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Why the Navy needs a "Culture of Excellence"

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WASHINGTON (NNS) -- The Navy is “all ahead full” in efforts to flip service culture from one of reaction and compliance to a more proactive “Culture of Excellence.”

It’s a rudder correction the service needs, leadership believes, to get ahead of destructive behaviors by changing culture from the deckplates to the most senior levels of the Navy—punctuating the bottom line from NAVADMIN 254/19, which announced the Culture of Excellence.

All organizations have a culture. Successful organizations, the Navy has learned, take an active role in shaping that culture as the foundation for making the service a better place to live and work.

Though governed by a panel of senior officers, Navy officials believe the change must resonate with the deckplates and on up to be successful. Culture of Excellence isn’t just a cute phrase. It’s an overarching movement that brings together a myriad of existing and new programs that will develop toughness, trust and connectedness in every Sailor, civilian and family member.

It won’t happen overnight, but there’s a sense of urgency as this week fleet experts met at the Center for Naval Analyses with military and private sector civilians, hammering new foundational efforts slated to rollout later this year, while tweaking others already underway.

Both Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, the chief of naval personnel and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell D. Smith lent their voices to the fray, emphasizing just how critical this culture change is to the Navy today and into the future – and why.  

"All too often when I open my email, I have a report of another suicide," said Nowell. "What we have been doing is not bending the curve."

Nowell highlighted the key preventative efforts already underway in the fleet, such as Command Resilience Teams that have been implemented across the fleet. In addition, he’s excited about the rollout of the “Commander’s Risk Mitigation Dashboard.”

This effort, Nowell said, is a critical first step for getting in front of things like suicide – where often there are no apparent warning signs. This dashboard combines information from over 22 separate Navy and Department of Defense databases.

Gathering data and displaying information on a dashboard, alone, won’t solve problems. The power is in combining this data, tagged to the unit level, where the information paints a picture which can point commands in the right direction.  

 “What I'm doing is reinforcing the path that you are on,” Nowell said in his nearly one hour back and forth discussion.

“What I do need to know is what barriers do my team and I need to break down, to help you better get after it,” he said.  “I see the solution coming from the deckplates where leadership Command Resilience Teams are armed with things like the Commander’s Risk Mitigation Dashboard to be proactive and stop trends as they start.”

This brand of data-driven and engaged leadership, Nowell realizes, might be seen by some as “big brother is watching.” Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

“It’s a canary in the coal mine,” Nowell said. “If we see trends we can raise red flags both up and down the chain to get ahead of the issues and not be behind them picking up the pieces – we can’t fix what we don’t know or understand -- this will help us bend that curve.”

Another key cornerstones of flipping the culture, Nowell said, is the service’s efforts to promote warrior toughness – resiliency as some call it – on the deckplates.

The Navy has been teaching new Sailors the concept for the past year at Recruit Training Command. In the coming year it will spread to officer accession points, including the U.S. Naval Academy. 

“I’m an old ship driver,” Nowell said. “[Back in those days] the initial reaction when something happened was to simply tell everyone to ‘suck it up’ and drive on – we have to get past that – we have got to get to the point across the whole Navy that if you have to take a knee and recalibrate—it's not just OK, it's the right thing to do.”

Being able to take a hit in your personal and professional lives bleeds over into warfighting, too. Getting that message to the fleet on a regular basis and getting buy-in from commands and commanders is critical – and it must happen across all communities.

That was the message that MCPON Smith brought to the assembled experts – how the Navy’s more than 31,000 strong Chiefs Mess can be the lynch pin in driving such a culture change.

“As you know, we as a Navy are broken up into many sub-cultures that don’t always talk to each other easily,” Smith said. “There’s surface, submarines, aviation as well EOD and SEALs to name a few and inside our communities, we can be very tribal.”

But built into the Navy across all these vertical communities is one common horizontal one – the Chiefs Mess, Smith said.

“We have a cadre of folks, who with their position in the organization comes an expectation to be very honest and open and to say the things you may not want to hear, no one else is going to tell you, but it is something you need to know,” Smith said.

“That’s our asymmetrical advantage in rolling out a program like this because we have the ability to take the lessons learned from one culture to another seamlessly.”

Leveraging the Chiefs Mess, he said, is “absolutely vital to the success of a Culture of Excellence.”

Down the chain, he said, chiefs are also critical to showing Sailors that we are all human and to not hesitate to use themselves as examples, something he’s worked hard to do as a chief and a leader.

“I’m a product of my life experience,” he said. “Here I am, warts and all – you can’t be afraid to do that – to tell them that I’m going to share my experiences to make sure you benefit from that – it’s one of the hardest things to do.”

Sharing such deeply personal mistakes Smith said, is what is going to bend the curve and grow the “Culture of Excellence.”   

“It sets an amazing example that tells your average Sailor that it’s OK not to be OK,” he said. “It’s not OK not to ask for help.”

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