Developing a naval workforce: An interview with the head of the Naval Sea Systems Command

Brian Persons is the executive director of the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds, buys and maintains ships, submarines and combat systems that meet the Navy’s current and future operational requirements. Persons is the command’s senior civilian employee, and has direct responsibility for a professional and industrial workforce of more than 53,000 and an annual operating budget of $30 billion. Persons spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.

What is the greatest indicator of strong leadership?

Gallery

Gallery

To get to the point of what I call inspired leadership, you’ve got to be able to communicate. You’ve got to be able to understand the complexities of an issue and then convey the information in a way that makes sense to those around you. Too often, you find people who are either very knowledgeable or great public speakers. Strong leadership requires both skill sets.

Here at the Navy, we do very technical things. As a leader, you can’t walk into a meeting and say, “I have no background in engineering, but I’m going to talk you about an engineering problem.” Your credibility will be questioned almost immediately. At the same time, you also can’t be someone who has incredible technical expertise but who can’t give a presentation.

How do ensure that your employees are paying attention to opportunities for professional development?

Over the years, I’ve found it helpful to hold my employees accountable for their own professional development. In today’s world, with the pace of change as fast as it is, it’s important they understand that what got them here is not necessarily going to help them 20 years from now. Or even one year from now. My philosophy is very simple: If you do not develop, then you do not help move the organization forward, and as a result, we don’t need you.

As a department, we offer employees opportunities for formal and informal training. In addition to online education services, we use “expeditions” and mentoring to advance our workforce. Expeditions are informal site visits, where we go to another organization and see how it operates and then invite the leaders of that partner organization to come see what we do. We use the expeditions as knowledge-sharing opportunities. We learn about stuff that we never knew existed and we show other people that we’re pretty good at what we do.

One other thing we’re doing is mentoring. I’ve signed on recently to mentor a small group of eight to ten workers, once per month. The idea is that we sit around a table, participants will tell me about the project they are working on, and I will weigh in casually with tips.

During your career, were there people who served as mentors to you?

There have been a few. One was former Secretary of the Navy, Richard Danzig. I had the opportunity to work with him because we both had an interest in the issues surrounding chemical and biological warfare. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. The former secretary is a conversational and brilliant man who could be firm when needed. And, despite the fact that he had vast superior intellect to me and positional authority, he never made me feel uncomfortable speaking my mind.

What do you consider your biggest day-to-day challenge?

When leading an organization of this size, on any given day, you can be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what walks in the door. The challenge lies in deciding what your priorities will be. In times of uncertainty, we revert back to what our core business is and determine from there what our focus will be. This year, that focus is compliance and fundamentals. We had a major fraud case last year and, as a result, are strengthening our internal control systems. We’ve spent a lot of time cleaning up our contracting business and institutionalizing new checks department-wide.

How do you keep track of everything going on in your organization?

It’s talent. And I can tell you, when we get the wrong leader in the job, I suffer. My boss and I spend an incredible amount of time deciding who gets what job. When we get it right, it works. You can’t do it all yourself. It’s like running a major corporation with divisions. You’ve got to have confidence in your leadership team. That’s why training is so important.

How do you go through the process of selecting employees for management positions?

We like to watch them interact with us in real time. We create those opportunities. We just don’t sit up in the ivory palace. When everyone’s gravitating to an individual because they have all the answers, mental notes start to get put into your head that this person is somebody who looks like they’re ready.

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