Your First Division

mr.miyagiTaking charge of your first division is a surreal experience. You’re still figuring out which end of the ship is which, and out of the blue you’re told “go take over Fire Control Division.” You are given no further guidance, with the possible exception of the ever-useful “Message to Garcia.” You’re not sure what a Fire Control is, but you know that fire is bad and you reckon that it ought to be controlled. You suspect that you’re being screwed with, and to an extent you’re probably right.

Consider this a necessary rite of passage. While it’s highly entertaining from the outside, you’re learning a powerful skill. Think back to the 80’s classic The Karate Kid, where Daniel wanted to learn how to fight, but Mr. Miyagi just kept giving him pointless chores. Daniel would eventually learn that the chores actually were the lesson. You are developing the ability to assume control when you’re at an information disadvantage. This is the first step in making order out of chaos, and is a fundamental skill for any decent naval officer. Wax on, wax off.

Define Your Role. If your boss asked you to explain a Division Officer’s purpose in a few words, what would you tell them? What if instead of your boss, it was your newest recruit who asked? What if it was your division chief—would your answer be different? This mental exercise is a good way to shake out inconsistencies in your self-appraisal. You should be able to define your responsibilities in one or two sentences, and the description shouldn’t change depending who’s around. If you cannot articulate your purpose as a Division Officer, you are not ready to relieve.

It is not for you to judge that your assignment is unimportant

Embrace the role. You might be in one of those unfortunate commands that makes up billets on the fly for unassigned ensigns. You might know you’d be perfect for Electrical Officer, and then find out that you’re the new Assistant Sanitation Officer. You might be assigned to a division that has performed well without a DIVO for months or years. None of that matters—it is not for you to judge that your assignment is unimportant. That would be the surest way to guarantee that you never get a more prominent job. The only thing you can do is try to be the best damned Assistant Sanitation Officer the Navy has ever seen, and greater responsibilities will flow your way soon enough.

Interview the guys. You should personally interview each of your sailors within a week or two of relieving, but it’s best if you start before you turn over. Get to know the guys, and take notes—where are they from, what is their family situation, what are their hobbies, what are their ambitions, what collateral duties do they have… you get the picture.  Don’t fill out a form– listen.

This step is not required by any instruction, and that is important—what you’re doing here is establishing with your guys that you are actually interested in them as individuals. You might be the first.You’re surveying the terrain, and building the channels of communication that you will rely on to get your work done.

Inspect thoroughly. Way harder than it sounds. Remember when you told your family about your plans to join the Navy, and your uncle Bob made you promise not to sign any documents without understanding them thoroughly? Remember when you gave up on reading everything after about ten seconds? Yeah, its kinda like that. There will be a lot of unfamiliar materials and great pressure to move the process along.

You’re going to see a lot of records and paperwork that look like gibberish—you’ll have no idea what to look for. Try your best—don’t count on going through all this stuff with the incumbent there to hold your hand; you’re not going to learn anything that way. A good turnover will normally involve some late nights with your head in the books. Keep a notepad with you and write down your questions. The key is to seek the governing reference and verify compliance. What are the inspectors going to look for when they audit your programs? That’s precisely the stuff you should be looking for.

If you are so blessed, you’ll have to inventory your sensitive materials—take it seriously. Weapons, ammunition, launch keys, crypto, radioactive material—You don’t want to be holding the bag when this stuff goes missing. For the love of all that is holy, do not accept a BS explanation for something you can’t find (“Oh yeah, that’s in the such-and-such locker, but we can’t get the key right now… c’mon, let’s go, we need to get this moving”). Put your eyes on it, and if you can’t complete the inventory in time for the turnover, document which items you couldn’t find in the turnover paperwork. It is as simple as that.

This is not to say that you can refuse to accept the division if you don’t like what you find. This isn’t like buying a used car. You may be inheriting a problem division specifically because someone thinks you can straighten things out. The point is to find the problems you’re taking on before they find you.

Don’t Forget the EDVR. The Enlisted Distribution and Verification Report is a big document that is maintained by the Ship’s Office. They are supposed to update it monthly. I give it special mention here because it is so often overlooked by new Division Officers, and it’s an exceptionally useful source of information. Basically, the EDVR tells you how many guys of each rank you should have in your division, and how long each of your current guys has left in the Navy. This is information is critical to long-term planning, and it can give you ammunition to argue for more people if you’re undermanned. More here.

Take charge. Once you take over, you must never look back. The most weak, pathetic, and un-officerlike words you can whimper are “It’s not my fault.” No matter how screwed up the last DIVO was, from the second you say the words “I relieve you,” it is your fault—all of it. Embrace your new responsibility, and recognize it as an honor.

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4 thoughts on “Your First Division

  1. Couple points to add:
    – If you take over something terrible (like a bad RAM inventory) you will want to note it in your relief letter. Don’t note stupid things like “Logs were taken in blue once,” but significant problems that could get you fired that you find should be noted.
    – Get the routine admin right with your chief. First day, get your Chief/LPO to agree on how routine admin (leave chits, PMS paperwork, etc.) will flow. Physically where will they put it? Timelines? Getting that correct up front helps you focus on what really needs fixing later. Especially if your division didn’t have an officer previously, you need to establish what things remain with the Chief/LPO and which things will come to you.
    – Ask about manning. Get ready to review your Enlisted Distribution Validation Report (EDVR). It tells you who belongs to you, when people are expected to leave, and who is coming in. It’s great for seeing what will happen in the future. Are you going to lose all your star operators at once? The EDVR will tell you, and if so you need to plan now.

    • Yeah, I went through two divisions before I found out about the EDVR. Its a great resource and a thorough review of it should be a part of every turnover.

  2. Very good post. I particularly liked the section on inspecting thoroughly. I would offer one additional point (that takes several paragraphs to explain).
    Understand what is expected of you. It is not expected that you or your Division perform flawlessly. It is not expected that you are an immediate expert on all the records you review or the maintenance you ‘supervise’. You are expected to work your butt off and gain expertise in all aspects of running the Division. You are expected to fight for your Division, whether its evals, awards, or (for us sub guys) just getting to the front of the line in Maneuvering.
    Most importantly, you are expected to have integrity, lead earnestly and follow faithfully. There will come a time when you are the ‘senior man with a secret’. If you are doing your job, you will either be there when bad stuff happens or, if it happens during your one hour of sleep, your Chief will wake you up and tell you first. How leaders handle this situation is very important. For the new Division Officer, I echo the statements in the original post, take responsibility-especially if it’s not your fault, offer potential solutions, but always, always, always, tell the whole story. It is tempting to whitewash, minimize, or otherwise caveat a bad screw up-it doesn’t help. I have heard some JOs say something to the effect of “the CO would rather not know”. I would argue that only poor COs have that mindset and you should hold your CO to a higher standard.
    Lastly, on the topic of leading and following; There will be times when you must support an unpopular decision by your CO, XO, or DH. It is Leadership 101 that you must still support it, but doing so is much more challenging than it sounds. “Because the captain said so” is easily and correctly interpreted as, “I think its stupid too but we’re going to do it anyway”. If you don’t agree with a decision from your chain of command, it is your duty to discuss it with them. As a JO, you have a personal relationship with the CO-you eat with him, go to parties at his house, and know his family. Leverage that relationship to understand the decisions he makes-by asking him if necessary. Understanding how a decision was reached, especially an unpopular one, is a key part of growing as a leader yourself. And when the Sailor tells you a certain decision was bullshit, you will have more to say than “The Captain said so”

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