If you’re a junior sailor and you’ve got an idea that can make the Navy better, it’s time to start sounding off. And if you’re a Navy leader and you don’t listen to or learn from your junior sailors, you’re wrong.
That’s the message senior leaders, including Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran and Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russ Smith, delivered to Navy Times over the past two weeks.
“As leaders, it’s up to us to set the conditions for our sailors to feel they’ve got a a voice and aren’t afraid to speak up when they have a good idea,” Fleet Master Chief Rick O’Rawe told Navy Times during an interview in Norfolk. “And frankly, I believe we’re doing just that. So many of the ideas that have led to the biggest changes now underway in our Navy have come from the deckplates in one way or another.”
To VCNO Moran, the brass need to get out of the Pentagon bubble and visit the waterfront to hear from sailors and their families.
“I firmly believe there are no good ideas that emanate from Washington. They all come from sailors, families, ombudsmen and other people you meet at the local level,” Moran said. “It’s really important that senior leadership, not only those in Washington, but around the fleet, get out to the waterfront to sense the environment and to see thematically, just what’s important to sailors.”
MCPON Smith said he also spends as much time as possible communicating with junior personnel during command visits and after all hands calls. But he cautions sailors that even the best ideas need time to implement.
“It’s using the Fleet Introduction Teams out of San Diego or focus groups in Norfolk to work on the validity of these ideas as we develop them — to bring them back to sailors while we’re still working on them,” he said. “This serves two purposes in that no one is surprised it’s coming and that also it’s refined to as close to the 90 percent solution and is working when we roll it out.”
In the rounds of interviews with Navy Times, none of the senior leaders mentioned a pair of opinion pieces written by Electronics Technician 2nd Class (SW) Patrick Fisher this year in the wake of the collisions involving the guided-missile destroyers John S. McCain and Fitzgerald that killed 17 sailors.
Patrick’s broadsides took aim at Navy leaders who don’t listen to sailors and spoke to deep cultural problems in a chief mess beset by scandals and often too aloof to encourage junior personnel to sound off, instead rewarding those who “just shut up and color.”
As the Pentagon tries to build a 355-ship Navy in an era of great power competition at sea, leaders know they need to recruit, train and retain the best sailors, and part of that means fostering a environment up and down the rank structure where troops want to stay, both for their careers and for their family’s welfare.
To Moran, his ongoing sessions with sailors pay off at the Pentagon.
“I try to assimilate all the individual issues to see if there is a common thread between them and if there’s a problem, work to then attack it across the fleet so it affects as many sailors as possible," he said "Our job is to make sure we’re getting things out of their way so they can be better warfighters . That’s going to go a long way to making us that more lethal force we’ve been talking about.”
Moran pointed to the Ready Relevant Learning overhaul of enlisted rating instruction as one example of how listening to sailors' gripes sparked meaningful change.
“Those ideas came from multiple visits to ships, airplanes, hospitals, and other places where sailors were frustrated with the training and the chiefs mess was frustrated, too because they didn’t feel we were providing our junior sailors with the right training at the right time,” Moran said.
“Sailors who told us that they felt like they were on a conveyor belt from the day they signed to when they showed up at sea.”
Sailors told Moran that Navy training was built on a one-size-fits-all model, loaded with large number of personnel at the front and lacking periodic updates throughout long careers that refreshed their skills.
“And when we drilled down, we realized that fundamentally we needed to blow up the conveyor belt and institute a totally different concept," he said.
Moran said that other reforms based on feedback from the fleet would continue, including a proposal for a new performance evaluation system that discards unwritten rules and inflated grades.
MCPON Smith (AW/IW/SW) said that most of the 55 reform programs underway in the Navy personnel system — what officials call the “Sailor 2025” initiative — originated from conversations with sailors.
Before taking the MCPON post, Smith was the Fleet Master Chief working for the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Adm. Bob Burke. Part of his job included fleshing out raw ideas from junior troops, ferreting out the causes of the problems they identified, and bringing them to senior leaders.
“It’s very true that few good ideas start at the top,” Smith told Navy Times. “The good thing is that is what we’re here to do, to take those good ideas and sift through to find the real gold among it all and really turn it into something.”
“The process of taking in information from the fleet needs to be free-flowing as it comes from the mouths of sailors at all hands calls,” Smith added. “I prefer face-to-face at all hands calls. That’s where it makes sense.”
Both Moran and Smith told Navy Times that Naval Personnel Command isn’t the only place that’s hearing good ideas from junior sailors and implementing them. They also pointed to innovations that have improved workflow at aviation regional maintenance centers that were triggered by lower-level personnel but which have helped the Navy get aircraft back to the fleet faster.
“I think the feedback loop is working very well. I get these ideas and see these themes and I pop it back into the bureaucracy up here,” Moran said. “I also see that more often than not the bureaucracy stands in the way of progress and that give me something to go after up here.”
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.