Attracting and keeping people with a new vision

The navy is in a bind, and it is a bad one.  The money needed to run the service and to reinvest in new ships is not in the budget.  To make matters worse, it is approximately 20 percent short of people, mostly in the technical trades.  What to do?

The money problem, in my opinion, is a political issue that stems from a lack of perceived relevance of the navy by the government.  The personnel problem is, again in my opinion, a corporate problem that stems from a lack of perceived relevance of the navy by the people.  When this kind of breakdown happens it cannot help but be a bad situation.  How to get out of this mess?

The navy has held a strategic planning meeting, the results of which are being carefully guarded.  The only ‘tidbits’ of information coming my way have been that the guiding principles that will inform the new vision will be “flexibility” and “utility.”  This is a good start.

Beyond the two new guiding principles, a major reorganization and reassignment of people will start this summer.  A planning team is working now to decide who will move and who will stay.  Many in the navy are now anxiously awaiting news from the ‘career manglers’ (I used to be one) about whether they will be uprooting families, selling homes, and moving on to new assignments.

The ideological motivation for all of this change is still unclear.  Admiral McFadden’s article in the December 2009 issue of Proceedings, entitled “Ready, Aye, Ready,” (unfortunately only available on-line to subscribes), continues to push the current fleet structure for the future of the navy and describes it repeatedly in terms of its combat effectiveness: “The most combat-effective [navy] we have ever sailed for our shores,” “a navy that is benchmarked for combat in capabilities and ethos,” and “the most combat-effective task group that has ever sailed from our shores.”  The problem with this approach is that is bears very little relevance to he current security environment or the political and public perception of utility.  While the military role of the navy (its combat dimension) is not to be ignored, the constabulary and diplomatic roles are currently far more important and need to become the foci of future planning.  The current experience in Haiti is a ‘living laboratory’ for the navy to study as it shapes a new course to the future.

Reports about the naval contribution to the relief efforts are absolutely glowing about its value.  You can a recent news article here.  The commentaries about how the sailors themselves view the operation are what interest me the most:

Captain (N) Art MacDonald, Task Group Commander: “It's the most rewarding thing that we could be involved in. Everyone is moving faster than they ever thought they could.”

Commander Peter Crain, Commanding Officer HMCS Athabaskan: “This is a very non-traditional mission, for sure, but we bring some skill sets that are quite useful for a mission like this. … Time and time again, people come back and say to me, “This was the best day of my life. It has been the pinnacle of my career.””

Leading Seaman Kathleen Jollimore, Canadian Naval Aide Worker: “Everybody here is utterly proud to be here [and we are] willing to do it for as long as we need to do it.”

The new corporate vision needs to recognize and value the diplomatic role of naval forces to the point that the future force structure has capabilities built into it that facilitate and enhance the effectiveness of missions arising from that role.  The same is true of the constabulary role.  The old vision, expressed officially as recently as December 2009, continues to advocate for exorbitantly expensive, high-end combat capabilities and complains endlessly about ‘maritime blindness’ that obscures the reasons for the existence of the navy from the policy makers and citizens of Canada.  The Haiti experience makes it clear that what the politicians and the public value is the responsiveness of the navy and its non-combat abilities for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.

As Admiral McFadden’s article states: “Ultimately this is a question [about the roles and composition of the navy], in our democracy, for the Canadian people to decide.” The generous outpouring of charitable contributions from the government and the public for Haiti, the glowing praise in the press about the naval effort, and the statements by Prime Minister Harper during his visit all make it clear that the new naval vision needs to emphasize Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief missions.  There is little doubt that the appeal of such a move will attract people to then navy and that being able to offer the opportunity to participate in these missions will be amongst the most rewarding experiences in our sailors’ careers.  “Breaking out of the box” or, more appropriately, “rolling the three-sided triangle of naval roles” over onto the diplomatic side will both demonstrate the flexibility and utility of the navy and help to dispel ‘maritime blindness’ from everyone’s eyes.