Confessions of a Major Program Manager

By Captain Mark Vandroff, U.S. Navy

A Day in the Life

Congratulations: You have just been detailed to major command. The Navy has many different types of major commands: large shore facilities, air wings, submarine and destroyer squadrons, etc. For the purposes of this scenario, envision your new major command as a large surface ship such as a cruiser or amphib. You are anxious to take command and have received a meaningful turnover from your predecessor. All of the key department heads are competent professionals and dedicated to doing their jobs well for the Navy. Your executive officer is very experienced with this type of vessel and wants to support you to the best of her ability. Your missions are clearly defined. You have challenges—upcoming inspections and deployments, and never enough time, money, or people to do everything you want—but your command is in reasonably good shape.

However, when it comes time for you to make the first of your command decisions, you are in for a surprise. The underway engineering watch team is in two sections, and you think that the morale of the crew and the effectiveness of upcoming training would be greatly enhanced by increasing to three sections. You have enough qualified watch standers to make this happen, but one engineering officer of the watch will require an interim qualification until a required school is complete. You have seen him in the plant and he has your full confidence, but your chief engineer refuses to let him stand watch. He explains that interim qualifications must be approved by the type commander’s N43, and it will take awhile to get on her calendar and discuss why this particular officer should receive one. He promises to set up the meeting as quickly as possible and advises you to develop a really good argument as to why this interim qualification is a good idea.

But why would you need to justify this to the N43? As you are processing your talk with the chief engineer, you imagine what else you missed at the Surface Warfare Officer School major command course, and you run into your supply officer. You wanted to talk to her about the repair parts status from last night’s eight o’clock reports. You need parts for your sonar system to maximize the effectiveness of your pre-deployment training. You tell your supply officer that you will have the operations officer upgrade the casualty report to a higher category so she can have a higher urgency placed on expediting the repair parts. “I can’t do that, Captain,” she says. “The fleet N4 has to approve that level of urgency. He’ll be skeptical since we aren’t on deployment yet.” She promises to make the request and suggests that the two of you get on his calendar as soon as possible. As you walk away from her, you start to wonder—has command afloat changed since the last time you were at sea?

Your next stop is the operations officer. The operations department on your ship is one of the main reasons you were so excited to take command. The senior air controller is Chief Operations Specialist (OSC) Major Superstar, with whom you have served many times before. You ask your operations officer if OSC Superstar is ready for the big helicopter exercise next week. He tells you that the chief is no longer on board and that Operations Specialist First Class Unknown Quantity will run the helicopter operations instead. You ask what happened to Superstar and learn that your operations officer is responsible for the operations on multiple ships in the battle group and that one of the other ships needed Superstar more than yours did. When you voice your displeasure, the operations officer’s reply is that his fitness reports (FITREPs) come directly from the type commander and then adds some verbiage best left unsaid in a family-friendly thought experiment.

Thoroughly perplexed, you walk away from the operations officer wondering about next week’s helicopter exercise, and you decide to have a talk with the officer in charge (OIC) of your helicopter detachment. You tell the OIC to be ready to launch on Monday after completion of sea detail so the new team can practice, but he responds that he will only launch on Tuesdays and Thursdays; his air wing commander has standardized the days his aircraft will fly for exercises, and next week it is Tuesday and Thursday. When you try to explain why you need him to fly on Monday, he seems profoundly uninterested.

By now you have decided that maybe a few choice words on the FITREPs of your chief engineer, supply officer, operations officer, and helicopter detachment OIC might help, so you meet with your executive officer. She says that you are not the reporting senior for any of these crew members; their FITREPs come from officials on the fleet and type commanders’ staffs—or in the case of the OIC, a different battle group commander than yours. You are just about to lose control of your emotions when your navigator comes in with the standing and night orders for you to sign. You read them and are somewhat reassured, as they are sound plans to keep your ship out of danger and headed to where the mission requires her to be. When you watch your bridge team execute the orders, they are well trained and diligent. In fact, even the crew members who always take your orders to the various staffs usually make every effort to try to support your plans for the ship (the operations officer’s salty language notwithstanding).

The System We Deserve

How would you function in a command like this? Welcome to the world of an MPM, because that is your command and I’m about to give you the secret decoder ring: The chief engineer is your system command technical authority, the supply officer is your contracting officer, the operations officer is the CO of either a supervisor of shipbuilding (for ships) or defense-contract management activity (for other kinds of programs), and the helicopter detachment OIC represents all of the participating program managers who supply their systems to your ship, submarine, or aircraft. The type commander is the systems command, and the fleet command is the service acquisition executive’s staff. The navigator and bridge watch standers are your program office staff, and the standing orders and night orders are the acquisition strategies, plans, and statements of work generated by the program office.

I spend my time working this system. The single most important skill an MPM can bring to the job is the ability to convince a stakeholder with limited accountability for program success to support a program like his or her very job depended on it. I use the term “limited accountability for program success” very precisely because these stakeholders are usually highly accountable for something other than your program’s success. A ship-design manager is accountable for the technical performance of a ship’s design. A procurement contracting officer is accountable for having the contract he or she signs conform to appropriate contract laws and regulations and must ensure the contract will withstand scrutiny from the Government Accountability Office or an Inspector General. The supervisor of shipbuilding is accountable for quality control on the ships under construction at one of his shipyards. All of these things are important, but an uncompromising position in any one area will become an obstacle to achieving the requisite progress across all areas needed for the program as a whole to succeed.

Most Navy MPMs have graduate degrees in a technical field such as engineering or physics and then spend their tours practicing organizational psychology. I spend my time engaged with disparate entities trying to unify their efforts with no specific authority to do so other than my ability to convince them it is the right thing to do. I do spend my time like a car salesman—hopefully a good and honest one. Like a good salesman, I know my product very well, can point out all of its features, and try to sell it for an honest price. I believe in my brand of cars, otherwise I would not be selling them. If you are my customer, I will try to arrange financing, get you the option package that fits your lifestyle, and maybe even your favorite color—as long as it’s haze gray. I cannot sell you a Cadillac for the price of a Chevy, no matter how hard a bargain you try to drive. The sedan will get you safely to work, but don’t try racing it against a Porsche. Finally, please remember to change the oil.

I wish I had a magic formula to fix this situation, but I don’t. We have this system for some very sound reasons. The Federal Acquisition Regulations manual is significantly thicker than the Bible and supplemented by additional contracting rules from the DOD and the Navy. There are good reasons the contracting competency answers to its own expert chain of command. Likewise, a ship or aircraft can be mind-bogglingly complex, and a single technical issue could require consulting half a dozen or more specialists to ensure a resolution does not cause unintended consequences. There is a consistent natural tension (sometimes friction) between all of the stakeholders, and the system is too complex to dismantle and rebuild; this is why I have to manage it.

Moving Forward

Here are some points to consider from my thought experiment. First, the Navy’s senior leaders must choose MPMs who have passion for their product. Passion makes people persuasive and keeps the MPM engaged as the system is worked. An MPM with enthusiasm will push a product through the system with success. Second, the most important thing an MPM can build throughout his or her career is relationships. Knowing all the players across the different “influencers without responsibility for success” allows him or her to get the system to work for the program. Third, all the stakeholders, customers, and critics need to remember the system we have is built on compromise. There is never a perfect solution that will satisfy all the stakeholders it takes to produce something truly complex. We must understand the difference between what is unacceptable and what is merely undesirable.

Making these ideas useful will take action. Here are three things the Navy can do to improve the odds for satisfaction with the acquisition process:

Identify early. Find young officers who have a passion for either ship design, weapons, or information technology. The Navy needs these people to buy the next generation of warfighting equipment.

Mentor frequently. The Navy’s engineering duty officers already do this, and other officer communities that produce program managers are starting to catch on. Mentoring will identify the experiences and relationships an officer must build to be effective by the time he or she is ready to run a major program.

Trade transparently. The Navy has started down this path with its acquisition gate reviews, so everyone is in the room when a PM and his chain of command have to weigh options. However, a lot of key decisions are still made in forums that are neither well documented nor well promulgated. When the PM is forced to make trades, all the stakeholders need to know why that occurred.

So there you have it. When I need to compromise to deliver a new capability for my brothers and sisters in the fleet, I am likely to make a decision that negatively impacts you in some way. If I have five major groups of stakeholders, compromise is likely to go exactly your way only 20 percent of the time. But making the value judgments to support the program is my job and responsibility. For all the challenges a system of compromises induces, nothing is more satisfying than getting a needed product through this system into the hands of the fleet. Keep your destroyer squadrons and air wings; I would not trade my major command for any of them.

Back to my confession. In the movie Grosse Pointe Blank , John Cusack’s character, a hit man, tries to explain how he got into this unsavory business. The Army trained him to kill the enemy, and now he kills for hire. “First, you tell yourself it’s for your country, then you tell yourself it’s for freedom,” he says. “Eventually, you get to like it.” This runs parallel to how I feel about defense acquisition: I started managing programs to deliver needed capabilities to the fleet, but, I confess, I ended up loving the hustle.

Captain Vandroff is a 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. With 10 years as a surface warfare officer and 16 years as an engineering duty officer, he is currently the major program manager for Arleigh Burke –class destoyers.




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