Rob Almeida

Leadership at Sea: A Former Naval Officer Gains Perspective from the Offshore Drilling Industry

Rob Almeida
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March 26, 2012

On board USS Antietam, Pusan, South Korea, March 2003

It’s been almost 6.5 years since I resigned my commission in the US Navy where I served 2 tours at sea on board west coast-based warships followed by an instructor tour at the US Naval Academy.  Since leaving the service, “civilian-life” has kept me pretty busy.  I’ve traveled the world, met thousands of people, and even worked for a year on a drilling rig floor!  It’s really been an incredible learning experience and I certainly have a much greater sense of self than I ever did before.

It’s also given me an extraordinary perspective on my time in the US Navy, and how completely backwards and inefficient the US Navy operates at times.

In 2009, I was hired by Transocean (NYSE:RIG) as a part of their Rig Manager training program.  Essentially, this was an 18-month program designed to go through all the different positions on an offshore drilling rig, including all the shore-based training, to prepare me to become a Rig Manager-Performance.  It was an incredible opportunity and I was psyched to have the experience- not recognizing at the time just how different it would be from my previous leadership training in the Navy.

My first two weeks at Transocean were spent in Amelia, Louisiana with about 20 other new-hires, including Roustabouts, Roughnecks, Subsea Engineers, Crane Operators, Drillers, and two other Rig Manager trainees.  We weren’t allowed to leave the facility grounds during that time period and we were fed Transocean’s safety culture, learned their processes, studied damage control, and gained an understanding of the level of attention to detail expected on board an offshore drilling rig.

After two weeks, I still didn’t know much about drilling, but above all else what I knew what was expected of me.  I was now a safety leader and fully ready for that immense responsibility.

My first experience out of the US Naval Academy was attending Surface Warfare Officer’s School in the fall of 1999.  During the 6 month training program in Newport, Rhode Island, we learned all about naval weapons systems, gas turbine engineering, and conducted in classroom-based scenarios.  It was a really fun time and my classmates and I drank a lot of beer while celebrating the fact we were no longer midshipmen.

At the end of it all, the course turned out to be a total waste and I was no more adept at my next job than I would have been had I gone straight to the ship.  I was put in charge of 35 enlisted sailors who were working on systems that I had no real understanding of, and my immediate supervisor’s response to everything was, “did you look it up?”

I was miserable.

The following is the mission of my alma mater, the US Naval Academy:

To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character, to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.

Even as I was handed my diploma and was commissioned an Ensign, I really didn’t have a good idea of what was in store for me when I got to the “fleet”.  What does a leader in the fleet look like anyway?

The confusion lies in the fact that leaders come in all forms, but the Navy’s “corporate” vision of a leader is really quite narrow.

I have a very competitive personality, am internally driven, and hate being told what to do.  The type of leadership that will get the best results and work out of me is not the same kind for someone who is detail/technically oriented and introverted.  As a junior naval officer, I just assumed after a while that I had a problem with authority.  To a certain degree maybe I was right, but the root cause is that personality and recognizing motivating factors are not well understood in the context of naval leadership.

Understanding this is key.

You can have the most spit and polished officer in the fleet, but if he or she can’t figure out the personal motivating influencers within each subordinate, then they’ll have a difficult time getting the most out of them, or retaining them.  This ultimately impacts the performance of subordinates and subsequent mission accomplishment.

Looking at professional advancement…

In the US Navy, you’re expected to advance and move on to other, more senior roles regardless of your actual strengths, and you’re expected to have checked all the boxes along the way.  As an officer, this means qualifying as Engineering Officer of the Watch, Officer of the Deck, and Tactical Action Officer (TAO).

Ok, fair enough, I can appreciate the importance of being well rounded, but can someone tell me why you need a full body photo included as part of your promotion board?  What is this,

If you want your leaders to look good, and feel good about themselves, then throw away those horrendous blue camouflage uniforms and get back to khakis.  ADM Nimitz and Steve McQueen are rolling in their graves right now.

The Navy doesn’t attempt to tailor officers to specific jobs that reflect their strengths or even teach them how to best lead their Sailors.  Those who don’t fit in the pegs properly are considered “problems,” not potential assets that are capable of thinking outside the box and improving processes with their creativity, if they were only given more understanding leadership.  Sure, there are sailors and officers who are prone to stupid acts, but more often than not, a deeper look would reveal a highly capable individual who is simply misunderstood and unappreciated.

“People quit managers, not jobs.” – Marcus Buckingham

Transocean had a solution to this, one that I found rather profound.  Every employee is required to take a personality test that accurately depicts their tendencies, weaknesses, ideal situations, leadership needs, and growth areas.  The results of this test are color-coded and you literally wear your personality on your hard hat, or at the entrance to your office.  I’m a red over yellow.  This essentially means that I have a go-getter/director personality coupled with a communicative/extroverted side.

Makes sense right?

There’s more to it than that…follow this link to see some of the other bits of info that go along with this profile.

I was at the Surface Navy Association National Symposium this winter and attended a speech by the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.  At the end of his speech, I got up to the microphone and mentioned how Transocean employees wore their personality profiles on their hardhats and on the entrance to their offices.  I asked him if the US Navy was pursuing initiatives like this to support leadership development and fleet operations.

Most of the people in the audience laughed at the idea that officers would have their personality profiles affixed to their stateroom doors, but I think the VCNO saw what I was getting at.

Transocean (and every other civilian company) does something else that contributes to a positive working environment and leadership development…

Everyone eats together.

I realize this goes against a couple hundred years of Navy tradition, but seriously, why is it a privilege to eat in the Wardroom or Chief’s Mess?  If you want to get to know your people, or anyone for that matter, have lunch with them.  Listen to their conversations, talk to them, find out what motivates them.  It’s really quite simple.

Leadership has nothing to do with the bars on your shoulder, or your job title, it has everything to do with getting the most out of the people you work with.  The US Navy’s latest ship designs and technology have clearly evolved far quicker and further than its leadership.  Perhaps it’s time to take a big step back and really ask the question, “why do we do it this way?”



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