Taking 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.