First Prize, Enlisted Essay Contest
We Don't Need Another Academy
Proceedings, February 2007
Rather than establish a new Chief Petty Officer Academy, the Navy should take a hard look at the high-quality chiefs emerging from a time-honored initiation process—one that works just fine, thank you.
Late each summer, all Navy chief petty officers undertake a most honorable and daunting task—training their relief. Chiefs perform this task year-'round, but late summer brings the special opportunity to train chief selectees. With much effort, diligence, and preparation, the collective Chiefs' Mess executes CPO Initiation.(1) This transitional period for thousands of proud Sailors has become an honored ritual, and its continuation is critical to the long-term success of the Navy.
Initiation training in its current form begins soon after selection board results are released in late July or early August. These weeks of training prepare selectees for the actual initiation, conducted normally on 16 September. Specific training differs by command, especially for those under way, but the following description is typical, and the whole exercise has proved highly successful.
The first official event immediately after results are received is a physical fitness assessment (PFA) risk factor screening and weigh-in. This is followed by an informal gathering in which selectees and chiefs get acquainted and where selectees may also meet their initiation sponsors. Often selectees will have two sponsorsa primary sponsor appointed by the initiation committee and the command master chief from a group of volunteers, and a secondary one chosen by the selectee.
The next event is the formal introduction to the Chiefs' Mess, when each selectee individually introduces himself or herself to the assembled mess. At this time, chiefs and selectees truly begin to learn about each other and how chiefs interact.
Selectees soon begin to build their charge books, or vessels to carry their books, and construct beautiful boxes in which to carry their combination covers. The charge book is the most important item in the process and becomes a cherished memento long after initiation ends. Over the course of several weeks, selectees ask chiefs to add words of wisdom, advice, and congratulations to the books. Selectees also complete a Chief Petty Officer Personal Qualification Standard (PQS) focused on core values and core competencies. Both of these items not only serve to impart knowledge, they compel the selectees to get to know their soon-to-be fellow chiefs.
What the Training Sessions Do
Formal selectee- and chief-led training sessions address the core competencies of a petty officer: leading Sailors, developing enlisted and junior officer Sailors, communicating Navy core values, and supporting with loyalty the chain-of-command and their fellow chief petty officers. Specific training topics usually also include mentoring, leadership, counseling, evaluations and fitness report writing, award writing, fraternization, Navy programs (e.g., Right Spirit and Task Force Excel), code of conduct, and the difference between and the running of the Chiefs' Mess and the Chief Petty Officers Association. Teamwork is stressed in every event with the goal that the selectees will quickly become active and productive members of the Chiefs' Mess.
Selectees conduct chief-led physical training three or more times per week. The first week includes an unofficial assessment after the previously mentioned screening and weigh-in. The last session before initiation and pinning on the anchors is an official Navy physical fitness assessment and official weigh-in. Selectees failing either, without medical waiver, are not pinned to be a chief. Those who will be promoted, and not frocked, on 16 September risk having their promotion recommendations revoked. This rarely happens because those at risk are identified early, and weak areas are addressed until the selectee is no longer at risk.
During initiation, selectees also conduct a number of community-service events and less formal but fun events with the Chiefs' Mess, and they develop and carry out fund-raising activities to help defray the cost of initiation, which is funded by the Mess. Families are also very involved in the process. The command master chief and initiation coordinator normally have lunch with spouses to answer questions at the beginning, and selectees' sponsors maintain close contact with spouses throughout the weeks of training. Spouses and families also get involved in many of the informal activities.
On initiation day, selectees are tested, both as a team and as individuals. Through a series of events, chiefs test the knowledge and performance of their charges and introduce new levels of stress. While the specifics are not disclosed here so as not to ruin the surprise for future chiefs, suffice it to say that, by design, initiation is physically and emotionally draining.
Over the past several years, chiefs' initiation has come under attack, both from within and from outside. The attacks have, in many cases, not been overt. They seem to have begun with minor administrative changes, specifically slight alterations to the CPO selection board schedule that have shortened the time available for initiation. In contrast, strong and often outspoken opposition exists within the Navy, both from CPO Mess members and non-members. This opposition appears to originate from those who do not understand or fully appreciate the effectiveness of the process.
Initiation Getting Shorter
Each year the CPO selection board is adjourned a bit later, or results are delayed after the board is adjourned, giving the Chiefs less time to conduct initiation. In 2006, 19,750 first class petty officers had to wait six days after the board adjourned to learn if they had or had not been selected.(2) While this trend has gradually reduced the time available to train future chiefs, chiefs have consistently done what they do best—turned to and done the job.
Aside from limiting the duration of initiation, this recent trend has placed Sailors' careers and lives on hold for an extra week. Six days may not seem like a lot, but when one remembers that the selection process begins with the CPO advancement examination in January, an additional six days in the summer is grueling.
The good news of CPO selection often brings with it a change in orders, or unexpected orders. Every year many Sailors are faced with a tough situation—advance to chief or retire at high-year tenure. These Sailors especially deserve rapid board results since their lives are truly on hold, and they could be expected to retire within weeks if not selected. The families of these Sailors are also waiting anxiously and wondering what unexpected news the results may bring. Delay in announcing results may have been caused by a number of things, but it was widely viewed by the Chiefs' Mess as a deliberate action to limit initiation.
In October 2004, Master Chief Michael R. Vimislik offered an assessment of recent changes to the process—both good and bad—and insight into the importance of initiation.(3) In response to Master Chief Vimislik's call for "reasoned discourse," a Navy captain wrote against initiation in Proceedings' "Comment and Discussion."(4) His use of confrontational and insulting words such as "moronic" and "childish" did little to advance the dialogue this subject deserves.(5)
The captain's assessment of CPO initiation was completely incorrect. First, he indicated that initiation humiliates selectees. No one will argue that the process does not "cause [a selectee] to humbly accept challenge."(6) But there is a significant difference between humility and humiliation. If initiation is so humiliating, why do initiated chiefs refer to it as the greatest day of their lives? It may be a stretch when one considers life's other accomplishments, but it is a reflection of the positive impact of such an experience. If initiation were as degrading as the captain alleges, Navy chiefs would describe themselves as "initiated and degraded." Instead, we happily consider ourselves "initiated and proud."
The captain alleged no existing proof that initiation creates a better CPO. There certainly is no empirical data or scientific study to support it, but if the performance, professionalism, and conduct of initiated chiefs were compared to that of the uninitiated, the hypothesis would in fact be proved true.
The attitude expressed by the captain is an argument in favor of a recent trend that welcomes increased officer participation in the process. Commanding officers and prospective commanding officers should and do play an important role. It has become important in conveying the importance of the process to the wardroom and puts senior leaders at ease by unveiling a bit of the secrecy and building trust in them that what we spend so much time on does in fact benefit our Navy.
During initiation season 2005, this author witnessed three Navy captains participate in the culminating event and other important points in the process. Two had never before taken part—and both became true supporters of the process and more ardent supporters of Navy chiefs by doing so. One even agreed when her senior enlisted leader said that on that night we initiated 20 selectees and two captains. It was done again in 2006 with a commander—a prospective CO. She immediately welcomed the invitation and quite correctly viewed her involvement as a training opportunity for herself. She too became a bigger supporter of her own Chiefs' Mess after participating.
Another argument against initiation is that no other service has a "parallel practice."(7) This fact alone does make Navy chiefs unique. Chiefs working with our sister services see that clearly, and we're proud of it. The Chief Petty Officer Creed expresses the differences between Navy chiefs and their sister-service counterparts. This uniqueness, and the benefits of initiation, drive countless senior enlisted members from the other services to ask to be part of our process annually.
The arguments against initiation posed by officers are relatively easy to combat, because they are wrong and the validity and need for the process can be explained and shown. What is far worse and far more difficult to combat are the views of chief petty officers who themselves do not believe in the process.
Master Chief Anthony Evangelista, the U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Sixth Fleet command master chief, supported developing a Chief Petty Officer Academy within his Fleet. His reasoning, although appearing logical, deserves some scrutiny. In his view, "Absent this [the CPO academy], there's no structure" to the transition of petty officers first class into chief petty officers.(8) He continues, "That's the key point. . . . No one does anything universally. Everyone kind of builds the bridge as they're crossing it, and we can't do that anymore." Contrary to his intent, some of this rings true.
Annually, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy issues guidance for that year's initiation. Although it does not create the structure some desire, it does provide basic guidelines around which all selectee training is designed. In 2006, the guidance stated that all training must be targeted to the core competencies of the chief petty officer. Aside from that, individual commands are free to develop training that meets their needs. This training can differ greatly, especially between warfare communities, but these differences do not detract from the training. In fact, they enhance it.
The CPO Academy concept is credited to Master Chief Willie Clouse, who developed the idea in an executive business course, a civilian executive business course.(9) While we may learn much from civilian executives, deckplate leadership and developing Sailors are not tasks for which they are qualified. In fact, one could argue that civilian executives are more likely to seek advice on these and other topics from Navy leaders, and rightly so.
The biggest problem with the academy concept is that it limits the input of the Chiefs' Mess into the training. While some defending the academy state that "the classroom curriculum was put together by chiefs in the region and will be taught by chiefs," the number of possible instructors during a three-week course is limited. Traditional initiation training is developed with input from, and conducted by, all members of the Chiefs' Mess. It is the collective effect of hundreds of years of experience that makes initiation so successful. This effect will not be realized in a classroom.
Master Chief Clouse argues for the academy by stating that what "was apparent to [him] is that this thing that we treasure so much, the CPO transition season, wasn't institutionalized."(10) The perceived shortfall provides flexibility to tailor training annually, adapt it to individual Chiefs' Messes, and incorporate local situations and experiences. Smart commands not only allow participation from retired chiefs, they encourage it. Input from the entire chiefs community, past and present, as occurs with traditional initiation training, is perfectly in line with then-MCPON Terry Scott's argument for the academy: "The Navy cannot afford to limit the potential resources from which we can draw upon to build the educated, creative chiefs we need."(11) This defense of the academy concept is actually an argument against it.
During initiation, chief selectees are pushed to limits they didn't know they could handle. Aside from their regular duties, they are given multiple tasks and deadlines, more is expected of them, and in the end they succeed. Yet Master Chief Evangelista suggests lightening the load on selectees. He states, "In the past, if you try to do too much, you're spinning too many plates, then they all fall. Here, I'd rather just take three weeks, boil it down, concentrate it, train you up, put you in a chief's uniform, and on you go."
This is completely the wrong direction. We cannot expect first class petty officers to become chiefs by attending three weeks of class, completing "community relations projects [and] fundraisers and . . . burying their white . . . hat."(12) We might just as well announce the results, let them buy new uniforms, and have a frocking dinner. Chiefs don't have the luxury of concentrating on one issue at a time, and if we train our new chiefs in a singularly focused environment, that is how they will operate. They must learn from the beginning that being the chief means prioritizing, multitasking, and working as a team. Initiation provides that kind of training.
The Right Direction
By now the first
Changes to the current process should be limited to the following:
Initiation and selectee training have been changed and improved over the years and include a short classroom portion for the CPO Indoctrination Course. Selectees are required to complete several hours of CD-ROM and Internet-based training. But in spite of the formalized portion of initiation, the best training comes from carefully designed scenarios, team-building events, and spontaneous training opportunities.
To truly understand the benefits of the process, one need only witness the unbelievable transformation our selectees experience late each summer. They enter an unknown environment and emerge more self-confident, they approach their duties with more pride, professionalism, and humility, and they earn a lasting understanding of our naval traditions and heritage. It is a time when all Navy chiefs reaffirm their dedication, regroup as teammates, and continue to learn and grow. Both the selectees and the old salts experience an emotional high when the Chief Petty Officer Creed is read at the end of initiation. That comes only at the end of a true challenge and plenty of hard work.
The attack on chiefs' initiation is unnecessary, damaging to the health of the Chiefs' Mess, and potentially damaging to the readiness of the Navy. It is time for more open dialogue on this topic. It is important to our Navy. Let the "reasoned discourse" begin.
Senior Chief Murphy was initiated in 1998, holds a master's degree from the Joint Military Intelligence College, and was the 2003 winner of the Naval Institute's Enlisted Essay Contest. He wishes to recognize retired Master Chief John Warrick and Master Chief Bob Ouellette for inspiring some of the arguments in this essay.