LT Ryan Haag is an Information Warfare Officer. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he served onboard the USS Hampton (SSN-767) as the Electrical Officer and Assistant Weapons Officer, at U.S. Second Fleet as a TLAM Senior Mission Planner and Flag Aide.  After obtaining a lateral transfer, he is now serving at NIOC Georgia as the Air Operations Officer. When he’s not at work, he’s probably at home with his wife and three children, or out in the woods hunting with his dog Riley.  His personal blog can be found here.

“C….P….O!” The about-to-be-pinned Chiefs, tired from staying up for the last 24 hours of “training,” come marching into the auditorium.  Although I’m sitting too far away to tell, I’m sure they are all relieved that the Chiefs’ “season” is over, and they’ll soon be pinned and can go home for some much needed sleep.  Our Commanding Officer steps up and gives a short speech about the importance of Chiefs in the Navy, during which he says “I am a product of good Chiefs.”

It nearly causes me to shudder, because it’s something with which I cannot identify.  During my first leadership class (affectionately called Leader-sleep by its unwilling students), our instructors told us to not worry about running our divisions, because our Chief would “take care of it,” take us under his wing, and in general look after us until we got oriented to being in the Navy.  So I reported to my submarine and did just that…and spent my first 3 months in three different maintenance critiques because my Chief nearly killed 6 sailors when he wrote bad tagouts and didn’t follow proper procedures, all of which I hadn’t caught because I had blindly trusted him.

Needless to say, I grew really cynical really fast, and quickly acquired a lot of attention to detail.

I wish I hadn’t been as naive as an Ensign, and I wish that my instructors had given me a dose of reality before showing up to my first command.  In contrast to my Commanding Officer’s speech, I am a product of bad Chiefs.  Bad Chiefs have caused me to learn the nuts and bolts of Navy maintenance, because I didn’t trust my Chief to do things correctly.  Bad Chiefs made me learn how to conduct a real training program, because their idea of training the division was to brief to an outdated PowerPoint, when my Sailors deserved better.  Bad Chiefs made me learn how to write evaluations, because apparently English is a second language for nuclear ratings.

The silly sea stories told in so called leadership classes do not prepare Ensigns for the harsh realities they will face as new Division Officers.  By the time a new Ensign realizes that his Chief is leading him astray, the damage is probably already done.  If I had my chance to teach a leadership course to new Ensigns, I’d focus on what they should expect from their Division Chief:

– Your Chief should tell you about everything happening in your division.  He should trust that you won’t immediately “freak out” when bad things happen, since you need to learn how to constructively work through day to day problems in your division.  The only way you can learn is if your Chief teaches you why he does things a certain way.  If your Chief just “takes care of it” and gives you no other details, you lose that opportunity for him to mentor you.

– Your Chief should want you to be a subject matter expert in all things related to your division.  That means if you’re the Electrical Officer, get ready to put your hands in a turbine generator and replace light bulbs throughout the ship.  You need to ask questions about the maintenance and operations that your division performs, and your Chief should readily answer these questions (after all, he already is the subject matter expert).  One big advantage is that as you pursue your warfare pin, you’ll see how your division fits into the bigger Navy picture.  You’ll also learn how to digest large quantities of technical information quickly, which will help you in later jobs.

– Your Chief should connect you with other Chiefs in the command. The Chief’s Mess is a powerful organization at most commands, and can quickly get a lot of things done, but junior officers can’t effectively tap into the Mess without their Division Chief.  Your Chief should help you understand how the Mess works, how to get things done at your command, and how to best utilize Chiefs from other divisions throughout your command.

– Your Chief, although respectful, should be brutally honest with you, and you in turn need to listen with an open mind.  The Navy hasn’t embraced 360 degree evaluations, and it’s doubtful that your FITREP is going to list anything bad.  Unless you really mess up, I doubt that you’ll even get negative feedback from your Department Head.  But your Chief will instantly pick up on your weak areas, and not only should he tell you about them, he should help you fix them.  That brutal honesty will help you stamp out weak areas early, when your Sailors will chalk up your mistakes to your relative newness to the Navy, instead of having those areas hinder you later as a Lieutenant (or worse, get you fired as a Commanding Officer).

The Division Officer/Division Chief is the best team out there that the Navy has: two people, about the same age, with vastly different backgrounds, expectations, and experiences, leading a division of Sailors. The core concept is that each person offsets the other’s weaknesses.  While the Chief has the experience to run the division, the officer is going to translate the Commanding Officer’s intentions into something actionable.  The officer will bring in new ideas, but the Chief will keep them grounded in reality.  It’s a program that has worked for decades.

The quicker advancement of petty officers to Chiefs (some in as few as 6 years) has lessened the amount of “salt” that our Chiefs have, so our junior officers need to be ready to step up to help…and they can’t do that when they are cut out of the loop, told to mind administrative matters, and blindly sign the weekly maintenance schedule. The small hairs on the back of your neck should shoot up if you ever hear your Chief say:

“Sir, I already took care of it.” (and then doesn’t tell you what he did)
“Sir, you don’t need to know all the details.”
“Sir, officers are for doing paperwork.”
“Sir, it’s your job to maintain the (training binder, PMS schedule, qual tracker, or some other piece of paperwork) while I get my hands dirty and do the real work.”

The Division Officer/Division Chief team is complementary, not competitive.  It’s not a line drawn in the sand, dividing two people who have different roles.  It’s more like working with a good friend on a long term project (like a classic car restoration), where both of you have similar skills, but each of you has his or her own way of doing things.  When your relationship with your Division Chief feels like that, you’ll be well on your way to doing great things with your division.