Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Want better COs? Get a better system

Nice write-up by Eric Slavin in Stars and Stripes looking at why we find ourselves here.
The Navy reached a milestone of sorts in April. It was the first month of 2010 that the service didn’t have to remove a commanding officer for misconduct.

The Navy removed seven commanding officers between Jan. 1 and March 15, a pace that would have more than doubled last year’s total of 17 fired officers and far outpaced the past five years.
So why aren’t unfit officers weeded out before being given commands of warships or installations?

The Navy Inspector General’s office is again searching for answers, according to an official who requested anonymity because the report will not be complete until later this year.

Five years ago, after the Navy experienced a similar uptick in firings, the Inspector General reviewed dismissals between 1999 and 2004 to determine whether systemic factors contributed to the removals.

That study recommended counseling changes and a course at command school to better prepare its leaders, but found no predictors of who would fail as a commanding officer.

“Now, with the rise in issues, [the Navy has] initiated a follow-up effort to that study to see if there are trends or pre-existing tendencies that might have been indicators earlier in officer’s careers,” the official said.
First things first. I would like to see what criteria the Navy's IG used, their data sample, regression analysis, and other aspects of their study.

Garbage in and garbage out - and do not underestimate the ability to steer a study away from things you don't want to talk about. Talk to anyone with a few semesters of graduate-level statistics about it. The fact they found "no predictors" is a red flag to me. If you tell me you have no idea why people may fail - then how can you look people in the eye and tell them you know why people succeed?

My bet; a bad study asking the wrong questions inside a narrow grouping of factors. Get a fully independent panel staffed with outside statisticians with full transparency and an open charter - and then you will have a report worth chewing on - but let's move on.

S&S goes on to discuss some of the ideas it came up with after talking to a few folks - but the best of the bunch came from CAPT Jan van Tol, USN (Ret.). In summary;
...there are many official and informal flows of information that could tip off a commander when a subordinate officer has a serious professional or character flaw.

Unfortunately, he said, some commanding officers promote subordinates with such flaws because it’s easier than telling them they aren’t cut out for command.

“I consider the commanding officer to have the absolute obligation to be frank, and I have always tried to be that as a CO, but it’s a tough thing, and many COs don’t have the stomach for it.”

Van Tol’s idea to get around that: Make individual fitness reports available only to promotion boards and the Navy detailers who counsel officers on their careers.

Officers would still receive informal appraisals from their supervisors and get a good idea of how they stack up against their peers Navy-wide from detailers, he said. But evaluated officers would never see their own fitness reports.
I think that is a good start to a conversation - benchmarking other nations' systems like the British and German would be a good start as well.

Not so much the full solution - but the problem he nails right on.
Van Tol believes the system itself is crippling the Navy’s ability to promote the right officers,

He says the system discourages innovative officers from taking calculated risks — a trait that may make the difference in victory or defeat during the fluidity of battle. Many fear that any risk could result in a mistake and cost them a promotion. A bad recommendation can torpedo a career; keeping a low profile is safer.

If it’s a close call in the promotion process, he said, a senior officer is more likely to drop the officer who made a mistake.

Another way an unfit leader can rise is by gaming the system, building a career by avoiding anything that would catch the eyes of senior officers. An unfit officer can also get promotion recommendations by being favorably judged head-to-head against lesser officers. He doesn’t have to be the best, just the best of a mediocre group.

There are other things that need to be looked at. More, not fewer, opportunities for Command for LTs and LCDRs. No War College until after CDR Command. Let CDR Command and below officers focus their energies on what the taxpayer expects; mastery of the Tactical Level of leadership. Shore duty as an instructor, a value added Commands like NAVSEA, or to get a Masters and/or PhD - sure - but purge the shore establishment as much as possible. Cut and combine Staffs.

Sea Duty, sea duty, overseas, sea duty. No more COs with little time on the bridge of the numbers of flight hours once seen only in LTs.

Leaders are honed, educated, and proven at sea. All else is bureaucratic puffery.

Boards are an issue as well. This idea has great merit.
“We are making the assumption that our leadership is accurately making a judgment of the performance level and capability of our officers,” said Capt. David Steindl, director of surface warfare distribution and former command screening board member.

Although board size and methods vary among Navy specialties, the surface warfare community generally includes 13 to 17 officers. Each reviews a stack of personnel files.

Afterward, reviewers gather in a room where the candidate’s fitness report is posted on a big screen. The reviewers present the case for each officer. They assign scores from 0 to 100 based on a confidential vote.

Some officers praised the screening board’s procedure for its objectivity.

But one active-duty surface warfare officer noted that the final chance to decide whether an officer should take the helm of a warship lacks something that even military commissary employees go through: a job interview.

A grilling in front of 17 captains and admirals might reveal something not found in a personnel file, the officer said.
Would it take awhile? Sure. Need to do it with all board eligible? No. Top 50% or top 25%? Yes. Worth it.

Good ideas - but the question is if Big Navy is doing anything about the problem and is open to outside suggestions for improvement? Do we have a problem? Yes. Did the Navy IG punt the issue? Of course. Can we build a better system? Yes. Do we need to? Yes.

Is fixing it a priority for senior leadership?

I think that question is already answered.

... and as a side-note, we will probably have to wait for the next Navy IG to look with a fresh eye at some gray areas WRT selection boards - things like some Flag Officers "shopping" lists of eligible officers in front of potential board members; lists of officers that happen to share the same self-identified ethnic group as that Flag Officer. Nasty business that is.


Grumpy Old Ham said...

<span><span>some commanding officers promote subordinates with such flaws because it’s easier than telling them they aren’t cut out for command.</span>  
<span>But evaluated officers would never see their own fitness reports.</span>  
OK.  Because some raters lack integrity (or are trying to game the system in their own right), we should remove an officer's ability to be the final check on what his/her paper says?  

Wrong, wrong, WRONG!  
I'll admit that I have a personal dog in this fight -- and that the ability to read one's own paper still did not prevent a particular rater from derailing my career -- but having no abiliity to correct bad paper whatsoever isn't the right solution.  
How about this -- senior raters should actually exercise some real oversight, and ding raters *on their reports* when they fail to honestly assess performance.  
<span>Many fear that any risk could result in a mistake and cost them a promotion. A bad recommendation can torpedo a career; keeping a low profile is safer.</span>  
Again -- raters could/should be evaluated on how well they judge the risks their subordinates are taking.  Everyone shouldn't just default to the "zero-defect" mentality that's crept in over the past decades.  </span>

CAPT Steindl makes several excellent points.  The job interview idea is great, but I don't see it happening due to "cost" or "diversity issues" or some other such dreck.
Restoring integrity to any rating system is difficult, but it starts at the top.  I'm not sure any of the services have the moxie to make it stick.</span>

Anon said...

I agree with much of what Echo says - individual service members have the right to see what is written about them.  (Of course we won't talk about what NR has hidden away - that's another story)  It provides feedback to the service member, keeps the senior rater "honest," and most importantly it's transparent.  Last thing we need is another secret administrative program with those in charge saying, "we are being truthful, honest."

The idea about the interviews is interesting, but logistically might not be practical.  We already do intereviews with a Commodore and two squadron COs - granted the focus has changed from being tactical to overall command philosophy. Now, with XO/CO fleet-up upon us I'm not sure when/if that interview occurs.  Now, I've never heard of anyone failing that interview......

LT B said...

Hah!  <span>But evaluated officers would never see their own fitness reports.</span>  

Does that mean I won't have to write my own FITREPs anymore? 

I am not certain the upper level leadership want to actually address the issues in our promotion system.  But I am cynical, I think they punt on most of the REAL issues out there and put lipstick o nthe pigs out there.


I would argue that the indicators are very obvious - just no one has the guts to put them on the table.  Look at the recent firings: known CO who was very abusive and brutal... for MOST of her career (oops gave that one away), lack of trust, lack of confidence, etc.  These traits didn't just grow overnight - they were where all along.  It just meant their COs didn't have the guts to call it early.  On the flip side, how many great officers with great potential, much better than the ones who were fired, had their careers go down in flames just because their CO killed them on a fitrep or they were not "one of many".  They tried to fix the system a few years ago due to inflated grades, it needs another overhaul now.

A thought: COs in a squadron collect to look at their officers on all the ships and work as a board for raiting and evaluating.

Another thought: Kill any averages or numbers or letters on fitreps - they mean nothing anyway.  Make manditory sections to be commented on in the back - address leadership, expertise, potential, etc.

Anoth another thought:  Kill the confidential voting on boards.  Make the members justify why when they kill an officer, or push a known bad officer, to the other members of the board.  There may good or bad reasons why they vote the way they do - put it on the table.

There are no perfect methods, but the one now doesn't work.

ender said...

When I dropped my resignation on my CO for failing to stand up for me and my orders, I cited the lack of courage in senior leaders to make decisions that would likely receive scrutiny at a later point.  The sentence in this post about "calculated risk" almost made me fall out of my chair.  Amen to leaders that can make a hard call, support it with strong reasoning, and can do it in a blink of an eye.  "Skipper, you don't have that skill set?  Give me your Command at Sea pin and have a seat in the corner."  The sad part...every single terrible CO I've had feels that they do take calculated risks, but instead just hide from decisions until they are forced upon them.

Byron said...

Why isn't PCO school not weeding this officers out? Doesn't the syllabus have a section where they stress the officers to gauge their reaction, say a Kyobyashi Maru scenario? And is the evaluation system asking the right questions?

Navy Suppo said...

Hard to believe that the study would conclude that "there are no predictors of who would fail as a commanding officer."  The answer is as clear as day at least when it comes to relief for misconduct, personal behavior, and cruelty.  The one common trait of virtually all COs that fall under those categories is the belief that the rules of society never did or no longer pertain to them since they have reached this pinnacle in their career.  Call in the Tiger syndrome if you will.  People under their command are simply inatimate tools to order and yield at their discretion.  Fraternization...not OK unless it involves me.  I still remember in the mid-90s quickly taking down signs of a two-star admiral advocating the elimination of sexual misconduct at my command once that same individual was discovered to have made the same offense.

This trait should be discernable with a thorough check of the person's behavior and record.  One of the reasons that private companies take a person out for a meal or has them meet with subordinates, not just bosses, during the interview process is to see how the person treats others.  Do they thank the waiter or simply demand immediate service?  Do they assume that the subordinates can do nothing for them so they give them no attention/courtesy?  These are pretty good indications of individuals with the Tiger syndrome.  Surely the Navy can do something to weed these folks out before they do irrepairable harm as was the case on COWPENS.

xformed said...

<span>Anoth another thought:  Kill the confidential voting on boards.  Make the members justify why when they kill an officer, or push a known bad officer, to the other members of the board.  There may good or bad reasons why they vote the way they do - put it on the table.  </span>

Concur.  I always thought if the board didn't have the guts to make a call and stand up to scrutiny, then something about "integrity" was missing.  Had a shipmate be argued over for 30 minutes.  He was a Shoe at his Cmd screen.  Guess which community said "NO!" (and had a the ADM chairing the board, and guess which other two line communities were standing and pushing him, for their people had seen him in action runing the LANTFLT ASW OPS?  Final comment before moving on from the silent service "You're eating your young and you don't even know it." Story from a YN detailed to suport the board who was in the room the whole time...and happened to be his brother, so I don't doubt the accuracy of the report.

The man in question had a career full of achievment (in his own community) of quietly doing things others had not done in years, then never bringing up the accomplishments out of his own mouth.  He stayed on the deck plates and had never graced an office in DC.

He retired and went on to do similar things for civilian industry, far from the centers of military influence, not for our young sailors and officers.

xformed said...


They are then "The Annointed."  The mission is to now train them.  The "leaders" selected them - no questions.

As far as real tactical scenarios:  That's been "covered."  Time now to learn the mysteries of "stock turn," internal audit boards, PMS "assist team" visits, ensuring the CMS custodian teams aren't doctoring the signatures of the destruction reports, and that you're ready for big material inspections with no safety violations and the like.  You know, the stuff that can get you fired as a CO....

OTOH, if it's changed in the last 13 years, someone stand up and tell me the PCO class is now only about fighting the ship and I will publically quit commenting  :)

xformed said...

Top level thought:  If you're not going to be honest about the assessment of performance, then you're merely kicking the can down the road.  We want valid assessments, but then you'll not let the person see what you wrote.  Man up...it's time to fix it.

I had 3 and 4 stiper COs sit me down and tell me the good and the things I needed to work on as an O-1 to O-3.  My 1st CO for my XO tour did the same, and he also gave me mentoring sessions, short and to the point after 8 o'clocks most evenings at sea.  The next CO, nice guy, but I didn't get the same feel, but then I had 13 of 18 months behind me, so the system was in a lot of autmatic control as we sailed for deployment.

During those 13 months, I saw the CO be honest with one of the Department heads and sent him ashore, after two significant and dangerous incidents.  It was risk management (of the lives of the crew), not a personal thing.

The "system" kicked in and they came with fine tooth combs and magnifying glasses to look over all the ship had done in his 15 months as CO to then.  Found out a year later the plan was to relieve the CO over this.  Never the question (and one of the "system" people had been one of my COs), back channel or in the open of "Can we hear the CO's side of the story?"  I was dissappointed when it had been a long hard call and actually the Commodore asked the CO why he had waited for the second one to happen....after reading the letter and documentation:  Because he wanted the man to have a chance to grow.

Only one fix:  Grit the teeth, and just say it.  Nothing says "LEADERSHIP" like leadership by example does it?

Combat NFO said...

There is a lot that is broken in the Navy.  The problems with CO's are just the most obvious manifestation of those problems.  The real horror is that the CO's are shaping future CO's, right now.  

Combat NFO said...

It's a delicate balance between confident and egotistical.  My favorite were the self promoters, those that kiss up and kick down, act like they know everything but couldn't perform tactically (or strategically). They get promoted because the CO sees them as brilliant, but they can't back it up.

DeltaBravo said...

I've also seen some vindictiveness where COs do cruel write-ups to even personal scores or just to be petty, where competence is NOT the issue.  People should always have the right to see and correct "misinformation" that could make or break a career. 

It bears repeating also... get the picture out of the file.  It's not a beauty contest and that would be the only reason how someone looked would be relevant. 

UltimaRatioRegis said...

One might offer that the three most important qualities in any Commander, regardless of level of command, are technical/tactical proficiency, development of subordinates, and a warrior ethos (there those words are again!). 

Give me someone with those qualities and you give me someone with a more than even chance of success when the shooting starts.  Give me someone with political skills and image management in place of any or all of them, and you give me someone who is apt to get a bunch of people killed needlessly in combat.  Like Marines, Saolirs can see the genuine through the horsesh*t.  Watch to see whom these young enlisted look up to and follow. 

Such evaluation on those lines requires things the US Navy is desperately short of at the moment.  One is the ability to forgive mistakes made honestly and aggressively.  Another is to understand how a leader must nurture junior leaders such as that.  Yet another is the moral courage to honestly recommend those deserving and not recommend those not deserving of promotion.  Major Hasan and Holly Graf, anyone?

LT B said...

I had a CO that had a 4.8 or 4.9 CO's average.  WTF?!  He then ranked us all by seniority.  I could have spent that tour working out, not coming to work, reading and enjoying the great outdoors.  Instead, I busted my a$$ and got ranked on my seniority level.  My good friend was probably the top LT and he didn't get it because the other dude, the worst LT got the #1 spot as he had the highest lineal number.  Pathetic and not worthy of command.

Seawolf said...

I participated in an ad hoc study the Submarine Force did on this issue in the late 1990s, So here's another $0.02 about something I actually know something about.  The best recommendaiton I saw from the study was to have the Squardon Commander rank all the officers in the squadron, Department Head and above, and have that ranking reported in the fitrep (i.e., He is x of 10 other Engineers, Navs, etc., in the squadron.0  That almost eliminates CO bias, one way or the other, gives the stellar perfomers an even larger pool to be compared against and lets the marginal guys know that its not just their CO that thinks they have a problem.     

Grandpa Bluewater said...

High achievers rate subordinates highly and write good fitreps for them.  Smart, empathetic and caring. They kill or cure and the subject of the mentoring knows it. When they kill they kill clean.
The tip off is smart and humane and no pushover. Tacticians and gentlemen. Sure footed and confident.

Previously abused children rate medium and kill by faint praise. Often talented and hard working, they tend to be weather vanes to fad of the day from on high, and strive to intimidate.
Always suckers for the suck up, kick down crowd. Tip off is wardroom jokes about which one is under the halo/spotlight this week.

Sadists deliberately divide wardrooms to watch them tear at each other. They tend inflate grades on most, if the ratee knuckles under gracefully.  Some poor guy is always in the crosshairs and being ridden to destruction, usually the blunt, competent and transparently honest one. The tip off is the jokes about the reserved bed in the naval hospital psych ward.  Always suck up and kick down. Watch for the cultivation of enlisted stool pigeons.  Protected classes slide through untouched.  Often short, with a second, younger, shorter wife and a very expensive sports car,  big cigar optional. When cornered grovel well. Mean drunks, usually.

Crazies are moody, screamers. Killers of messengers and often charming as hell looking up.

Then there are the brilliant, charming, conflict adverse yes men driven by an ambitious wife.
Smooth of tongue, sure of foot, deadly to non conformists and to compulsive truth tellers. Perfect weather vanes, slaves to doctrine, and the very worst of all. DC and big staffs are full of them.

Those were the exceptions. The rule used to be solid, workmanlike, dedicated, sometimes quirkly, but obviously in love with ships and good sailors of any rank.  The tip off is subtle, they have no best foot to put forward.  They do the best they can at everything they do, and absent proof to the contrary, assume all their subordinates are like them. Firm, friendly, fair, constantly instructing, enabling, learning and passing it on. Not much found in DC.

They not merely capable mariners. That to be sure, but also a great deal more.....(you know the rest, now don't you).

Seen any of them lately?

Anon said...

I agree with your assessment of SWOS and the fact that it's all about stock turn, CMS, PMS, etc.  But what do you see day-to-day as a CO?  The amount of time spent on tactics is minimal because that's not what we are evaluated on.  During an 18 month tour MAYBE one third is on deployment, and even then PMS, supply, and training occupy the bulk of your time.
Now, I'm not saying that's where we should be, just the fact that we have moved away from warfighting.  The battle is now against inspectors and dirty juice machines.

Anon said...

We don't value technical/tactical proficiency or development of our subordinates, but the ability to plan and put our ideas on Power Point.  How many times have we hashed out POAMs, options, routes, etc. over and over again trying to get, "the best product we can?"  I would rather something close because two great men once said:

"A good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week."

"No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy"
   - Clauswitz

Anon said...

My latest observation is that you live the tour of your predecessor.  18 months is just enough time do your damage and then move on before living with the consequesnces of your decisions.  It's then the guy behind you that has to clean up your mess.
Now, I understand some would say 36 months is a long time as CO, but there would be no doubt that the Commodore should be able to see what type of CO you are and how your ship is functioning.

xformed said...

I had to "stay behind" in early '91, while the Boss and Asst Boss flew to the Gulf to check readiness.  I had to brief the incoming COMSERVGRU 2 ADM.  I told him the CSTT needed equal time as the ECTT/DCTT.  His face began giving me the "you just said the wrong thing LCDR!" look, followed by "You're wrong.  They need more time.  If you can steam it there and can't fight it, what's the point of being in the Navy?" (or words to that effect).

As one example, over many hours studying the ROE, as the staff bubba assigned that extra duty (and me not being JAG type), that alone was days and days and days of study and thought, when you had to comprehend the many documents, like NATO as well as National and to know well, when a technical capability would let you shoot, or to hold your fire.  I had many interesting discussions where the discriminator was not "he's coming at me on a steady course, with in x degrees of boresighting us with his SSN-2Cs with the tube doors open," but more like "He's within y NM, smoke him!"

Knowing what the enemy has, how he can use it, when he can't use it, and what other support is required is another lenghty study many officers I knew thought was not worthy of undertaking, but knowing which Flag to work for, or what inspection failure trashed you based on actual observations...now that was important.

Yes, those other things happen during command, but when it's seconds to decide the fate of the crew, are we ready?  In the end, that's the time your career is made or shattered for the rest of your service time...and in the history books.  Besides...isn't the Chop and the CHENG supposed to be your strong horses in those areas not so directly associated with combat operations?

UltimaRatioRegis said...


Can you talk to my boss?  I lived the nightmare of "perfect" coming close to slaughtering "very good" all day yesterday.  We did the "puppy" to "small dog" tango for eight hours.

xformed said...

In "my era," we had 18 mo XO, 24 month CO, but no fleet up.  My view:  6 months to wrap your arms around it, 6 months to really run it, and the last 6 months were to carefully insert substantive changes, now that you really had the comprehension of what made "it" tick.

That would make the first 6 months, at least, something for your relief to operate under, until they got the total understanding under their belt.

36 months?  Possibilites for the visionaries, broedom for the go along to get along crowd.  As an inspector of Combat Systems for 3 years, and seeing the ships generally annually, if was amazing how "escape velocity" couldn't be achieved in many cases (I'd pull last years files), because of the turn over.  Irritating at one level of the basic 24 month CO tour, more irritating when I'd see the same CO new the first time, and a year later, and the CSTT files had "just been started" both years....in the cases where COs had turned over, and CSO/OPSO were the same...even more irritating.

With 36 months, ship "personalities" could really have a chance to change.  Across those 3 years, most every ship, and in the cases of some that had been in the BGs I operated with over the years, had thier own particular personality that stayed consistent over many years.  The "before" and "after" shots would really tell what kind of command a CO was capable of running.

Curtis said...

Not really sure we have grasped the brass ring yet.  I just erased a very polite treatise on on the subject.  2

We no longer screen people for command based on leadership or past performance.

Our promotion boards have long since abrogated their function to the CO screening boards.  1 of 43, never screened for command-no captain for you!

It's nothing new.  Arnheiter didn't spring out of nowhere and Queeg was a composite of some seriously bad COs that one knew in the war.

The young ones out there need to learn how to get through the bad ones.  My personal fear is that they don't ever experience any of the good ones.  How in the world did Port Royal go aground?  27 officers and that many chiefs and that many experienced Petty Officers loaded a ship on a reef..... That's not just incompetence.  That's deep hatred.  You're right.  The system must do better than that.

LT L said...

Well we won't let that happen again:


And as someone who went from 7 of 8 JOs on ustafish to 2 of 54 JOS on ustashore-duty because of a vindictive CO (would have been 8 of 8, but the coward was scared that he would have to explain himself for rating someone who failed PNEO over me, and then the real truth as how I should be ranked would come out), I'm getting a kick out of these replies.

Anthony Mirvish said...

Reducing the size of the officer corps would also help.  It would mean more responsibility and scope, and also lead to more sea tours.  For more early (LT-LTCDR) at-sea commands, though, you need more small ships, a lot more, which is not what we're currently building. 

End to all gender or racial affirmative action promotions:  the first pass through the fitness reports arguably shouldn't have pictures or first names, to see who makes the cut. 

A suggestion that has been floated before in the other services is to replace up-and-out with up-or-stay, in which someone wanting to be promoted has to ask for it - and then undergo review before a promotion board.  Depth is required in any organization so keeping those who are good where they are should be as much an objective as finding those who want higher rank.

Chap said...

That's the reason I'm leery of secret FITREPs. 

Chap said...

The joke used to be the first year the CO was simultaneously ecstatic and panicky; the second, the best because he had seen it once and had his head around it; the third, the CO was irritated because he'd seen people screw it up twice now and he couldn't stand seeing them screw it up a third time..

Chap said...

The squadron I was in once never--*never*--visited our ship unless there was a requirement (TRE, etc).  We had two boats with Problems and one that failed spectacularly, and we had a weird mission, so I suppose we were the non-squeaky wheel.

I don't think the commodore even recognized some of the DHs on that boat...

GBS said...

Great summary, Grandpa...

I'm not sure that today's CO's are any different than any other time in our Navy's history.  We've always had the high achievers, abused children, sadists, crazies, and the "yes men".  We've also had the drunks and the adulterers.  What I am sure of is that they get far more scrutiny, and there is far less margin for error.