Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert speaks with sailors at Naval Base San Diego. In a new instruction, Greenert outlines tougher guidelines for screening would-be commanders. (MC2 Kyle P. Malloy / Navy)
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Seeking to cut the tally of fired commanders whose behavior has embarrassed the service and raised questions about how they were selected for the service's most prestigious positions, the Navy's top officer has tightened the standards for command and ordered a pilot study of an evaluation that allows sailors to rate their own bosses.
The end goal is officers better suited for command.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert spelled out his plan in a June 4 instruction that overhauls the command screening process and applies it fleetwide. By June 4, 2013, every new CO will have to go through all the rigors of this new process, according to the instruction. Officers screened for or en route to command prior to that date are waived from the requirement.
The Navy wants to put its "best and most qualified people" in command, Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, chief of naval personnel, told Navy Times in an interview. "This cuts across all our communities and puts some great standards in play for the whole Navy to utilize."
Officers seeking command must pass a written test, receive an informal evaluation from peers and subordinates, and sit through an oral board. Executive officers ascending directly to command must also be certified able and ready by their predecessor.
"Using the guidelines provided in this directive, each program will set minimum qualification standards for command and establish a process to formally screen, via administrative board action, officers to command," the instruction states. "Command qualification and screening are mandatory."
Before this new instruction, command qualification programs were left to individual officer communities, according to Navy officials.
"With this command qualification program instruction it really codifies a lot of what we've been working over the years to formalize how we do this," Van Buskirk said.
The initiative signals Greenert is open to experimenting with new techniques, such as peer reviews, and old tactics, such as the written test, to see if such measures lower the stubbornly high level of commanding officer reliefs, most of which arise from misbehavior.
But Navy officials insist the plan is the product of years of discussion and not a reaction to the recent spate of firings.
Over most of the past decade, about a dozen COs were fired per year. But reliefs have seen an upward swing; last year, the Navy fired 22 COs, the second-highest number in a decade behind 26 firings in 2003. As of June 8, the Navy is on pace to match last year's total, with 10 CO firings.
The latest directive builds on the "Charge of Command" memo issued last year by then-CNO Adm. Gary Roughead. The memo implored all prospective commanding officers to live up to the highest expectations of conduct. Greenert, then vice CNO, ordered the instruction be read and signed by all COs and admirals.
"I believe in the charge of command," Greenert said in an October interview, when he first mentioned his push for a "consistent screening process" and for the written CO certification included in the new instruction.
The new rules also set a consistent and higher standard for COs. They require every officer who has met all the command qualification prerequisites to sit before an oral board led by more senior officers. These senior officers will have already been screened or are in command.
"Coming from the submarine community, we've used oral boards as part of our qualification for command for years," Van Buskirk, a former sub commander, said. "Specifically, it's a board of former commanding officers and a squadron commander who would interview the prospective commanding officer and give the final check that the person was ready for command."
Officers who meet the cut will go to a command screening board. These previously have not been required for every CO billet. Specialty career path officers — unrestricted line officers who command alternative units, rather than ships, squadrons or subs, for example — haven't had a consistent selection process. Now, these SCP officers must go through the same screening process as other COs.
Those tapped for command must now also attend the Command Leadership School in Newport, R.I., and pass a written exam that covers "command leadership tenets, commanding officer and officer in charge authorities, duties and responsibilities under U.S. Navy regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice," according to the instruction. CLS is developing the test and the questions.
The format the test will take is still under evaluation, Van Buskirk said. It could range from a "thought-providing essay" or questions that reiterate the teachings. It's likely to be a combination of the two, he said.
Rate your boss
In this latest instruction, Greenert also told fleet and personnel officials to further experiment with peer and subordinate reviews, known as 360-degree reviews. These are designed to measure an individual's performance and potential from different perspectives — bosses, peers and subordinates. These "multi-rater assessments" are used by many corporations.
Over the past decade, the Navy has used these surveys to inform senior officers about their command style and how they are viewed. Last year, after a number of high-profile firings, these reviews got a big endorsement from Adm. John Harvey, head of Fleet Forces Command, who said the fleet needs "to find a way to bring a 360-degree-type of review into our administrative screening boards."
These reviews are not part of the present screening process; Greenert's overhaul doesn't change that fact.
The latest instruction directs the surface Navy "to administer a leadership 360-degree assessment for officers during one of their department head tours," starting over the next year. That suggests the surveys will most likely be conducted aboard a ship.
Navy officials believe the department head level could be the best place to implement such reviews, Van Buskirk said. It's early in your career, he said, "and you can understate what you need to work on — what you exhibit as your strengths and weaknesses."
Explaining further, Van Buskirk said, "You have fellow department heads who can evaluate you, an XO/CO above you, using the ship model, and then you have division officers and chief petty officers who work for you."
As it stands, these reviews would be given to the individuals and would not be included in fitness reports. How they might be retained in records in the future is up for future debate, Van Buskirk said.
After two years, according to Navy officials, the 360-degree review process will be evaluated and could expand to other officer communities.
The Navy already uses such reviews in a variety of ways.
Officers chosen for command go through an informal 360-degree review at CLS. In these surveys, which CLS has administered since 2007, students get to choose their peer and subordinate raters.
Ensigns going through the Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport also receive a 360-degree review. The comments and ratings they receive are anonymous and compiled by a counselor into a report, which is presented to the subject in a one-on-one session. The reviews aren't entered into an officer's record, and they aren't filed away by the school. If the results of a review were troubling, said Capt. Bill Nault, the previous head of CLS, he would go over them personally with the student.
The Navy has tried these reviews at operational units before. In 2005, the Navy performed these studies on 15 ships and three shore commands, where officers, chiefs and petty officers participated.
But practical issues and institutional resistance doomed the test, former officials involved in the pilot have said. They said it largely came down to a cultural clash: Officers objected to being rated by their sailors.
The instruction adds a new caveat to the fleet-up command path, where an aviator or surface warfare officer already screened for command directly ascends from XO to CO at a squadron or ship. Per the new requirements, the XO must be certified in writing as ready and qualified by his CO.
The CO's review "will discuss the executive officer's demonstrated leadership performance, personal behavior both on and off duty and other professional characteristics as delineated by the type commander or community leader," the instruction said.
This must be finalized before the officer takes command.
"This ensures that an executive officer who has taken command … has all the professional characteristics required for the job," Van Buskirk said.
These efforts could be a last-minute tripwire that could prevent firings.
Back-to-back firings made news in May when Cmdr. Derick Armstrong was fired as CO of the destroyer The Sullivans. Armstrong, the former XO, took command last year, two months after his CO, Cmdr. Mark Olson, was fired because of an August gunnery mishap in which the ship mistook an anchored fishing boat for a towed gunnery target.
Armstrong was relieved May 8, while the ship was deployed to 6th Fleet, for an "unprofessional command climate," a 6th Fleet spokesman said, becoming the third The Sullivans CO canned in two years.
Under the new rules, the CO and the higher chain of command must endorse the XO. If those officers still fail, it isn't clear whether there will be repercussions for those who "certified" them for command.
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Mark D. Faram contributed to this story.