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Naval Institute: Best Practices for the Surface Warfare XO

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    Best Practices for the Surface Warfare XO

    By Lieutenant Commander Cathal O'Connor and Lieutenant Commander Bill Parker, U.S. Navy
    Proceedings, September 2003


    So you just received orders assigning you as the executive officer. Here are some suggestions for making the most of your tour.

    Whether you will serve as executive officer (XO) at sea or ashore, on a big deck, greyhound, or gator, congratulations! You have signed on to one of the most challenging and demanding assignments in the Navy. Your work will shape the future operations and capabilities of our fleet. Do not underestimate the powerful impact your tour will have on the lives of the men and women who really count: our officer and enlisted sailors at sea.

    The following suggestions are based on our experiences ashore and at sea. Your situation probably will differ, but these hints might make your tour more enjoyable and productive.

    Philosophies for Success

  • Know Your Job. You are the number two war fighter on board your ship. You are the commanding officer's (CO's) number one trainer, motivator, maintainer, and career manager. You are the CO's principal advisor, his conscience, and his relief valve. Along with the command master chief (CMC), you complete the CO's leadership team.

  • Time Can Be Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy. As the XO you must be an expert at prioritization. You should ask yourself two questions before committing time, manpower, money, or equipment to a task: Does it contribute to the mission of the unit? Does it contribute to the advancement of the people who work for you? If the answer is an unequivocal yes to either of these questions you should press forward on that task. Otherwise, your efforts are better allocated elsewhere.

  • Learn from Failure, and Press On. When your sailors stop failing, they have stopped trying. Failure is part of life. As the XO, you set the tone for how those who fail will be treated. Failure is a time for encouragement and training. Laugh with them in private and tell them to make a different mistake next time. Rebuild their sense of confidence and self-worth. Have them bring you a plan to fix the problem and then hold them to it. Public shaming can send good people into an inverted flat spin of lost self-confidence, panic, and self-doubt—and they might not escape.

  • Deal with Adversity. As XO, you have a duty to put things into perspective. Your positional authority gives you a chance to shape the challenges that your crew faces as opportunities to achieve. How you act and react to situations will set the tone for the crew. Do the right thing. In addition, attitude is everything. If you believe you will succeed, or believe you will fail, you probably are correct. But never underestimate the learning potential that exists from honestly and openly examining failures. Be brave and ask the hard questions of your wardroom, chief's mess, and messdecks. The answers often will surprise you.

  • Always Tell the Truth. The good, the bad, and especially the ugly, both up and down the chain. Don't ever hide bad news: the truth always comes out. Don't be on the receiving end of a thunderbolt that starts when a four-star learns from the press what you should have reported. And the same principle applies for telling your sailors the truth about their performance. If you cannot tell a department head that he isn't cutting it, and that his chance of screening for his next career milestone is marginal (given his current level of performance), then you fail the gut check of your XO tour.

    Know Your People

  • Interview the Crew. It will absorb an incredible amount of time, but if you don't do it at the beginning, you never will. You will miss the opportunity to hear what they like and dislike about the command. Then, as new check-ins arrive, have their sponsors bring them by your stateroom to say hi. After they've left, read their service records cover-to-cover and then have an in-depth interview the next business day. Listen carefully and learn where they came from and what their dreams and goals are. Your sponsor program and initial interviews will set the tone for their tours. First impressions count.

  • Engage Your Command Master Chief. Talk to the master chief. Listen to the master chief. Work with the master chief. Collectively, you should serve as the primary advisers to the CO. Your advice should be thoughtful, timely, and accurate. Disagree in private, but at the end of the day you must be united in your support of the mission and loyal to the captain.

  • Empower Your Department Heads. Give them general guidance then let them do their jobs. If they are not up to your standards, it may be because you have not trained them or provided appropriate guidance. Some will require more attention than others; but they all want to do a good job.

  • Train, Develop, and Care for Your Sailors. We only borrow our sailors. We don't own them. We must build their self-confidence, and as former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch said, "provide opportunities and challenges for people to do things they never imagined, rewarding them ... in every way possible." You, as the executive oficer, working along with the command master chief, are the sailor's number one advocate. Look for new sailors who show promise and give them a program or initiative to run. Remind them that you and the master chief are available for guidance. When you don't hear from them, send for them, and give them some love. We don't choose the sailors we get, but we can cultivate their talents by leading, coaching, and inspiring them, thereby bringing out the best in each of them.

  • Communicate What Is Expected. Prior to any major evolution, explain to the crew what is expected. Let them know what the schedule is and why the priorities have changed. Above all, remind yourself on a daily basis that the sailors you are entrusted with are an all-volunteer Navy who want to serve their nation with honor.

  • Help Your Sailors Achieve Their Dreams. Identify sailors' "dream assignment" during check-in. In your walk-arounds, follow up on their progress. Call your peers in the SEAL, explosive ordnance disposal, and fighter pilot communities and ask for help to identify the experiences and abilities that can enable your junior officers, who want to lateral transfer to other communities. Do the same for those who dream of commanding warships on the high seas. Work with your placement officers and detailers, while explaining the expectations with each of your sailors. By helping them set increasingly higher goals and expectations for themselves, you help them achieve greater results. A sailor who sees you working to make his dreams come true is an infinitely more productive crewmember and likely will stay Navy.

    Know Your Ship

  • Expect What You Inspect. The difference between a successful program that improves our sailors' quality of service and one that fails usually comes down to three key elements: First, pick the right person to lead the program. Second, support him with all the resources of the command. Third, follow up relentlessly to ensure things get completed on time. As the XO, you are responsible for all three. Your time, energy, and cheerleading—for nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm—are key.

  • Conning Officer Coach. Be calm and quiet, standing over the shoulder of the nervous officer making a first approach alongside. Be the kind of coach you wish you had had when you were an ensign. Let all the junior officers stay and observe, before and after their turns. Then debrief and have each one explain what he saw. Tell your JOs your mistakes—both recently and when you were a JO. More important, discuss how the watch team caught and corrected them.

  • Command Vision. Read the CO's vision and then see where you can best bring your talents to bear. If you have a CO who was a maintenance officer or engineer, then become the expert in the areas in which he might have less experience. Balance the boss and take notes as you go. Each month, pull out your own comand philosophy and rewrite it based on what you have learned.

  • Messing and Berthing. Walk the spaces every day. If you know the spaces better than the division officer or chief, invite them to stand by. Then remind them of the Law of the Sea: with authority comes responsibility, and with them both comes accountability. Reinspect at 1300. Once ownership and pride take root, let your chiefs take you for a walk through their areas to show off their results. Raise the bar of excellence a little each week.

  • Enlisted Manning. Have your personnelmen download the enlisted distribution and verification report monthly and build a spreadsheet that shows every rating, naval enlistment classification, billets authorized, the actual number carried on board, and the prospective manning six months and nine months out. Track the changes with your immediate superior in command (ISIC) and you can send enlisted manning inquiry reports that identify problems far enough out that a solution can be found without the system going to general quarters.

  • Long-Range Training and Replacement Program. Build a spreadsheet that shows the wardroom manning with billet sequence codes on the left margin, months of the year, fitness report due dates, and the command's schedule in separate lines across the top. This will enable you to visualize how these factors interact and affect one another. It will help you balance who gets the early promotion, your deployments, and your officers' projected rotation dates in such a way that your sailors are cared for and the transition from one CO, XO, and CMC administration to another is well planned. Programs for Success

  • Daily Physical Training. Make it mandatory for all hands, first thing in the morning five days a week, with khaki up front. There should be no working parties or deliveries until after the crew showers, you hold Officer's Call, and then Quarters. Some creative petty officers, with your support, will always find a way to hold physical training under way as well.

  • Timely Fitness Reports and Evaluations. These are tools to get your sailors promoted or selected for their next career milestones. Writing them is an art: study and learn it well. Never use them as a counseling tool. The Bureau of Personnel Web site (www.bupers.navy.mil) is a great source of guidance, as are detailers who prepare promotion and selection board packages. Speaking to officer and enlisted detailers by e-mail or phone nearly every week will establish bonds of trust and will keep you engaged in your sailors' careers. They, in turn, will know you are engaged in their futures and will reach for bigger goals.

  • Cleaning Quarters. Holding one hour of all-hands cleaning each morning, with chief petty officers and division officers walking their spaces, will put an end to the last minute, "General Quarters, all hands man your paint brushes and swabs!" when an unexpected distinguished visitor is announced. Schedule nothing else during this hour and ensure everyone participates. It is amazing the impact fox tails in the hands of the CO, XO, and CMC can have on a crew's zeal toward cleaning. This motivation, combined with a little high-tempo music over the 1MC, will make for a highly successful program.

  • Division in the Spotlight. A steady strain is the key to success in your XO ride. Set up this program for success: it must have command support, be consistent, and use the best subject matter experts you can assemble as inspectors. You will know the program is working when the same discrepancies are no longer found during zone inspections conducted by the CO, XO, CMC, and senior damage control chief. You will know the program is working when pay problems are corrected. You will know the program is working when the CO2 bottles are receiving proper preventive maintenance. You will know the program needs work if your shot records are falling behind, dental readiness is slipping, and division officers do not know what was debriefed the week before when their fellow division officer went through. A follow-up two weeks after the inspection is an essential part to this program. Similarly, consistent training on zone inspection discrepancies is essential.

  • Indoctrination Division. Hold it monthly and make sure that it covers maintenance and material management, damage control, and force protection. Introduce your policies, your expectations, and the programs you have in place to take care of your sailors. Include a half-day of driving the new folks around the base and give them a chance to stop by the exchange and the uniform shop. Make 9-mm, M-14 or M-16, shotgun, .50-caliber or M-60, and grenade personnel qualification standards part of indoctrination division and schedule monthly range time.

  • Training Team Manning. Once a team has validated a key milestone, shift those watch standers who will not make the next cruise to the training team and give the remaining team members their positions. It's a stretch goal to keep the team growing as the weekly drills progress. Integrated training team drills continue in port and under way each week throughout the year, otherwise both watch standers and training teams get rusty and knowledge decays. A steady strain approach to training, maintenance, and cleanliness is the only one that works.

  • Realistic Training. Train the way you will fight. Be as realistic as possible. Put the search-and-rescue swimmers in the water during man overboard drills; place trash cans full of water in spaces to practice using an eductor; electrically and mechanically isolate main spaces during fire drills; and never hand a sailor a weapon without the proper training and the chance to practice. Training with the combat information center team should include at least one watch stander on the bridge, in combat system maintenance central, and in the central control station. Make all events worthwhile and never hold training for the sole purpose of checking a box.

  • Validate the Main Space Fire Drill in the Shipyard. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, run drills. Quickly debrief the damage control training team while the gear is being restowed in the repair lockers, then gather all hands and debrief the ship as a whole on what went well and what needs to be learned. If the learning curve drops because of transfers, then make Tuesday's drill a walk-and-crawl day to cover basic tactics, techniques, and procedures, then run the same drill Thursday. Never underestimate the learning potential from discussing our mistakes openly, honestly, and with humor.

  • Validate the Flight Deck Emergency Drill in the Shipyard. Conduct this drill Friday after lunch in the shipyards. Invite the afloat training group (ATG) evaluators and have them critique. Debrief and then send everyone home for the weekend. Performance soars with these kinds of motivators.

    Realistic training is the key to good performance during the actual event, whether it is firing missiles or fighting fires. Make sure you train the way you will fight. 
    Create a Culture of Success

  • Earn and Keep the Surface Warfare Officer and Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist Excellence Pennants. The CMC runs the spreadsheet and uses check-in interviews to track qualification and requalification dates. Enlisted surface warfare specialist training is held daily in port during lunch hour, and daily under way after working hours. The senior watch officer runs a similar officer spreadsheet that lays out qualification goals tied to check-in dates. Hold weekly officer training by those who know best, followed by a quiz two days later, and then personnel qualification standards sign off. Those unable to achieve goals because of extended in-port time should be sent for temporary additional duty to ships getting under way, even if for a week or two.

  • Make Time for Advancement Training. Hold an hour-and-a-half of training Monday and Wednesday afternoons based on advancement profiles. Each sailor who passed but was not advanced on the last exam knows a particular area that everyone else needs to learn. Let them teach what they know to the rest of their peers. Practice exams identify those with weak reading ability. Send them for temporary additional duty for basic-skills training. A sailor who can then read bedtime stories to the kids at home will work harder for the command than you can imagine.

  • Play Nice with the ATG and ISIC. The saying goes, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." If you live with a bipolar view pitting your command against "them," then you miss the opportunity to use these commands to their fullest. Ask for every assist imaginable or available. It keeps outside eyes looking at your spaces and practices. It keeps you on your toes. It ensures job stability for your chiefs who want to go ashore when the time comes. And it motivates those who are working in those jobs to negotiate orders to your ship.

  • Awards. Scour every instruction and Web site for every award possible. The command deserves to compete for every award it is eligible to receive. Print copies of all the previous winners and draw your ideas from them. Build on the previous winners' achievements and establish the programs to make these practices live on beyond your tour.

  • Executive Officer's Inquiry (XOI). First, find out the truth of what happened. Second, conduct XOI where the chain of command either fights to save the sailor's rank or throws up its hands and leaves the sailor alone facing the XO. But even in these worst of cases, someone has to fight for the sailor (unless it's a zero-tolerance issue, then XOI is a formality). In all things, it is up to the XO to remain calm, professional, and in control. Experience has shown that the quieter you as the XO are, the bigger the impact on the sailor. Just make sure the master chief can catch your eye if a sailor starts to bait you—yes, it does happen. Conclusion

    Make sure your officers and crew have as much fun as you. This profession is hard work, but if properly planned, it can be a heck of a lot of fun! Now it is up to you to offer the best practices that you came up with during your tours in the Navy. Send them to us, and we will shamelessly copy them for our commands and publish them in a future article (parker.william@cds21.navy.mil). We need to share what has worked for each of us because a good idea has no owner.

    Lieutenant Commander O'Connor is the Tomahawk missile officer and plans and exercise officer for Commander, Battle Force Seventh Fleet. Lieutenant Commander Parker is the executive officer of the USS Chancellorsville (CG-62), Air Defense Commander for Battle Force Seventh Fleet. They trade best practices by e-mail, phone, and over dinner at the Officer's Club in Yokosuka, Japan.

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