Love and respect are like self-esteem: hollow if they’re not earned. On Benfold, I tried in large part to unify the crew by insisting on high performance and continual learning.
The Navy has a special program, the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist Program (ESWS), designed to train sailors to go beyond their specialties and learn how the entire ship works. This training makes it easier to learn to backstop others, and it strengthens the ship’s performance, especially in a crisis. But the program is so difficult that only the most experienced sailors usually sign up for it. And since hardly anyone had passes ESWS in my predecessor’s time, the crew was convinced that it wasn’t feasible.
So I streamlined the program, cutting out all the parts that didn’t apply to Benfold – perhaps 15% of the total. Then I told the crew that learning ESWS would train them to show visitors around the ship, a duty that was becoming enormously popular. In that light, the program didn’t look so hard, and nearly every sailor aboard signed up. In short order, we qualified nearly 200 of our 310 crew members.
One of the qualifiers was Sarah Garner, who was shocked to learn that disgruntled crew members on my predecessor’s watch hid themselves away to avoid duty. Sarah became a great success, eventually getting selected for chief petty officer in eight years instead of the usual fourteen, and she was always one of the first to take on new jobs and learn entire new systems.
At the beginning, the ESWS program looked impossible, she once told me, “but it ended up being fun. What it did was, it got you out talking to everyone. You got a chance to interact with other people on the ship whose jobs were so dissimilar from yours that you might not have a lot of interaction with them otherwise.” One day, on a missile training exercise with two other ships, Sarah found herself at a watch station on the combat systems coordinator’s office, where she realized that, on the other ships, the corresponding stations were being manned by a lieutenant and a master chief. At that point, she was still a second-class petty officer. Both of us were proud of what she had achieved.
Even now in civilian life, Sarah says she still applies the lessons she learned on Benfold – in particular, that an organization is far more effective if its people understand each other’s jobs and why things are done the way they are.