One of the dilemmas that face the Submarine Force (and all naval units) from time to time is a unit that is mysteriously difficult to make successful. They get help, advice, time, guidance and many other aids but still find it difficult to create a positive atmosphere of success. In this article it is my purpose to share an experience to illuminate one of the often.overlooked keys to success-the Chiefs’ Quarters.
During my tour as Executive Officer of an SSN, I came face to face with this phenomenon in submarine leadership, which I came to recognize several times over. The current skipper had taken command of the submarine in the wake of several unpleasant even-ts and was given the task of righting the ship so to speak. He had the complete support of the Force Commander and the Squadron Staff. Every effort and asset was provided to assist.
The ship was at La Madelena in the Mediterranean when I reported aboard during the mid-deployment upkeep. I was immediately impressed with the quality of the officers in the wardroom. One day a few weeks later while we were underway following a very successful ASW operation (no one I have ever served with could do open ocean ASW like our skipper), the COB came into my stateroom in a state of total frustration. He was dealing with some crew issues and was having a devil of a time getting the CPO’s on board with his effort. Although they agreed and there was no obvious opposition, it just was not happening. My impression of the COB was one of aggressive attention to detail often seen in successful auxiliarymen. (I can fix anything).
We began an analysis of the situation and our symptoms but could not explain our overall situation. We then gathered up all the records of the LPO/CPO records and began a detailed review. The COB felt he didn’t have any quality help so I set out to prove him wrong and challenge him on his leadership. To my amazement there was a strangely consistent lack of top performer evaluations. As a group they seemed numb, uninspired and lacking in spirit. The analysis revealed a significant number were crew fills from other units, get well tour assignments and numerous indications of near failure elsewhere being given a second chance. The distinct impression created was that the COB was on his own. This is not to slight the abilities or careers of those Chiefs but there was not balance usually found in any cross section of a group.
The ship could certainly perform the mission as demonstrated by the SIXTH Fleet ASW Hook Em award for ASW and an above average on the ORSE. However, this success required an extreme participation level by the CO, XO and Department Heads. Many may feel that is appropriate and a necessary requirement for success (and they are right to a degree). The difference is that each time a deficiency was corrected we ended up fixing the same problem again a short time later. One could then argue that the corrective action was obviously not effective. The problem was far too consistent for this explanation.
Upon return to homeport, after a very successful deployment, the COB arranged to have the Force Command Master Chief (CMC), who had been Engineering Department Enlisted Advisor (EDEA) on a previous ship with me, and the Force CCC visit the ship for lunch one day. After lunch we went through the records for our enlisted leadership and they were equally amazed by the consistent lack of strong leadership across the board. They asked what we thought we needed and the COB requested their assistance in finding one Top Performer LPO/CPO to put in each department.
With that kind of support it was fairly easy to recruit several top performers. Within several months we had a totally different attitude aboard and it was being driven by the Chiefs’ Quarters. It was at this point the Captain confided in me that he was finally beginning to enjoy his command tour. The differential between the wardroom and Chiefs’ quarters was extreme until the infusion of talent. Although not as uniformly talented as the wardroom one strong leader in each department for the Department Head to rely on, the junior officers to learn from and the enlisted crew members to emulate made all the difference in the world. By the end of the year the ship was runner up in the Battle “E” competition.
Pers 42 and NavSea 08 do an outstanding job of providing the quality of officer’s required to balance the talent in each wardroom. Our ship had come off of several difficult events and in tum was given the talent needed to get the ship to where it needed to be. It was evident and the subsequent success rate of these officers verifies the talent and motivation of the officers detailed to this ship.
On the other hand the enlisted detailers stay focused on the rate and there is little opportunity for an across the board assessment of talent at the CPO/LPO level. My supposition is that the phenomenon experienced on that SSN was driven by the ship’s reputation. The waterfront sailor knows which ships are successful and which are having difficulty. If a successful LPO/CPO candidate is asked where he would like to go and given the choice between the “E” boat and the bottom of the pile-he chooses excellence. The result is that those who go the bottom boat are often only the average performer. As a result the downward spiral can continue unabated until drastic measures are required. I am not advocating a change in the detailing process. We need to allow our sailors the choice of where to go for myriad positive personal reasons. On the other hand there is a strong need for some intervention on behalf of the submarine that is having some difficulty. I think the key to that is an overall level of awareness of the quality of the CPO quarters on each of the units. An over abundance of mediocrity will perpetuate the present level of performance rather than a drive for excellence.
The second aspect of this phenomenon is the cross-deck process. It would appear that this process is used much less today than several years ago. This is a valuable and necessary element of continuing to keep the boats manned and is used very sparingly to ensure the minimum of personal upheaval. However, if one unit needs a fill (and those units that struggle often seem to need more) the providing unit seldom gives up the top performer. Thus the unit in trouble seldom gets the first round draft choice.
In my encounter with this issue on our ship, I thought this was my own special problem to solve as XO. Several years later, while serving as Deputy at a squadron on the West Coast, I became reacquainted with this phenomenon. From this position, I had the opportunity to look across the squadron and noted a startling similarity on one of our SSNs. The ship had a reputation of being an unhappy ship. The Commanding Officer was brilliant with a uniformly outstanding wardroom. The ship performed the mission very effectively and had a lot to be proud of, yet there was not an atmosphere of success. It was a struggle to achieve a consistent level of performance and the CO was frustrated. He was focused on the COB and felt he was not being supported and that the COB was ineffective.
On a hunch the CO and I pulled all the CPO records and I did a comprehensive comparison. There were few strong leaders and again there was an overwhelming majority of average performers among the enlisted leadership. The standard was set by the wardroom but was not being transmitted by the CPO Quarters and the COB was unable to initiate change. The sheer will power of the CO and the talent of the wardroom were running the ship but things were not improving. A captain for the submarine detail desk in BuPers was in town on a waterfront tour and listened intently to the situation. Upon return to DC he did a similar analysis and agreed in principle. With his support the squadron staff specifically recruited several new talents for the ship in question, being careful to distribute them in all departments. The change in the ship was near instantaneous. The wardroom could make the ship perform but without the CPOs, long-term improvements were extremely difficult.
In these same months another SSN was in the midst of a long, frustrating and difficult WESTPAC tour. Eventually, CTF-74 and the Squadron Commander lost confidence in the CO and as the Deputy I was sent to Japan to assume command. The ship had had enough riders and help but essential elements of safe submarine principles were not improving. The ship had a reputation for having a run of bad luck and it was my impression that the ship was making a portion of her own luck.
The Squadron Torpedoman (TMCS (SS)) had been sent to the ship several months earlier as the new COB. The staff knew the ship needed some help and he wanted the challenge. He was the right man for the job. He was an aggressive, knowledgeable and intensely determined individual and it was felt that he would be part of the solution. He was extremely talented, but he may have been too little too late.
I met with CTF-74 upon my arrival in Yokosuka and he assured me I had his support to do what was required to get the ship underway and operating safely. Upon reporting aboard I had a long chat with the XO and COB. The COB’s perspective was that the officers were talented but not working up to their potential and the CPOs were not involved in solving the problem. The COB and I reviewed the CPO quarters’ service records and found that there was a preponderance of average among the Chiefs. We decided to divide and conquer. He would focus on the CPOs and I would concentrate on the wardroom. The ship had a rough reputation and the CPOs were generally weak performers backing up a uniformly above average wardroom.
A unique example jumped out at me. One Chief was TAD to CTF-74 because each time the-ship got underway he was medivaced for medical reasons but no long-term solution could be determined. I felt strongly that the CPOs were needed on board and if they could not sail they couldn’t be assigned to this ship. I asked CTF-74 to return him to San Diego and directed the senior E-6 to assume leadership in the division. Within several days the entire division had a new attitude and took on the task of preparing the ship to get underway. They knew who they were working for and that they were all going to sea as a team.
The COB and I had a personal discussion with each CPOILPO. They were all given a choice: they could return to their homeport, no questions asked, or they could stay on board and do their jobs. If they stayed, they were going to do it the COB’s way. If the COB didn’t get what he needed that individual was going home from the nearest port at which I could get him off. The message was clear.
Within several days I decided to send an additional CPO back home and assigned the senior E-6 to duty as LPO and recovery began. The remaining LPOs were offered a choice: perform as CPO or go home. The COB and I took several of the newer LPOs who had potential but were mired in the overall attitude of mediocrity, behind closed doors. When strong CPO leadership was demonstrated (or excessive weak leadership eliminated) change began to take place.
In all these cases the impact of strong CPO leadership from at least one man in each department led to an overall positive impact. In all cases CPOs exhibiting strong enlisted leadership challenged their peers and inspired the crew. The CO was allowed to focus on the tactical and operational training of the wardroom and crew while the CPOs maintained the day-to-day management details of the divisions and watch sections. The COB and EDAA enforced leadership and accountability and the crew got the message. The training of the JOs quickly returned to normal with tactics from above and divisional management, training and maintenance from below.
These examples indicate that when a unit begins to falter and develops a negative reputation, many good LPO/CPO candidates have already plotted an avoidance course. It is appropriate for the Squadron staff and the Force N-1 to monitor these situations. They will need the support of the placement and detailed offices to affect some changes, but the difficulty is that the farther away from the water front the more difficult it is to see the problem. Whatever the mechanism, the bottom line is that when a unit is struggling, strong leadership in the CPO quarters is a key to recovery. The waterfront reputation is what controls much of the detailing requests and it is up to the waterfront leadership to detect a migration of talent away from certain units. Keeping the talent balanced will give all the units a better opportunity to perform to expectations and create positive on board environments for professional growth and career development throughout the Submarine Force.