If you are a line officer, your long-term goal should be command at sea. Those who have been there agree that there is nothing else that will recompense you more fully for all your hard work and sacrifice—nothing! Many first-tour officers, however, have other goals in mind that do not include remaining in the service beyond their initial obligations. Still, to the surprise of some of these “unconvinced” officers, their thinking will change, and a significant number will decide to continue to serve.
So consider this advice: Do not shoot your career in the foot during your first tour. As an ensign you possess an enormous potential to terminally poison your own water. Do not let this happen. Be serious about this first opportunity to lead. Do not waste some of the best years of your life simply treading water, happy to do as little as possible while waiting to do something else.
Suppose you are in your first tour, and you are at least acting as if you have aspirations to remain in the service and perhaps rise to command one day. Whether you are serious about staying Navy or prudently keeping your options open, you may wonder if you are set up for success.
For many officers their answer to this question will depend on the ship in which they are serving. What class is it? What job have they been assigned? These officers seem convinced such factors determine whether they are on the “fast track” or not. They subscribe to the myth that some higher authorities have identified a select group of officers early in their careers for success. This line of thinking assumes those who are on this fast track have a viable path to command or beyond, and that those who have not been selected do not have a successful and rewarding way ahead. This means some officers are convinced that because they were not chosen to go to the newest ballistic-missile defense ship in the fleet, the die has been cast.
This is not the case. Every ensign, in every billet, is on the “fast track” on the day he or she reports to his or her first command. The only thing you have to do to stay on this fast track, leading to bigger and better things, is do solid, reputable work in your first tour. That is the key. Really. And if you are treating the job seriously, this will not be hard to do.
Your commanding officer’s job is to sort wheat from chaff. Do not alienate your CO. Your CO holds all the cards, and his or her opinion of you will be reflected in your fitness report (and perhaps in a phone call or e-mail). Does your CO see you are working hard? Are you are cut out to be a leader? Are you progressing? Do you aspire to grow and be better at duties as assigned?
There will be officers on your ship who will not treat their jobs seriously. You should take advantage of this low “competitive fence” by bearing down. Other stuff comes into play later, but all the way through your department head tour all you really need to do to stay on the fast track is to try to do well at your job.
So, while you may feel as if you are dead on arrival, career-wise, when you discover you have been assigned as the auxiliaries officer in the oldest ship in the fleet, you are wrong. If you do well, you will get to that shiny new guided-missile destroyer. Conversely, the Tomahawk officer in the cruiser who dogs it will end up as laundry and morale officer in the USS Reluctant.
The key is not to make decisions that take you off the fast track. Every day, consciously or unconsciously, officers make decisions that will derail them. Determined to challenge authority at every opportunity? Tired after your department head tour? Taking that billet at the embassy? Avoiding a tour in the Pentagon? Fine, as long as you understand you likely are making an existential career decision.
If you do take yourself off the fast track, know you very likely cannot come back.