I recently returned from a ten day trip that included flying to the Arabian Gulf to participate in an inspection and then spend just one day on the west coast visiting my staff counterparts there. Both of these trips were optional (but not really as far as I was concerned). Why did I do it? I felt there was important leadership leverage in both trips. I have constructed this blog post as a case study with questions for readers to answer (brief notes on a piece of paper are fine) to let readers do some of their own mental work thinking through the situations with which I was faced so that maybe you can learn some lessons pertinent to your situation. I have made many of the specific terms of reference more generic because they are not as important as the leadership lessons. The file containing my actions is available in the Files Available for Download area, in the X directory (here).
I became the Ship Materiel (no, not a typo, you can spell it this way and I was trained by Capt Peggy McClusky that this was her preferred spelling so I have retained it) Officer at COMNAVAIRLANT (CNAL) 10 November 2010, the day after my change of command. Less than 20 days later, I was accosted by the Chief of Staff (COS), my direct supervisor on the CNAL staff, about an email sent by a deployed ship's Department Head (DH) about the performance of an inspection/training team that works for me. The original email stated concerns the DH had about how the team did its job during inspections/assists and that too many deck plate (yes, two words) surveillances received failing grades for minor deficiencies (lack of government pen to record data, failure to put at least one hand on a ladder hand rail causing failure for a safety error, and so forth). He addressed his original email to his staff counterpart on the west coast, who replied with similar concerns, copying his COS and the east coast staff counterparts and they both replied with concerns of their own. I was not on distribution of the emails until the final comments were sent by members of the CNAL staff. The COS was particularly frustrated because he and my predecessor had addressed these issues with the team some months before so it looked like "they don't get it."
Question: What do you tell the CNAL COS when he tells you about the emails and the conclusions drawn about the inspection team and what next actions would you take? Your answer should be brief notes in the form of:
Action: I would ...
Note: I put lots of extra lines between the questions and the text that follows so your eyes don't stumble upon the following text too quickly and lead you to the correct answer.
Talking with the Inspection Team Leader
He was very surprised at the email. While one could conclude from the way it was written that the team had been to the ship just recently, the last time they were there was July, four months earlier. He also did not think it was reasonable to conclude that the team would operate in the fashion suggested by the ship's DH (failing surveillances for very minor issues). He also told me that the next time the team would visit the ship, it would be for the inspection (the July visit was an assist) in a few weeks.
Question: What next actions will you take with this information?
Talking with the Authors of the email (originator and those providing passionate comments)
All three sources were balanced and level-headed when I spoke to them individually. I chose to have individual conversations vice all at once because a), since the ship's DH was deployed and one of the staff members was on the west coast, aligning schedules for a single call would have taken too long and b), I believed the chances of having a reasonable conversation with each one were much higher than if all three were on the phone at the same time.
What I learned from the calls was that all three individuals had difficulty naming a single instance in which the team operated the way they disliked. I did not press them for examples, but I did note they were lacking. All three had some good points to make about the importance of focusing on the right things during the inspection and the value the team could provide in areas peripheral to the actual inspection. I took notes from each call that I could use to brief the team leader.
After these calls, I concluded that my participation on the next inspection, which happened to be on the ship that was deployed and on which the email originator was stationed, was mandatory because otherwise I might be dealing with passionate concerns for months. By being physically present during the inspection, I would be able to see with my own eyes how the team functioned and no one would be able to argue with me about inspections I had observed first-hand.
Questions: would you meet with the team? If so, what would you emphasize to them about the upcoming inspection and your expectations?
The inspection went well. I learned a lot of things by watching how the team operated and participating in many of the surveillances. I also gained a great deal of credibility with the team by accompanying them. They did not fail any surveillance for minor rules infractions. Perhaps the results would have been the same without my direct engagement, but I was not willing to take that chance.
Flying to the West Coast for a One Day Visit
Why fly 6,000 miles in three days? I did so because east and west coast staffs must work cooperatively on a wide range of high stakes issues impacting aircraft carriers. Even though I had worked with the west coast staff as the N43 and left on very good terms with the staff before becoming Commanding Officer of Supship Newport News, I felt that a renewal of personal engagement was in order for the 7 months I have remaining at CNAL. I personally think the meetings/updates I attended were very helpful and I took some extra time to walk around the facility to greet as many people as possible.
If you have comments or questions on my answers or this way of doing leadership case studies, please let me know. I encourage you also to make comments directly here on this post so others can learn from your comments.