Retaining Our Most Talented. . . to Fight and Win

By Captain Brad Cooper, U.S. Navy

What we’ve always known is that the way we recruit, develop, retain, and promote sailors and Marines is critical to our success. To fight and win, we need a force that draws from the broadest talent pools, values health and fitness, attracts and retains innovative thinkers, provides flexible career paths, and prioritizes merit over tenure. Whether we are talking about systems and tactics in the digital age or personnel management, we must evolve to meet the needs of the future battle space and the needs of our people. Today we shift from what-ifs to what’s next. . . . 3

The confluence of a new operating concept, a principle-based review of personnel policies, and a fresh perspective of how we recruit, develop, and retain our junior officers offers extraordinary opportunity for the future surface force.

The surface warfare community is translating that opportunity into meaningful action—right now. Here is how we are doing it.

A Sea Change

In July 2015, surface warfare leadership made a strong commitment to embrace a career-management model that shifts away from retaining “our most willing officers” and toward retention of “our most talented officers.” This is a significant sea change that bears repeating: away from the most willing . . . and toward the most talented.

Committing to such a philosophy and shifting the rudder so dramatically would have been simply unimaginable years ago. Many remember the challenging days of the late 1990s when department-head tours were excessively long. Over the past two decades, thousands of community leaders have devoted tremendous effort to improve junior-officer retention. We are now witnessing the fruits of their labor.

Today, we enjoy our fifth consecutive year of meeting or exceeding junior-officer retention benchmarks. This year, we are on the cusp of achieving the highest retention among junior officers since the attacks of 9/11.

There is no issue with quantity. Surface warfare junior-officer ranks are healthy. The issue is quality, and are we doing everything possible to retain our most talented officers? Said differently, we’ve done well in the past, yielding today’s unrivaled surface fighting force . . . but can we do better?

To help fully realize this philosophical change “toward retaining our most talented officers,” leadership approved the most significant enhancements to the surface warfare career path in a generation. These changes integrate emerging talent-management initiatives with new career structures, processes, and incentives in order to fully realize our community’s strong commitment to “warfighting first.”

Ultimately, our surface warfare leadership’s commitment to people is focused on retaining our most talented officers and growing leaders who can think, lead, operate, and win in a variety of future environments.

Option-Based, Agile, Flexible Careers

We are thinking differently and more creatively about our people and how to retain our top talent. Our legacy career path has served us well as a force, but the “conveyor belt” style associated with developing tomorrow’s leaders lacks inherent flexibility.

Last summer, surface warfare leadership approved a new career structure. Called the “Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) Career Chart,” it moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach and toward an option-based strategy. In our large, diverse, dynamic organization, one size cannot fit all. We need a system that is flexible.

With this new career chart, today’s young SWOs have become the most empowered officers in the history of our Navy. Talented junior officers with proven performance are in the driver’s seat, armed with choice, flexibility, and options. In simple terms, this new approach affords officers the opportunity to chart their own course and determine how to best sequence sea duty and shore duty in a way that meets their needs and those of their families.

We haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater; we have retained the foundational pieces of division officer sequencing that have held us in good stead for decades. However, the new career chart adds several options: a track that focuses earlier on warfighting development, another track that adds value to shipboard readiness, and a third track that re-sequences shore duty in between division officers’ experiences so that our officers can accrue skills we value (like financial management and operations analysis) earlier through attendance at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Importantly, the career options align with our values as a surface force—warfighting excellence, leadership development, and gaining ship-based experience (we call this WUK— “Water Under the Keel”). We have always been—and will always be—a seagoing force. The only way to prepare for service as a destroyer captain with the Navy of 2030 is to go to sea and accrue vital experience through afloat “sets and repetitions.” We are not lowering or compromising any standard. Rather, we now have more flexibility to offer junior officers with respect to the timing and sequence of their own professional development. We have also codified paths for officers to pursue extraordinary opportunities that have historically been difficult to support through a legacy career path, like the Olmsted Scholar program.

How do we know who is talented and who should pursue which option? We have decentralized the detailing process . . . away from Millington, Tennessee, and toward the captain’s cabin. Nobody knows our wardrooms better than our commanding officers, so we have empowered shipboard leadership to “make the call” and shape the future of their junior officers.

Along the way, we have enhanced measures to cement trust with our junior officers. Our community has always been communicative in the detailing process, encouraging a two-way dialogue in orders negotiation. We have now opened the aperture even farther by more transparently providing officers with the range of jobs, options, and opportunities for their next assignment. Commanding officers are a critical part of every junior SWO’s assignment, and our captains are empowered to help our community shape the future force.

Increasing Selectivity, Rewarding Performance

For nearly 20 years, surface warfare had little to no selectivity for department-head selection. We all agree that we want top performers and our best leaders influencing the future fight, leading sailors at sea as department heads. Without question, we have superb department heads serving throughout the world today, but we can do better—and we are. Last year, we established a first-look screening benchmark of 80 percent, and this year we will take competition to serve as a fleet department head to a new level, with a selectivity threshold of 50–70 percent for department head.

We are also looking for new ways to recognize and reward our most talented officers for their exceptional performance. For example, we could tie an increased bonus payout to department-head screening. Those officers selected for department head on their first look could be eligible for a potentially larger monetary bonus than those officers selected in ensuing department-head selection boards. The concept is simple and proven throughout the private sector.

We recognize that talented officers do not stay in the Navy for the money. Talented performers stay in surface warfare for the opportunity to make a difference, for service with meaning and impact, for challenge, and for the passion of serving with exceptional men and women at sea. Our bonus should not be about paying a buck to stay in the Navy—it should be about paying attention to our best performers and rewarding them for what they do and who they are.

New Tools for Talent Retention

Providing young officers with choice, flexibility, and options through a restructured career path is important, but restructuring alone is inadequate. We need additional tools to enhance and incentivize retention in a competitive market. “Sailor 2025” initiatives, announced by Navy leadership last May, provide our community with new, powerful tools to retain top talent. We have fully integrated these tools into the fabric of the career chart:

Develop warriors with advanced graduate education. Through the new Fleet Scholar Education Program, talented junior officers will attend fully funded graduate education at America’s most prestigious civilian institutions. Pilots for the program are already under way with SWOs attending graduate school at Yale and Dartmouth. Surface warfare leadership has also approved seven more junior officers to attend the graduate school of their choice in the fall of 2016.

Broaden opportunity through exposure to America’s top companies. The new SECNAV Tours with Industry Program provides officers with a chance to spend a year in America’s private sector, capture best practices, add value to the company through their leadership and experience, and then return to the fleet where they will apply those lessons as future department heads and beyond. Today, two junior SWOs are embedded with Amazon. By next summer, eight more will be serving around the country in companies such as LinkedIn, UPS, and NextJump.

Expand opportunities for career intermission. Officers of all backgrounds may apply for career intermission and leave the Navy for a period of up to three years at multiple junctures in the career chart, then return and favorably compete for command and other key milestones. There are command-screened officers participating in this program today. Once approved in legislation, the program will expand in the coming years.

Reinforce our commitment to dual-military couples. Along the same “family-oriented” line, we are reinforcing and expanding our commitment to military spouse co-location. The commitment: Co-location is the standard, rather than the exception.

Investing in Warfighting Expertise

Our mission is to fight and win at sea. To that end, surface warfare is embarked on the most expansive and robust warfighting training effort since the establishment of the all-volunteer force in the early 1970s.

We are investing in junior officers and developing warfighting expertise like never before. Over the past two years, more than 150 SWOs have completed the current Antisubmarine (ASW) and the Integrated Air/Missile Defense (IAMD) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) course. These officers now serve the fleet, where their expertise is increasing the tactical proficiency and warfighting effectiveness of our surface ships and staffs.

The Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center—under Surface Warfare flag officer leadership—is also aligning new Antisubmarine/Surface Warfare and Amphibious Warfare WTI programs to the 15- to 19-week IAMD course for post–second tour division officers. The pilot course for each commences in the coming months. Underscoring this commitment to warfighting, surface warfare has established a continuum for professional training that spans a full career—ensign to captain. The Surface Warfare Officers School Command (SWOS) oversees training in this realm with a building-block approach. This comprehensive training continuum has been built with the end-state goal in mind of elevating our community’s warfighting capability through advanced tactical thought and execution, using the latest technology and the most qualified instructors in the schoolhouse.

A SWO is now trained at SWOS prior to every at-sea tour. This begins with the Basic Division Officer Course, where ensigns are trained for eight weeks prior to their first tour in the basics of shiphandling and the execution of their duties as division officers. The continuum is advanced through additional training prior to the second division officer tour at the Advanced Division Officer Course, where one of the goals is to produce technically and tactically competent warfare coordinators.

Department Head School, where tactical, command-management, and billet-specialty training are emphasized, is the cornerstone and flagship training venue that shapes our future commanding officers and prepares them for follow-on success at the command level. Command training courses of instruction are also a significant part of the SWOS mission, where early Command, Commander Command, and Major Command officers are prepared for the challenges and demands of leadership at sea.

Through this continuum of education and training, the goal is to produce commanding officers wholly grounded in advanced warfighting and tactics; this approach represents a return to our roots, with the captain as the ship’s number-one warfighter.

Recruiting the Next Generation

For the better part of the last decade, Google has been named by Fortune magazine as America’s top company for which to work. The Navy is not Google, but there are lessons to be gleaned from its successes. In his book Work Rules , Google’s “chief people officer” asserts, “Given limited resources, invest your HR dollars first in recruiting.” 4

This is “front end” talent management. In frank terms, we have not historically “recruited SWOs.” But in a war for talent, we must pursue every avenue to maintain a competitive edge, so we are changing the recruiting paradigm for our community. No longer can we operate passively and wait for America’s top talent to come to us. We have to “go active,” identify, reach out, and recruit talent into surface warfare through every accession source.

Just recently, surface warfare catapulted into the national-level recruiting conversation. We have to meet talented people where they are . . . in order to get them to where we want them to be. People are on social media—it’s how we live. So, through a first-of-its kind effort with Navy Recruiting Command, we have established a “persistent presence” in multiple social-media outlets.

We have also forged new relationships with “influencers” such as Naval Academy Blue and Gold Officers, officer recruiters at our Navy Recruiting Districts around the country, and Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps units nationwide. These influencers play a major role in who we access into surface warfare. To optimize the broader effort, we need to be more closely networked and share the same conscience.

Reaching out across our great country to attract, recruit, and retain young men and women is imperative for our continued success. Talented young men and women have life options. Navy surface warfare can be one of them, but we have to change our way of doing business (and we are) to attract the best.

The world has changed dramatically since the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) was commissioned in 1983. Threats to our country have evolved. New warfare areas have necessarily emerged, including ballistic-missile defense and cyber. Previously existing warfare areas like ASW and IAMD have grown in their complexity and now intersect with the joint force at the tactical level. Time-sensitive operational planning efforts have increasingly shifted to the shipboard level. Yet in those 32 years, we have not changed the departmental-organization model on our ships. Not. One. Bit.

Our community leadership is strongly committed to reassesing our organizational framework and is backing that commitment with action. Under a two-year pilot program, we are adding an additional SWO department head to select wardrooms. The new Plans and Tactics Officer (PTO) represents a step forward in where we want to go as a force. These officers are not “like” a department head—they are department heads. Commanding officers have been provided with an organizational framework to ensure these officers lead people, manage programs, and oversee training/maintenance. Importantly, commanding officers are also empowered to organize their ships as they see fit to optimize warfighting effectiveness.

We are moving quickly with implementation. The first PTO reported to the USS Anzio (CG-68) in November, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) carrier strike group ships receive PTOs this month, and ships with the Forward Deployed Naval Force in Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan, will start to receive PTOs this summer. Within a year, more than 20 ships across the force, including cruisers, destroyers, dock landing ships, and dock transport ships will have an additional department head. For now, this pilot is being taken “out of hide” and, subject to the outcome of the two-year assessment, we will be positioned to resource and sustain the necessary manpower for ships to optimize warfighting readiness for the long term.

Just as we have empowered our commanders and commanding officers to help shape the future of our division officers, we are also giving our captains more authority to shape the future of their department heads. We have, historically, ordered weapons officers into our 80-plus Aegis cruiser and destroyer fleet, and following a notional 18-month tour, that officer “fleets up” to serve as the combat systems officer without any input from the captain. But after 30 years using the same model, can we do better?

Later this year, we are empowering a select group of commanding officers with the authority to choose who, among their line department heads, should fleet up and serve as combat systems officer in order to optimize the warfighting effectiveness of the ship. It could be the weapons officer, but if the operations officer, the engineer officer, or even the plans/tactics officer is a better choice for the ship and the individual, shouldn’t we do that? The consensus view is: Yes!

Finally, outside our shipboard lifelines, we are positioned to embrace positive changes in the statutory board selection process. Our Navy is reinforcing the importance of performance and merit—as opposed to timing—at our selection boards. Additionally, new “market-based” detailing pilots have been approved and are moving out. We are watching these pilots closely to see if there is application and opportunity for our own community and our people.

‘Extraordinary Men and Women’

We have amazing junior officers in our ranks. As a group, they are creative. They lead well. They have vision. They are energized and oriented toward a lifetime of service. Across the force, they are proving their mettle, and our Navy, as well as our country, is recognizing these extraordinary men and women for their contributions and achievements. In just the past year, junior SWOs have been recognized with:

• The Navy League’s Stephen Decatur Award for Operational Excellence—awarded to one officer in the entire Navy for operational excellence

• The Captain Joy Bright Hancock Leadership Award—honoring the visionary leadership of service members whose ideals and dedication foster a positive working environment for reinforcing and furthering the integration of women into the Navy

• The only operational planning fellowship for officers—in the entire Navy

• Award for outstanding engineer and achievement in the STEM field across America from BEYA (Black Engineer of the Year Award).

• Florida State University’s top award for alumni excellence.

The list goes on . . . and excellence does not stop when our officers go ashore. From the war front to the waterfront, SWOs are making their mark. Today, the Chief of Naval Operations has two junior SWOs on his personal staff. We have SWOs headed to work on the Secretary of the Navy’s Innovation Advisory Council in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. SWOs are positively contributing to planning efforts on every fleet staff and accruing considerable experience in the Pentagon.

As a community, we are also leveraging this enormous talent pool in new and creative ways. Late last summer, we established “virtual action groups”—junior SWOs connected virtually throughout the globe, working on key surface warfare projects. These groups are performing marvelously and with impact. The entire national recruiting initiative outlined here was dreamed, researched, staffed, and is now in execution—all led by junior SWOs. Other groups are working on a community-wide effort to better define future training and qualification requirements. Junior SWOs are also looking closely at our culture, taking a tough look inward at what cultural changes might make us a more effective fighting force.

Tying this all together: Navy surface warfare is the most unrivaled fighting force on the planet. The key is: We must retain these young officers—and hundreds like them—for the longer term to maintain our dominance into the future. Identifying proven performers with the potential to lead the Navy of tomorrow, and then nurturing that talent in a meaningful way using an option-based career strategy, new retention tools, and a series of forward-looking initiatives designed to optimize our combat capability is an imperative.

In the competitive market of America, we have to think differently about people, processes, policies, and structures. Navy leadership is doing just that, but it cannot be a flash-in-the-pan effort. We must sustain and expand what we are doing, leveraging every opportunity to our advantage.

The rationale for pursuing such an approach is compelling. Our operating environment is growing increasingly complex; the at-sea fight of tomorrow will be challenging and violent. In order to fight and win against a future adversary at sea, we will need the top young talent in America leading that fight as the department heads, commanding officers, and warfare commanders of tomorrow’s fleet.

1. VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Fanta, RADM Peter Gumataotao, USN, “‘Distributed Lethality,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 141, no. 1 (January 2015), 18–23.

2. VADM Bill Moran, “Once Again . . . A Moment Ripe for Change,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 140, no. 12 (December 2014), 18–23.

3. SECNAV Ray Mabus, “Talent Management Initiatives,” speech delivered at the U.S. Naval Academy, May 2015, .

4. Laszlo Bock, Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2015), 68.

Captain Cooper is the Head Surface Warfare Officer detailer. He most recently commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64). Previous tours include service in the White House, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Africa Command, and a tour on the ground in Afghanistan.




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