A wise master chief once told me, “Junior officers don’t know what they don’t know.” This is especially true for newly commissioned division officers, eager to begin surface warfare careers. This article is the fourth in a seven-part series aimed at sharing lessons I have learned from my experiences, mistakes, and mentors. These lessons, or “truths,” are shared so ensigns can avoid making the same missteps, implement positive ideas sooner, and boldly take their first steps on the path to “knowing.”
A common question among SWO-aspiring midshipmen or newly commissioned surface warfare officers is, “How do I interact with my chief?” The relationship between a division officer and a chief is an interesting one. The chief is older, more experienced, more knowledgeable; boasts superior technical expertise, years of at-sea time, numerous deployments, and years of experience working with and leading sailors. Yet, it is important to remember that while together the division officer and chief are a team, each fulfills specific purposes. In the end, the division officer is ultimately in charge and must shoulder the full responsibility of the division. To harness the full power of this relationship, a formidable partnership must be created.
On the Same Page
If asked separately, a division officer and a chief should provide the same answer for personnel issues, equipment statuses, planning, and really anything. To achieve this level of oneness, frequent and routine communication is required. The organizational tools discussed in the Truth #3 article are a great place to start. These checklists and calendars are not meant to be written in stone or kept for the division officer only; they should be shared with the chief and leading petty officer. At first, these products will provide a framework for questions to be asked and understanding built, then updated regularly as the chief teaches the division officer about what tasks mean and how to prepare for upcoming events.
Part of the chief’s job is to train the division officer. With this in mind, division officers should not be afraid to ask questions, admit they do not understand what is being discussed, or ask to have something demonstrated or explained again. This will lay the foundation for this important professional relationship while also gaining necessary knowledge. “Ask the Chief!”
Those who benefit most from an effective professional relationship between the division officer and the chief are the sailors in the division. Things go wrong when a sailor is unsure of what to do next because the chief said one thing and the division officer said another, a sailor asks the division officer the same question hoping to get a different result, or the chief and division officer openly disagree in front of the division. When a chief and division officer are not on the same page it shows.
When something does not go the division officer’s way or play out how they anticipated it happening in their mind, it is important to ask, “Were my expectations clear?”—expectations for deadlines, space cleanliness, personnel leave matrix, uniform inspections, etc.—instead of getting frustrated. (The same frustration may also result from not understanding a task fully.)
This could take the form of sending a weekly email to the divisional leaders with items that are being tracked or need to be accomplished during the upcoming week. Perhaps this list is organized by category or by who is to accomplish each item. Whatever the format, this simple communication should be consistent and used to structure daily interactions. This will also clarify the division officer’s role. She can run down the list each morning and quickly identify task ownership; “I will take care of this. I know chief is going to cover that.”
Taking Care of Sailors
The succinct advice frequently given to new division officers is to, “Take care of your people.” The chief will be the most influential in teaching the division officer what this really means, as the two are called daily to serve this most important function. To start, the division officer should learn the career paths of their sailors—promotion selection, required exam knowledge, points received for awards, effective evaluations, etc. Caring about sailors involves understanding how to positively help their careers and ensure their hard work is properly documented.
Recognizing situations in which personnel can grow, professionally and personally, is caring in another form. For example, Petty Officer Aegis becomes paralyzed at the thought of public speaking, but it’s an important skill required for career progression. Instead of thinking, “Petty Officer Aegis doesn’t feel comfortable speaking in public. He can’t give the next training,” division officers should work to recognize opportunities for development. The division officer and chief devise a plan for him to lead the next divisional training. While Aegis may be uncomfortable at first, over time he will develop this skill with practice.
The chief will address most disciplinary needs, especially initially, but will consult regularly with the division officer about sailors who are not acting appropriately, fulfilling responsibilities, or being disrespectful. At a minimum, the division officer should be aware of such happenings and be prepared to become directly involved if the behavior persists. Turning a blind eye to maintenance done incorrectly, consistent tardiness, or unprofessional behavior is not caring.
Division officers also must get to know their sailors. Creative questionnaires used for sailor check-in are an easy way to get this conversation rolling, asking about hometown, age, family, hobbies, etc. This will inform the division officer’s interactions with them—“Hey IT1, how is your wife enjoying her new job?” “How do you like your new place IT2?” “How was your vacation to Florida?” When the division officer takes genuine interest and commits time to getting to know sailors, he better knows how each person is motivated and how to better lead them.
The survey should also ask for the sailor’s personal and professional goals. Knowing these goals will allow the division officer to track and encourage progress by asking questions such as, “Hey IT3 Radio-Shack, how is that ESWS pin coming?” It is impossible to provide additional support to a sailor attempting to reach these goals if the division officer is unaware of or poorly tracking them.
In the same way not all officers are good officers, not all chiefs are good chiefs. A division officer cannot be afraid to challenge their chief, question an explanation, or make a decision with which the chief disagrees.
On the rare occasion a division officer has been assigned to a division with a less than stellar chief, for the sake of the division, a professional relationship must still be fostered to the maximum extent possible. At the same time, the division officer should seek the support of a different chief from the mess, perhaps the departmental chief.
A newly pinned chief will be working diligently to fill the shoes of a leading chief petty officer and is probably inexperienced at training a division officer. But these two leaders have a great opportunity and responsibility to work together to create a positive culture for the division.
For first-tour division officers who will rotate duties regularly, there will be ample opportunity to work with different chiefs who have different styles. No matter the chief, it is important for division officers to remember that they are ultimately accountable for the division and cannot be afraid to disagree, insist the spaces be cleaned again, or use the word “no.”
Navy Chief, Navy Pride
The history and tradition of the U.S. Navy Chiefs’ Mess is significant. Chiefs are often referred to as the “backbone of the Navy” because of the crucial role they have played on board the nation’s warships since the late 19th Century. Chiefs take pride in their title, their role, and the camaraderie of the exclusive group to which they belong. Senior officers emphasize the importance of the Chiefs’ Mess and routinely seek the guidance and counsel of those with years of experience.
For division officers, working with a great chief is a true honor. An especially effective chief can set a division officer on the right path for the rest of her career. When the division officer and the chief are able to harness the power of an effective professional relationship, the tradition of the chief is best honored.
Debrief: Division officers should strive to establish effective communication with their chief; to be on the same page and clearly communicate expectations. Their relationship is most important when it comes to taking care of sailors in tangible ways. The officer must remember that while they are always learning from their chief, they are ultimately in charge. In this ideal relationship, the tradition of the chief is best honored and divisional sailors are best served.