The Gloves Are Off

This morning, I read ALNAV 044/11, the Navy’s Active Duty Commander Promotion Board results.  Unfortunately, my name was not on it.

Yes, that means I wasn’t promoted.  Even more disturbing, this was my third time not selecting.  But don’t worry, it’s even worse than it sounds.

As an O-4, I am considered “tenured” in the service, so I am permitted to continue and complete my 20 years even though I have little to no chance of promotion.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is I have a HUGE imaginary red “F” tattooed across my forehead for being a FOS.  I am now the most non grata of all personas, let me tell you.  My detailer, a good friend of mine, pretty much told me I was ineligible for any position other than “go to a far corner and stay there” back when I was only a two time FOS.  Now that I’m a three timer…  I’m sure you can imagine.  My opinion and my experience, which is quite extensive in all honesty, have just been made worthless.  I am to be shunned by all, lest they catch my disease of failure.

I am expected to simply fade away and lay low.  I retire in December 2014, and until then it is understood that a lowly creature such as myself is to stay out of the way of his “betters” and keep a wide berth for the next generation of “up and comers”.  Well, there’s only one thing I have to say about that:


How Did I Get Here?

For any reading this post who doesn’t know me personally, I did not fail to promote because I am a dirtbag.  The system for officer selection is complicated to say the least.  There have been a number of studies about the subject, some favorable, some not.  The reality is it ca be flawed because people are flawed.  It can also be unpredictable, as the needs of the Navy can change in a moment’s notice.  I don’t blame the board for not selecting me for promotion.  I’m not some poor victim out there looking for pity and understanding.  I knew the system and it’s rules, and I chose not to follow a bunch of them.  I thought I had a little more leeway, to be honest.  I knew I wasn’t going to make Captain, but I figured Commander would be a fairly safe bet given my performance.  Obviously, I was wrong.

When you start moving from the O-4 to the O-5 and above levels, a few things really come into play that have very little to do with your performance and everything to do with your exposure.  Like anything else, you need to be seen and, more importantly, liked.  At the very least, you need to leave a positive, memorable impression.

You also need to have taken the mainstream career path.  A little variation is fine, a lot is not fine.  For those still wondering, I had a lot of variation from the norm.

If you look at how selection boards work, right there at the top of the list is how an officer “breaks out” from his peers.  The idea is that comparative ranking will allow the cream to rise to the top.  This is a great theory, but it falls apart in the reality of many military officer communities, especially staff corps communities.  The reason for this is twofold:  seniority in the organization and proximity to the flag pole.

Seniority is a factor in two ways.  You want senior guys who are zoning for promotion to be more apt to promotion, so unless they are total shit birds, the more senior members of the wardroom are generally ranked higher.  The other type of seniority is time at that command.  For example, if two officers of the same rank and year group are in a command together, the officer who has been on board longer (again, discounting the shit bird possibility) will be ranked higher regardless of performance.  This is due to the known intolerance of the system to reverse movement.  If the old person has to take a step backward so the (presumably) better performing new person can be highly ranked, that older member is totally screwed.  To the point of never promoting.  Therefore, its common practice to start officers new to the command near the bottom of the standings and let it all filter up over time.

I’m sure you can see how this single factor demonstrates how the merit theory is just a pipe dream.  But there’s more.

Everyone says proximity to the flagpole is not a factor.  They are lying. Proximity to the flag pole is a huge advantage!  Here’s a very possible scenario:

LCDR X is in San Diego as a FEAD officer.  He does a fair job, controls a decent amount of dollars.  He’s not setting the world on fire, but the work is getting done, there are no major problems, he hits his quarterly goals, and all is well.  LCDR Y is a FEAD at an “Over the Horizon” base like Yuma.  He also does a solid job and is a dependable officer.  LCDR X can be seen at the base gym, he and his wife are smiling participants at every social function, and he rocked the PRT last cycle crossing the finish line first under the CO’s approving eye.  LCDR Y, on the other hand, does exactly the same thing — but is never seen to do so by the CO.  When it comes to ranking these two similar officers, who do you think has the leg up?  The person who is seen as being outstanding or the person who is not seen?  I’m not talking about an insidious conspiracy here, it’s just human nature.  You believe what you see and you go with who you know, plain and simple.

So, how did I get passed over? In hindsight it’s simple. I have only had one opportunity to be competitively ranked since 1998 — that’s a lot of 1-of-1 FITREPS.  During that one opportunity, I was the junior officer in the paygrade at a remote base.  My FITREPS have “only ranked promotable due to system constraints” all over them — but, that’s no substitute for even one ranked FITREP.  Want to know how many of my FITREPS said “promotable only due to system restraints”?  Four out of six — all in a row (we went through three CO’s in 3 years which makes for a lot of FITREPS).  My one actual breakout FITREP was when someone left the command and I got to fill a vacant “Must Promote” slot — still hovering at the CO’s average, though, as there were still a number of guys who had more time at the command.  My only FITREP at the EP level was my transfer (AKA “Kiss Good Bye”) FITREP — bingo! You guessed it, another 1-of-1.  Might was well throw that one out, and I’m sure the Board did.

Were there other factors other than breakout?  I’m sure there were.  My career path is highly unusual.  I did not make coffee at the Pentagon.  I have a terrible penchant for honesty and I hate big social functions.  On the other hand, I’ve been recommended for CO and/or Senior Staff in every FITREP since 2000.  I was an Operations Officer of a major command.  I had a stellar record in Iraq.  I’m one of the most successful, and experienced, Navy Dive Officers in the past 20 years with an extremely impressive record.  I’ve been hand picked for some of the most challenging billets around.  How do all of  these factors balance out?  Eh, who can say?  I can say that in March of the last few years, it didn’t balance out all that well.

So What Now?

At this point, for all intents and purposes, I’m bullet proof. Unless I do something extremely bad and entirely out of my character, I don’t think I’ll be fired.  The dive community, thankfully, has taken me in and given me some professional shelter for my final tour.

In light of this, I’m at a bit of a cross roads.  Go quietly, keep my head down, and wrap it up OR get loud and finally start saying all of the things we officers should have been saying all along. You can tell by the title of this post which way I’m leaning.

Stick around, this blog is about to get a whole lot more interesting…

About Rob McClellan

Rob is the founder of ThirdScribe, a unique author services platform and social network. As a naval officer and diver, he spent a majority of his career doing a lot more than you would think with a lot less than you can imagine -- a skill that has proven extremely valuable in the start-up world. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

2 Responses to The Gloves Are Off

  1. Sometimes we dont see the forest for the trees… the message seems clear: You were destined for something else, something better. All of this is only meant to make your stronger. Carry on soldier.

  2. You are incredible man for so many reasons. I hope to God you do not let the Navy define you. You are so much more . I agree with Tim … you are destined for something else and something much greater than the Navy could ever offer. I can feel it …and when I close my eyes I can see it.

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