Friday, September 26, 2003

Demonstrated leadership in the Coast Guard

Or is that a demonstrated lack of leadership in the Coast Guard?

Today, I had the privilege of meeting with a gentleman who wants to become a civil servant with the Coast Guard. He's had a trying time getting hired, having applied for more than a dozen jobs and having gotten no where -- not even an interview. The worst of it is that he never even got a phone call or a letter telling him he hadn't been selected. He'd apply for a job, receive word that he'd been rated as qualified or highly qualified... and then he wouldn't hear a thing. He made a few phone calls and talked with some folks and became convinced he'd been discriminated against. Oh, I didn't mention he'd over 40 and is a disabled veteran. He became so frustrated with the situation that he made an EEO complaint.

That's where I came in; I'm an EEO counselor. So, today I met with him. Clearly, he's a competent guy; he served more than 20 years in the Coast Guard before retiring. He knows a little something. (Yes, that's an example of understatement.)

So, today I met with him, and the thing that struck me is this: the Coast Guard claims to be an excellent organization in terms of leadership. In a new book co-written by a former Commandant of the Coast Guard. says the authors assert "the Coast Guard is a superlative example of an organization with effective leadership, loaded with leaders at all levels."

Well, if that's the case, this guy I met today hasn't met many in the last 12 months. He's been told some stuff that would make your toes curl. That senior decision makers in the Coast Guard didn't like the fact they were getting a bunch of disabled veterans on the top of the "certs" for certain positions, so they re-racked the process to weed out the disabled vets. That jobs have been going to people who have personal relationships with the hiring authorities rather than a fair and impartial hiring process.

Loaded with super leaders at all levels? I'd raise the bullshit flag.

So, anyway, I think he's going to get a job, not because of his EEO complaint; thankfully, one hiring authority interviewed this man and is likely going to offer him a job. And the new civilian employee will bury his complaint and start a new career.

But I wonder if senior members of the Coast Guard get it: they need to communicate; they need to operate with transparency.

I have my own example. A year ago, I left my Reserve assignment after six years working in the nearby rescue coordination center. My supervisor put me in for an "end of tour award." I heard through the grape vine, after a while, that the award was at my new command ready to be presented. Between the time I heard about it and when I was next scheduled to perform duty, it disappeared.

Well, not exactly. A senior captain decided I wasn't worthy, even though the awards board had made the recommendation and the admiral had signed/awarded it, so he convinced the admiral to take the award back. Oh, did they ever talk to me about it? Nope.

Meanwhile, my evaluation was lost in space. I spoke with my supervisor who had me come in. He told me that the award had been taken back; he had been directed not to say anything else about it, and he told me to file a freedom of information act request. Then he proceeded to tell me that my final evaluation had been submitted and the senior captain had forced the commander and the supervisor to re-write the evaluation; he didn't agree with the comment as he thought I'm a dirtbag. The supervisor held firm and didn't re-write his comments. The commander, well, he folded. (He was in the running for a promotion and, I suspect, didn't want to rock the boat.) So, my eval was re-written. Oh, had the commander ever talked to me about the issues? Nope.

Right after this meeting, I began to seek a counseling session with the commander. That was back in June. I still haven't met with him; he keeps putting me off. I finally had an appointment with him for today; he emailed me late last week and put me off until the 10th of next month. That'll be 12 months and 10 days after the end of the reporting period. That's timely feedback and counseling, isn't it?

Oh, and the senior captain? I emailed him and asked him for a counseling session. He hasn't even had the decent courtesy to write me back, even to tell me to get lost.

And my FOIA requests? Well the first one I put in was denied. The reply said that I wasn't entitled to see any paperwork, including any awards citations which might have been signed and subsequently not presented. I'm appealing that. I then put in a second FOIA; figured I may as well as for all the citations to accompany awards the admiral signed from last October through May for staff members attached to the same command. According to the FOI Act, the agency has only 20 work days to respond. I've lost count at how many days, exactly, we're at now, but let's just say we might be at twice that.

It might not be true, but I get the sense no one wants to talk to me.

Is this the mark of an excellent organization, one in which superlative leadership is demonstrated at all levels of the organization? Not.

Two lieutenant commanders (my former supervisor and the administrative officer at the staff) have been honest and forthright with me. But they aren't the decision makers. They continue to hound the senior captain, the now-twice-passed over commander, other senior decision makers including staff attorneys, but still, no comms.

So, what do these two stories have to do with each other? Well, both are examples of poor leadership, poor decisions made by senior leaders in the Coast Guard.

These are stories of personal issues, but the same is true with bigger issues. Following the deadly case of the S/V MORNING DEW. What's of note with case isn't the fact that the boater got all fouled up or that people died or even that the Coast Guard member on watch made a mistake. (The radio watchstander heard a call late at night/early morning; he attempted to establish comms and was unable to. Rather than being diligent, he assumed it was for a radio check and not a distress call. He was wrong. In the morning, when things became clear their was a real case, he correlated the earlier call. No one knew about the call, other than him. He did the right thing in the light of day and, in essence, put himself on report. Oh, he got figuratively fried.) What's of note is that the senior leaders of the organization tried to bury the case. When I came into watch, I was told "It never happened. You don't know anything. We don't have any tapes." Sure. I swore then that I wouldn't be a party to cover-up.

Fast forward to the F/V ELENI II case from the summer of 2002. Another sad case, this one involving men out fishing for shark in a tournament. In this case, the CG acted in accordance with it's established policies and procedures (although the procedures then had an unknown hole). As a matter of fact, a very astute controller was able to correlate a distress call with the reported overdue vessel. Anyway, at the tail end of the case, I was on watch and taking press calls. In the course of a conversation, I played the distress radio call (ala a 911-call) for this reporter. Okay, in hindsight, perhaps not an astute decision on my part; he had lied to me. Anyway, I played the tape, believing in transparency in decision making.

You'd think that I'd given the enemy the full cutter schedules and had sold out operational security to drug smugglers and terrorists. Well, I say this now, at the time, the extent of the counseling I received was from the now-twice-passed-over commander: "Not a real smooth move, Peter." No shit.

But, here's the point: the senior captain and the commander, they wanted to bury the call. They didn't want the public to hear it, or they wanted to spin it, or they wanted to wait for weeks or months before releasing it. The old Coast Guard public affairs manual said, "Bad news doesn't get better with age." Well, I think the captain and the commander and, hell, maybe even the admiral, forgot that. They forgot the lessons of Johnson & Johnson in the Tylenol scare or other successful, proactive, public affairs initiatives.

So, what's my message: if you want to be a good leader, act with transparency. Let key stakeholders know what you know and why you made a particular decision. Don't hide behind paperwork or busy schedules. I'm not talking about giving up operational security or trade secrets or anything like that. I'm talking about doing the right thing. As Noll Klank, a mentor of mine when I coached high school lacrosse, said, "Always do right."

May the man I met today get offered a job without regard to his age and disabilty but focusing on his strengths and capabilities.

May I get a senior officer to speak the truth, as they see it, to me.

May I practice what I preach.

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