Guest Post: Submarine Dept Head Retention

A guest post from "LT W":

I know this topic hasn't been commented on in three months but for me it was a very emotional issue and I wanted to respond. I was a JO on a 688i out of Pearl in the mid-late 90's and I got out 75% due to leadership/culture reasons and 25% lack of mission reasons.

Before stepping foot on board I never thought I would ever get out. In high school I realized all I ever wanted to do in life was command a submarine; enduring USNA and the nuc power pipeline were just necessary evils to get to use the sonar and weapons. Yet despite looking forward every day for 8 years to finally being an officer on a submarine, it took me only one month to realize something was amiss and another two months before I realized that the only way I could mentally survive the next three years was if I knew I was getting out (as my way of fighting back).

First, my first CO, XO, Eng and Nav were terrible from a leadership perspective. (My first Weps was an exception so when I say DH's I exclude him.) They basically fostered a culture of "Dept Heads and above vs. JO's plus Crew". For example, the CO would come up with a new decree on a whim, the dept heads would say "right away sir" and then force the JO's to have the instructions carried out. Yes I understand that is the way the military works, but what I am talking about here is "busy work" as opposed to "real work". Busy work tends to demoralize when sailors are unable to go home until it is accomplished. Anyway the JO's could see the new requirement for what it was, i.e., non-value add and yet another demand on a crew already working 100-hour weeks in port, so the JO's were in the terrible position of having to order the crew to comply with a new requirement that the JO's themselves disagreed with as much as the crew. When you factor in that the JO's knew many of the crew fairly well in a way the DH's and above never did nor even cared to, it was heartwrenching. Basically the DH's and above looked upon the JO's and crew as expendable resources to be used and discarded.

It was so bad that at one point almost all the JO's tried to eat second sitting in the wardroom because we all wanted to avoid eating with the CO, Nav and Eng. Eventually it got to the point where the oncoming EOOW would be the only JO eating at first sitting (and he would excuse himself early). Eventually someone caught on and we were told either we eat at first sitting or we don't eat at all. Often many of us chose the latter. I once had the Eng pull out his tickler over meal and ask me for an update on each item on it. I do not deny that it was my JOB to know the status of everything, but the way he did it helped us view meals as adversarial proceedings to be endured, not time for teambuilding and camaraderie.

One other telling story involved enlisted retention. Not surprisingly, our boat had the lowest enlisted retention in the squadron (officers just went to shore tour and got out). When the CO heard about the low enlisted retention from the Commodore, the CO's response was to implement a mandatory enlisted advancement exam study program. The CO figured, hey, it can't be leadership or culture as the problem, it has to be the enlisted aren't passing their ratings exams and so they don't get promoted which makes them unhappy and so they don't re-up. So now the crew has one more requirement, they can't go home (while in port) until their mandatory exam studying is done. Remember again the purpose of the mandatory studying was to improve crew morale. Amazing.

The way these "problems" were handled was a good example of senior officer mentality - when something happens, generate a new requirement to deal with the symptom and force compliance. Never did the DH's and above get together and discuss, hey is there anything leadership-wise contributing to the problem? One crewmember told me that the thing he looked forward to when the boat went to sea was it denied the ability for the leadership to say "this gets done before you go home".

My second Eng was even worse than the first, he tried to run the engineroom like the Marine Corps and as any sub vet knows it is a lot more collaborative than that. He came from a 726 and his attitude was like, "S6G, S8G, whatever same thing" and thought that by being a hardass he could hide his lack of S6G-specific knowledge, which the crew saw right through and they had zero respect for him. My second CO was assigned to the boat specifically because he was much more of a people person and the Commodore needed to do something about the (surprisingly continuing) low retention. The second XO was fair and just, an improvement on the first and I respected him greatly. The second Nav was almost as bad at "use-up-the-JO's" as the first, and the second Weps was nice but a bit of a limp noodle. So after experiencing six DH's, there was only one (first Weps) that I thought was a true asset to the fleet. And he was miserable because he was as in touch with the crew and felt their pain as many of the JO's did. About that second CO, he would spend half an hour talking to the ERLL watch about their family and such, he truly gave a sh*t about the crew and enlisted retention jumped up. If we had had the second CO first, the ship's culture may have been a lot different and so I may have thought the first CO I had was the leadership fluke and not the norm, but in my case by the time the second CO showed up I had my letter of resignation almost finished.

I remember making a little splash on the way out, my letter of resignation was four pages long, but was not combative like some are. It just detailed some of the leadership issues mentioned here (and more). Most JO's just submit a "I just want to spend more time with my family" letter in order to avoid having a showdown with every officer up the chain. I realized such an easy out would not do any favors for bringing attention to the underlying problems. What surprised me most was when I got a call from the head of submarine detailing (a Captain, I forget his name). Basically instead of trying to argue with me about how I had it all wrong about the boat, and instead of trying to scare me about how tough civilian life is, he simply said I can tell by your letter you care about the force and people, it's people like that we need to stay in to change things. That really got to me but by that time I had already been accepted to an Ivy-league business school and I was still very upset. I see now that it was partially my fault due to unrealistic expectations; I had showed up expecting the kind of leadership I read about with Mush Morton and Dick O'Kane in WWII, and instead was greeted with DH's and above who all acted like Ghost of Rickover. I do strongly believe the nuclear power mentality of check everything, trust nothing and massive micromanagement (basically) causes good leadership practices to suffer, but I have to assume some boats out there have both high Eng Dept morale and good ORSE scores. We achieved the second at the expense of the first.

I originally meant to address the other big aspect of why I got out, which was my entire time on the boat all we did was ORSE workup. If memory serves, we even once pretty much blew off our entire TRE workup time to run ORSE drills and we just winged the TRE. Seeing as how I joined up to try and find the Red October, but ended up being on a permanent ORSE training platform, I was basically faced with a terrible command climate while doing nothing actually submarine-mission-related. But this post is long enough already, and I see now that whole mission-focus issue was in many ways a subset of the leadership issue.

Now...all that being said, recently I have been curious about if I wanted to, could I get back in. Recently (on this blog) I saw a post showing the names of the people who just screened for CO and some of my year group friends were on it, and the words that head of officer detailing said came back to haunt me. That, plus I have pretty much maxed out civilian life, the only thing left for me is to be a CEO/CFO/COO of some middle-market company somewhere. As mentioned I got out and finished a top-5 MBA school, and work in a niche industry fixing broken companies which is as much leadership, planning and execution as it is finance. My first job out of b-school paid about what I was making when I left the Navy, but having the nuc sub training quickly pulls you ahead of your pure-civilian peers and as such my compensation has doubled every couple years. Not to brag but last year I think I brought home three times what my old CO's made. Point is if I got back in I would be taking a massive pay cut. But life is more than income and I sincerely miss a lot of the leadership and execution - getting things done, being in charge - that even a C-level position in a company doesn't match up to. The problem is, with the economy not doing great I'm sure a lot of JO's are staying in just to weather out the economic cycle so I'm probably simply not needed, and also it might be too late being in my mid-late-30's to get back in. I just hope if I could get back in I could be assigned to only 688's, I really love those boats and remember almost all the piping diagrams and systems, maybe the detailer could swing that as I imagine everyone wants a Seawolf or Virginia.

Anyway, sorry this became so long, it was planned to be shorter but any place I think about cutting might be the one thing that really resonates with someone. As a side note, nowadays I tell any Navy person I meet who is a junior enlisted or JO to not make their stay-in/get-out decision solely based off their first CO; at least wait to see how your second CO is before you make up your mind as the first, if bad, could be the exception not the rule. Also, while you certainly can make a lot more money with nuc power training on the outside, unless you're running your own company you won't get the same opportunity for leadership and direct hands-on operations that you get on the boats.

Take care everyone, and as I remember saying at the end of my letter of resignation nine years ago, God Bless the US Navy and those who serve.