Second Co-Honorable Mention: Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Contest
The solution to retention woes lies in the hands of commanding officers. Their charisma, authority, and power of persuasion can convince sailors and officers to stay Navy.
The Navy has been faced with a personnel crisis as officers and sailors alike have decided to leave, citing low pay, outside job opportunities, reduced benefits, and heavy in-port workloads. In an attempt to retain people, senior leaders have developed bonus plans and offered monetary incentives. They have organized working groups and symposiums for surface warfare officers to develop their own answers to the growing problem. They have evaluated homesteading and implemented shipboard e-mail to improve quality of life for sailors and their families. Although many of these initiatives have managed to keep more people in uniform, it is uncertain whether they have solved the problem or just masked the real issue.
Despite their attempts, Navy leaders largely have ignored the issue that has forced many to leave the ranks: poor leadership. The October 1998 Proceedings article "Listen to the JOs" cited lack of confidence in leadership as a primary reason junior officers elected to trade their khakis for suits and ties. That same year, in a nonscientific study conducted by Navy Times, 36% of enlisted respondents and 50% of commissioned respondents ranked loss of confidence in leadership as the number one or number two reason for getting out of the Navy. Leadership at the command level, or lack thereof, is a significant influence on a person's decision to stay in or leave the military. Consequently, the person who often has the most influence in a unit is the commanding officer.
Some commanding officers, however, fail to see eye-to-eye with this theory. Some believe the responsibility to influence subordinates toward a naval career should be left to department heads, division officers, and chiefs. Others feel powerless to sway the decision of a sailor or junior officer who, in their opinion, already has made the choice to leave. Still others feel policymakers at the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill are the only ones who can address the retention problem adequately. As a result, many fail to use their leadership skills to influence their troops to consider the Navy a career or to change perceptions about the naval service. A commanding officer may not be able to give a sailor a pay increase, alter the deployment schedule, or shorten the length of a tour, but he or she is responsible for influencing and persuading subordinates that the naval service is a worthy profession and career.
Many large corporations have been extremely successful at retaining personnel, whether in the boardroom or on the assembly line. Their employees have been able to visualize their entire careers at the same company. Corporations shape and groom junior executives to become future chief executive officers and senior vice presidents.
In contrast, the Navy does not mold its junior officers to become captains and admirals or, at minimum, to seek and desire command. It does not encourage its seamen to become master chief petty officers. Today's junior personnel work in an environment that subtly encourages a short-term attitude. Faced with such phrases as "This community eats its young," junior officers become discouraged and refuse to seek any upward mobility in their warfare specialties. Those in the ensign to lieutenant ranks are rarely, if ever, heard to say, "Well, when I become a captain. . ." because that mind-set is not supported within the military culture or encouraged by their chains of command. With commissions and enlistments offered in four- to six-year packages, officers and sailors subconsciously develop career plans that will take them to the end of their initial commitments instead of to the end of 20-year careers. Compared to the time and effort invested in transforming high-school graduates into productive members of the fleet, there are virtually no programs or measures in place to keep them.
Many commanding officers have done little to counter that short-term mentality. Those who do counsel their subordinates on career choices have a difficult time convincing their people that service to one's country is worthwhile. Many have resigned themselves to the fact that people still will leave the naval service, no matter what they do or say. With a defeatist attitude, one commander described his efforts in carefully chosen words: "I present both options: the benefits of the Navy and the benefits of the civilian world, but in the end I leave the choice up to the individual. I can't compete with civilian corporations." Sadly, today's leaders not only have given up on the naval service, they have given up on its future.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial for commanding officers to be mentors. Instead of taking for granted that subordinates will leave the Navy at the end of their obligated service, they should assume people will stay. The second-class petty officer or ensign who is encouraged to remain on active duty by his superiors will find it difficult to leave. By offering statements such as, "You will make a good chief someday," or "Ensign, we need to sit down and talk about your career path," commanding officers can make the difference.
Commanding officers also need to make a better effort at reinforcing the positive aspects of the naval service on a daily basis. In some respects, they must become salesmen who are able to give an aggressive Navy sales pitch to their own people. They must point out the benefits of military life, such as free workout facilities and guaranteed housing. They must sell subordinates on the idea that the Navy is the only organization that can guarantee that recent high-school or college graduate an "office with a view."
Finally, commanding officers need to be creative. If they are unable to convince personnel, whether in the wardroom or in the first class mess, that the naval service is a rewarding and gratifying career, they need to find someone who can. With a booming economy and no common enemy, the Navy may be fighting its toughest battles against corporate America. Its leaders need to develop the right tactics to win.
Civilian organizations often organize career fairs for personnel about to leave the military. To compete on the same level, it might be beneficial for a commanding officer to work with the career counselor to arrange a "Retention Fair" for the entire ship or squadron. Guest speakers who are able to address the negative aspects of civilian life may cause sailors and officers to think twice about jumping ship. The pilot who traded his wings of gold for a union contract with Southwest may be more effective in pointing out the negative aspects of commercial aviation, such as undesirable routes, boring flight paths, and lonely hours spent in an airline terminal. A computer programmer may be able to convince the squadron automatic data processing specialist that there is nothing glamorous about working in a crammed cubicle or spending a majority of her paycheck on rent, work clothes, health care, and an expensive gym membership. In the end, many may get the message that a bigger paycheck does not necessarily mean a better lifestyle.
A servicemember's decision to stay in or leave the Navy also is influenced by his or her spouse. With more married personnel, deployments and workups inevitably place a strain on a greater number of marriages. A new set of orders often forces spouses to find new jobs as well. Individuals who want to remain in the Navy often meet with resistance as more and more spouses no longer find it romantic to follow their man (or woman) around the world to live in exotic locations. With fewer spouses willing to move, some choose to give up the career in uniform rather than spend a year or two in an unaccompanied billet overseas.
Commanding officers need to rethink their strategies and take family members and significant others into consideration when discussing career options with subordinates. By attending a spouses' club meeting, they may gain insight into some of the real concerns behind retention. By exercising their rank and power, they can negotiate with local bases to give more jobs to spouses and can work with detailers on the behalf of those with unique family or career situations.
Camaraderie, job satisfaction, and teamwork are supposed to be the basic principles that attract people to join the military. In the past decade, however, it has been the lack of these elements that has influenced many to depart. It is not surprising that the men and women in today's Navy do not aspire to become tomorrow's leaders. They have observed their superiors staying late, working hard, getting little sleep, and ultimately experiencing little fulfillment from their accomplishments. Similarly, sailors have faced long hours during in-port periods, additional responsibilities, added schools to attend, and more qualifications to maintain. Not only is a sense of accomplishment missing from their daily jobs, but they have determined that they would rather spend their limited personal time with families and loved ones than with their shipmates. In many cases, going to sea for a six-month deployment has provided a relief to the long hours in port. Simply put, a job in the military no longer is fun.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Tailhook Convention, the military managed to rid its culture of the unique events, traditions, and experiences that helped its sailors and officers to bond. Squadron wardrooms that once spent Saturday nights socializing at local establishments have been relegated to attending watered down events that resemble nothing more than glorified tea parties. Crossing-the-line ceremonies have been replaced by a handshake and a certificate on some ships. All-hands clubs have replaced separate clubs for officers and enlisted personnel, and other clubs have closed altogether. In the words of one former serviceman, "Who wants to sign on for four years with an institution that defines fun and excitement as an evening of bingo at the Special Services Club?" The question also must be asked: "Who wants to stay?"
Not surprisingly, the actions and decisions of commanding officers directly affect the camaraderie, job satisfaction, and teamwork within commands and indirectly affect whether a member will stay in or leave the military. Foremost, commanding officers need to love what they do. Their attitude, enthusiasm, and demeanor have a tremendous impact on subordinates and affect how they derive satisfaction from their own work.
Commanding officers also need to designate time for the command to get together in a non-work environment. Not only do commanding officers have the power to change the length of workdays and regulate the workload, they also have the ability to mandate and institute events that can foster teamwork. Ordering the bull ensign to capture the battle flag from the ship across the pier might seem ridiculous, but it might allow subordinates to see that their boss has team spirit and a sense of humor. Flight deck picnics, karaoke contests, and dining-outs are events that can increase morale. Even green lights and pub crawls have their merits if organized responsibly and duty drivers are provided. In the words of the Marine Corps Commandant General James L. Jones, "It's important that, while people do these very demanding and difficult things, we also find ways to allow them to have some fun."
Rewards and recognition for jobs well done can help a person to view the Navy as a career instead of as a stepping-stone. A commanding officer may not be able to hand out holiday bonuses to top performers or grant a weekend at the command timeshare in Maui to the Sailor of the Year, but there are several measures and initiatives that he or she can implement.
Although no one would turn down a Navy Achievement Medal or a Flag Letter of Commendation, many would prefer to be recognized through more creative means. Commanding officers can approve or endorse the request of the hardworking aviation electrician's mate to reenlist in the back of the P-3 during a flight. Instead of hosting the semiannual command picnic, he or she can institute "Bring Your Kids to Work Day." After a flawless underway replenishment, he or she can allow the officer of the deck and the junior officer of the deck to sit in the commanding officer's and executive officer's chairs for their next four-hour watch or permit them to choose the breakaway song for the next evolution. Verbal praise also can have a positive impact. Singling out the yeoman at quarters for her work on the command climate survey is better than saying nothing. The ideas are endless. Praising and rewarding people go a long way.
In the "do more with less" era, increased operational demands and additional taskings also have caused many to leave military service.' Despite the attention to and publicity on reduced workloads and ten-section duties, many commanders still expect their troops to work weekends and mandate longer hours to get the job done. Division officers and chiefs have a difficult time explaining to their families why they are never home, and they are forced to order to their subordinates to do the same.
Public affairs and community relations are two growing areas that never were considered primary missions for deploying units. Within the last decade, however, the man-hours required to support such efforts have increased drastically. On the West Coast, fleet assets are routinely tasked to "show the flag" at out-of-town commitments such as Seattle Sea Fair, San Francisco Fleet Week, and the Portland Rose Festival. San Diego Fleet Week has expanded to a month, beginning with the Naval Special Warfare demonstration on 4 July and concluding with the Miramar Air Show in August. Squadrons and aircraft carriers routinely have been ordered to support the Leaders-to-Sea Program, hosting local government and community officials and business owners during short underway periods. It has been difficult for commands to complete underway training, inspections, and schools with these added responsibilities.
The active presence of the fleet in any major city certainly helps the local economy and the civilians' image of the Navy, but it is questionable whether these efforts draw in significantly more recruits. Even if these efforts are successful in convincing individuals to support and defend the United States, they discourage the experienced sailor from remaining on active duty. It is difficult for a second-class petty officer to understand his contribution to national defense when he is obligated to stop his workday to clean spaces or to give tours to visitors.
Deployment lengths are limited to 180 days, but there are no regulations to dictate the length of time a ship or unit can spend away from home port for workups, assignments, and these additional duties. Likewise, there is no guidance on what community events a command is required to support. When tasked from higher command, it often is difficult to say no. Not surprisingly, additional duties are yet another reason why many opt to leave the Navy. Leaders must recognize the impact these additional duties have on their personnel. They need to have the courage to turn down requests and to focus on the mission.
Many sailors wonder if it is worthwhile to serve under bosses who fail to adhere to stated service standards and principles. Instead of exercising their authority to run their commands the way they envisioned, those in charge often have bowed to the enormous pressure to be the best ship in the destroyer squadron or the number one squadron in the air wing, focusing a majority of their attention on winning the Battle 'E' rather than on earning the Golden Anchor. Ordered to commit ships and people for exercises and deployments, some commanding officers have deployed assets that are not operationally ready, but reported the highest ratings on their readiness reports. Forced to keep personnel numbers high, others have retained sailors and even officers who should have been separated for disciplinary problems. Their actions have caused subordinates to question whether their commanders have refused to make the correct decisions in order to guarantee their own promotions.
Strong leadership may not be the deciding factor that convinces a person to stay in the Navy, but commanding officers need to focus on what they can do and run their organizations with courage, flexibility, initiative, and a clear vision of its future. When those in charge fail to be good leaders, it has an immediate impact on those they lead. The quality of leadership at the top of the command influences how department heads, division officers, and chiefs will lead their subordinates.
Lieutenant Dunne is assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group One as the air operations officer, CONUS issues officer, and the collateral public affairs officer. A 1992 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she is a four-time winner of the Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest.