and yet everyone was working towards that common goal. In fact, what made this even more interesting, is that because they were onboard during a RIMPAC exercise, it was a multinational group and there were navy divers from Australia, England, Canada, and Norway also on the ship. We were able to speak with each of them, observe the collaboration and teamwork evident across nations, and sense their enthusiasm and passion for learning from one another. Thought to Consider: Are you truly valuing diversity of thought and truly engaging with those whom you collaborate … or do you harbor an inner competitiveness?

8. HARRY POTTER LIVES ON…EVEN AT SEA! Monique is late, really late, to reading the Harry Potter series. In fact, she literally started reading them this summer in response to a bet with our son who loved reading them as a kid. Fortunately, this means she no longer looks completely ignorant when people start talking about Muggles, or Slytherins, or Dumbeldore. That helped yesterday when we learned that the Australians, who are actually the designers/owners of this particular RIMPAC exercise, built it around characters from the HP books (good buys vs. bad guys!). For once, my eyes didn’t glaze over when someone spoke about Voldemort. It just goes to show that you can always learn new things and you never know when some random thing you are learning will become immediately applicable (even on a Navy ship). Thoughts to Consider: What are you doing to ensure that you are continuously learning … especially with things that are outside of your comfort zone or typical learning path?

9. EVERYONE’S PATH IN LIFE IS UNIQUE. Far too often we are programmed to think that we need to go to “this” school and then get “this” job and then move to “this” city and marry “this” type of person and get involved with “this” organization and live life “this” way. We become stuck in the mode of “there is only one way that’s the right way.” The people we spoke with on the ship prove that there is no one right path, but rather that there are many different paths available that are all meaningful. We met individuals who enlisted in the Navy right out of high school; others right out of college; some went to the Naval Academy; others to college and were in ROTC. We met some who joined as officers and others who chose to apply to officer candidate school. We met some who have chosen breadth and who have intentionally rotated among many different types of ships or job functions, and others who chose depth to really understand specific functions of a single ship or work responsibility / role. The key differentiator is that each person chose the path that worked best for them in getting to the Navy. Thought to Consider: Are you charting your own course…or do you feel confined to follow the course that someone else/society created for you?

10. INDIVIDUALS ARE CAPABLE OF MORE. Many of the Sailors and officers we met were young. They were kids … in fact, many were the ages of our kids (18 and 20). And yet, the level of responsibility they are given and that they prove they can handle every single day is incredible. No one is babysitting these kids; no one is being a helicopter parent. They are told what needs to be done, and they are learning and applying. It served as a massive reminder to set high expectations and assume people will step into those responsibilities. Doing so builds pride and confidence. One of our favorite conversations was with a young woman who finished college as a theater design major just two years ago, then enlisted in the Navy. Here she was, at age 23 or 24, as the Officer on Deck (OOD) yesterday, essentially in charge of the Bridge and making sure the ship was on course. Another Sailor came up to us when he heard we were from his hometown of Atlanta. After graduating from Morehouse College with an economics degree, he enlisted in the Navy and now runs the engineering department. He said he didn’t realize he had an aptitude for engineering, but the Navy did and it taught him all he needed to know. Both of these examples show what is possible when we give people additional responsibilities and support them to learn more, be more, do more. The Navy has and continues to launch young people into careers built on a model of coaching, development, mentoring, on-the-job-training, reward and recognition. Thought to Consider: Is there anyone whose wings you are clipping … and perhaps unintentionally holding back?

11. CURIOSITY FUELS CONVERSATION. You never know what you might learn if you are curious and just ask questions. Prior to our day at sea, we knew very little about life on a naval ship. We didn’t worry about butchering words, asking dumb questions, or appearing to be the naïve civilian. Instead, we went all in trying to learn about the people onboard and how things work. What we learned was fascinating. “What’s your story?” is a great conversation-starter. “Why did you join the Navy?” “What’s been your biggest surprise? Disappointment?” “What have you learned?” “What do you aspire to be/do?” It’s a reminder that everyone has a story, everyone has a reason for doing what they do, and almost everyone likes to talk when the conversation is genuine. Monique learned that its customary on Navy ships to give “challenge coins” to recognize certain people. Monique was incredibly honored when one of the individuals onboard the ship presented her with a coin as she was preparing to get into the helicopter at the end of the day. The crew member told her how much he enjoyed their conversation. This was priceless, and the most amazing way to end this amazing day. Thought to Consider: Do you demonstrate genuine interest in your conversations with others … and truly listen to what they are saying?

In closing, whether it’s the Leaders to Sea program or any other, what are you doing to get outside of your bubble to learn about the community? Your industry? Other industries? How things work? Life is far more interesting when you pursue new experiences – new adventures. Get away from your laptop, your phone, your box, your bubble, and explore.

Thanks to the US Navy and the USS Harpers Ferry for hosting us on this amazing experience.Surface Warfare Magazine

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