In order to modernize various strategies within the organization, the Navy established a new position, executive learning officer (ELO), to initiate customized learning programs for senior naval leadership. For most of the Navy’s history, high-ranking officers were selected according to how well they operated their particular weapon system, whether it was a surface ship, submarine or airplane, said retired Adm. Phil Quast, the first person to serve as the Navy’s ELO.
“That’s all-important when you’re operating submarines and airplanes, but when you get to the admiral level, only about 19 jobs out of the 230 actually involve the operational Navy,” Quast said. “The rest are in a support function, and running the business that supports the acquisition, the training and all the other things associated with building a huge organization like the Navy. So we have to develop those skills at a senior level.”
The ELO provides FLAG/SES-level leaders, made up of between 500 and 600 admirals and their civilian counterparts, with a blended learning program. “It’s business-savvy-type instruction,” Quast said. “We try to take the business practices that are being utilized in the private sector.”
“The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) has articulated a set of enduring corporate competencies required of all Navy senior leaders,” Deputy ELO Jeffrey Munks said. “They include resource allocation, human capital management, change or transformation management, information technology management and leadership. What Admiral Quast has done is created a very rigorous and intensive residential learning experience for Navy senior leaders, called the executive business course (EBC), that builds on those five core competencies.”
The EBC is six-and-a-half day “action learning” program. “The current leadership said, ‘We need to pull these folks out of their primary jobs for a week at a time to give them some time to reflect and interact with other people at similar levels in the organization working on similar problems, so we can start formalizing the exchange of information and experience,” Quast said. “We’ll have a lecture from an academic. We’ll then follow that lecture with examples. Usually a FLAG officer will come in who’s working an issue that reflects some of the concepts that were discussed.”
During this part of EBC, participants consider the new principles and techniques learned and how to apply them to their own situation, Munks said. “Every admiral is asked well in advance of attendance of this course to survey his or her command and look for the most pressing issue–whether it’s a problem or an opportunity–and to bring it to the EBC with them, and to be thinking and contextualizing that issue against the best practices, the principles and the concepts that are taught in EBC,” he said.
The “action” portion of the course comes when participants are divided into groups to brainstorm solutions to their specific situations, which are passed up the chain of command, Quast said. “At the end of the week, we have the vice chief–the No. 2 military man in the Navy–come to the site,” he said. “What he does is takes feedback in a write-up from those action groups. Each action group gets about 15 minutes to present not only what they think they’ve learned, but also what they want to pass on.” The vice chief then takes those recommendations and reviews them with top brass at the Pentagon. Many of the suggestions ultimately become Navy policy, Quast said. In fact, the program is so effective in driving organizational strategy that there are plans to expand it down the hierarchy, beginning with captains and commanders.
Quast and Munks both credited their forward-thinking leader, Adm. Vernon Clark, with initiating leadership development in the Navy, thereby bringing its business practices into the 21st century.
“I think it was with great foresight and courage that [Clark] tackled the institution, from the standpoint of its culture and tradition in regards to senior leader professional development, when he appointed Vice Adm. Quast as executive learning officer and charged him with developing individualized professional development programs for every single senior Navy leader,” Munks said. “I really take my hat off to the CNO for infusing a spirit of commitment to continuous learning and personal development that manifests itself in the genuine dedication to personal improvement that I see among these admirals who come through our programs.”
“We’re making progress,” Quast said “The level of discussion of strategic thinking is much higher today than it was two years ago.”