Commanding Officers and Change

Commanding Officers and Change

13.8 min read

Jeanne M. Mc Donnell

Any change to an organization can be disconcerting, but when new leaders come in it can be particularly unsettling.[1]  Many times it seems that whenever a new leader comes into an organization, they want to make changes. Whether we like it or not, it is human nature that some new leaders feel an urge to make their mark upon arrival. It is also human nature for the rest of the organization to resist or fear change.

Military organizations are no different than corporate America in this regard. It may even be worse given the frequent turnover of leaders. Change has to happen in order for any organization to keep up with the changing world but it is not always a good thing, especially if it is made for the wrong reasons. This essay will focus on change within the realm of Navy shore commands, look at real examples of change, examine costs of changes, and provide recommendations.

Anticipation – What will change this time?

Every Navy command has a Commanding Officer (CO) who is responsible for the safety, well-being, and efficiency of their command and for carrying out the mission. Operational commands such as ships, submarines, and air squadrons normally do not give their COs as much opportunity to institute major changes as shore commands. Operational commands are too busy with carrying out their mission and are guided closely by their type commanders. On the shore command side, it is a little different. There is more flexibility, there may be civilian personnel, and people normally get to go home at night and on the weekend.  The tempo of operations is also normally slower at the shore commands. The length of time CO serves in a tour can range from fifteen months to three years. Rarely does a CO serve over three years.

Getting a new Commanding Officer can be an exciting time and an anxious time. Sailors and government workers know a CO rotates on a regular basis and know when to expect the next one. As that time approaches, there will be discussion at all levels of the command.  “Have you heard who the new CO is?” “What do you know about him or her?” Members of the command may feel excited to get new leadership, especially if the outgoing CO is not well liked. If the CO was popular, people may feel resentment and concern that a new CO is coming in. But the bottom line everyone wants to know is “How are things going to change around here?” and “How is this going to impact me?”

Congratulations Future Commanding Officers!

This is the greeting prospective Commanding Officers receive in their welcome letters before they attend the Navy’s Prospective Commanding Officer Leadership course. This two-week course provides information on almost anything the COs will need to know for command from ethics to military law to communications. The advice and training received during this fire-hose course runs the gamut and attempts to provide the tools for success.  One thing these leaders do not learn is when and how to implement change and the costs of change. However, one old adage passed down in the Navy is whenever you take over a new command; do not make any changes in the first thirty days. This gives the leader an opportunity to see how the command runs. This can be a heady time for the new COs, many who may have worked their entire careers for this moment. Let’s look at a possible scenario using Commander I. M. Newbie:

After graduation from the leadership course and any other training required, the big day comes. Commander Newbie participates in the traditional change of command ceremony, says a few nice words about the outgoing CO, and reports to his new boss. Family and friends cheer and congratulations are spread all around. CDR Newbie is now the CO, responsible and accountable for the new command. CDR Newbie only has a relatively short period as commanding officer and wants to do the best job he can. He receives briefings, talks to key leaders and other command personnel, conducts tours, and makes observations for the first 30 days as advised.  Now it is time for change! After all, CDR Newbie is only going to be here for a short period of time. He will most likely be ranked against other COs of his pay grade – how will he break out? What can CDR Newbie do during his relatively short command tour to make an impression that will lead to the kind of fitness report he needs to make Captain and beyond?

Let’s change something!

This urge to make changes and accomplish great things is not restricted just to commanding officers.  Navy leaders at any rank may get the urge to make changes just like their counterparts in the civilian world who are put in a new leadership position. We are taught that change is the way to go. Northouse, an organizational change expert, noted “Change, rather than stability, is the norm today. Whereas change once occurred incrementally and infrequently, today it is dramatic and constant.”[2] So CDR Newbie has precedence for coming in and making change. But, is it possible that CDR Newbie and other new leaders like him are making change for change’s sake?

The primary purpose of change is to improve the organization and make it more competitive and responsive to customer needs.[3] Real change requires a reason and strategy for why you want to change, the skills to make the change, and the long-term and short-term tools to support the change. Additionally these areas must be aligned between the leader and the followers or the optimal outcome may not happen.[4]  West and Cianfrani (2004) discussed the importance of alignment of the organization’s objectives, leader’s objectives, and individual objectives. All three should work together with their eyes fixed on common objectives. When objectives are not thought through or aligned properly, things can become difficult and frustrating and result in unintended consequences.[5]

A recent military example of this was the change in Army camouflage uniforms. In 2004, the Army issued a new digitized uniform to be worn in all environments. Problems have abounded with the uniform to the point where American soldiers actually stood out in the Afghan landscape instead of blending in. Earlier this year, it was announced that this uniform will be replaced because it does not meet needs. Reports were that Army leaders sped along the decision before testing was complete. All to the rumored tune of $5 billion.[6] How many military awards or civilian bonuses were given out to the perpetrators of this ineffective and expensive uniform? We can only imagine what the additional costs to reinstate new or previous uniforms will be. In this case, objectives were not aligned and this change caused undo frustration and wasted taxpayer dollars.

Making a Mark!

But, let’s go back to CDR Newbie. With all good intentions, he looks to make his mark on his new command and the Navy. However, making a mark may be more difficult than CDR Newbie originally thought. First, most Navy commands are run efficiently and effectively thanks to previous COs who have made needed change. By the time CDR Newbie takes over, there may not be any obvious low-hanging fruit. Yikes! What can he do in his pursuit of that elusive fitness report or evaluation bullet? Let’s look at some examples of real life changes that other COs made:

A commanding officer reports into his new command and decides he does not like the exterior of the building that houses his command. Despite the building being almost as big as a city block, he begins to work to get the exterior of the building redone. Many weeks go into planning, finding funding, and making it happen. To the surprise of command personnel, the CO obtains a considerable amount of funding to put on a new exterior. After several months of disruption to the command, the job is finished leaving subordinates scratching their heads as to why the Navy would spend big money to make a relatively small cosmetic change.

On another base not far away, a new CO reports in. Things must be going well because there are not any significant changes for a few months. Then the new idea for change arises – change the name of the command. People are confused…change the name of the command? Only the Secretary of the Navy can change the name of a command. The new name does make the job of the CO seem bigger and more important, however. It takes over a year, but the name change is approved. Costs include considerable personnel time and effort and the changing of all base signs, highway direction signs, administrative materials, and patches on all enlisted uniforms. More scratching of the head…

Changing Change

Civilian government workers can stay at a command for many years or even their entire career. This gives them an opportunity to see many changes over the years. What can be most frustrating is when one CO comes in and makes a change and then another comes in a few years later and changes the change! These changes are not only costly financially but suck up energy and effort. Then there’s the frustration level of employees.  For example:

A long, long time ago, in a far away fleet concentration area, a new regional commander decided to move his headquarters off one base onto a smaller piece of property that was more central to all the nine bases he commanded. Each of those bases had their own CO who reported to him. The thought process behind this move was that the current location not only infringed upon that particular base’s CO but it also appeared to the other base COs that the CO whose base he was on may have special access to him. The move was made, was generally accepted, and appeared to be working well. The move consisted of moving a large staff out of the new location and onto another base. Renovations were done on the buildings and the regional commander’s staff was moved in.  A year later, a new regional commander came in and was also pleased with the arrangement. Three years later, another new regional commander took over and decided that his headquarters should be not only back on the base that it originally was on but back into the same building. This required, once again, moving a large staff out of the original building and back to the other property and then moving the commander’s staff back to the other base. The cost of changing the change was enormous – with estimates as high as several hundred thousands of dollars.

Another example in this same fleet concentration area involved the regionalization of several support programs including family housing; morale, welfare, and recreation; bachelor housing; family advocacy; galleys; and family service centers. Several years ago, the regional commander put one CO in charge of these programs which were spread out on nine bases and included over 3,000 personnel. This change was considered a success, saving the Navy millions of dollars and improving service to the sailors and their families.  One of the real tests of the success of this effort was the ability it gave the Navy to respond to the devastating attack on the USS Cole. Thanks to the regionalization effort, within hours personnel and resources from around the region quickly mobilized to provide counseling, housing, meals, and a wide range of other services for the hundreds of family members who converged on the USS Cole’s homeport from around the country. Captain Joe Bouchard, the base CO, noted “The families were effusive in their praise. By all accounts, the effort to support the crew of the Cole and their loved ones was a tremendous success-and a testimony to the soundness of the Navy’s often maligned and little understood decision to regionalize the management of its shore installations.”[7]

Captain Bouchard was so impressed with the regionalization efforts, he wrote an article praising the process which was published in Proceedings Magazine. To answer the COs who thought regionalization might take some power from them, he reported, “Regionalization is founded on proven, long-standing organizational and command principles commonly used across the Navy. I have no less authority as a commanding officer than did my predecessors…The Navy cannot afford to return to the old way of doing business without unnecessarily diverting scarce resources from personnel, readiness, and modernization.”[8] Later I became a base CO in the region and was equally impressed with the regionalization efforts. A few years later, under pressure from other base COs who wanted more control, the regional commander reversed the regionalization efforts. Total costs to reverse this effort were not documented but are estimated to be considerable. A price could also not be put on the frustration and confusion the 3,000 employees endured.

The fact that changes did not stick even though they were good ideas is not surprising. It has been reported that on-half to two-thirds of major corporate change initiatives fail and that less than 50% of reengineering programs succeed.[9] In giving advice to public service ministers in England, Richard Layard noted: “…many different organizational structures can be made to work equally well. What cannot work is constant reorganization, where nobody understands what is happening, institutional memory is lost, and everybody worries about their future rather than the job in hand.”[10]

What can be done?

The Navy has a great respect for Commanding Officers and their position and generally hesitates to interfere with changes they make unless they are immoral or illegal. Like CDR Newbie, most COs are not completely self-motivated. If they were, it is unlikely they would choose the military for a career due to the personal hardships required and the relatively low pay. Navy officers generally want to do the right thing for the right reasons. Through the Prospective Commanding Officer Leadership Course, the Navy tries to give the COs the tools they need for success. By adding a learning objective on change theory, the COs may be better prepared to address change, determine where it is needed, weigh the costs of change, and the best way to implement it if needed. They should also be made aware that the legitimate function of resistance to change is avoiding unnecessary change.[11]

Avoiding these types of changes by COs in Navy shore commands will require a culture change. Currently, the culture is “what can I do to stand out among my contemporaries?” The other cultural issue at work at all levels and in all organizations is that new leaders feel they have to make change. Cultural change may be the hardest change of all. This is especially true when the culture is not something that is generally talked about. Attention to these issues should be made through open discussion during Navy leadership courses and other avenues. Commanding Officers need to know that carrying out the mission of their command effectively, efficiently, and safely will make them stand out – not change for change’s sake!


[1] Ibid.

[1] Gilley, Ann. The Manager as Change Agent. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2005. 4-5.

[1] Layard, Richard. “No change for change’s sake.” The Guardian. 13 Jul 2007: Web. 24 Oct. 2012.

[1] De Jager, Peter. “Resistance to Change: A New View of an Old Problem.” The Futurist. May-June (2001): 24-27. Print.

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[1] Half, Robert. “Getting to know you: How to start right with a new boss.” Experience. (2008): n. page. Web.

[2] Daft, Richard. Organizational Theory and Design. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning, 2010. 412-415. Print.

[3] Gilley, Ann. The Manager as Change Agent. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2005. 4-5.            Print.

[4] Carter, Eric. “Successful change requires more than change management.” Journal for Quality & Participation. Spring (2008): 20-23. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

[5] West, J. E., and C. A. Cianfrani. Unlocking the Power of Your QMS: Keys to Business Performance Improvement. Miwaukee, WI: Quality Press, 2004. Print.

[6] Kilmas, Liz. “Huge let down: Army will yank widespread camouflage pattern deemed a ‘colossal mistake’.” The Blaze. N.p., 26 Jun 2012. Web. 23 Oct 2012.

[7] Bouchard, Joseph. “Regionalization: An insider’s view.” Proceedings Magazine. Oct. 2001: 83-88. Print.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Gilley, Ann. The Manager as Change Agent. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2005. 4-5.

[10] Layard, Richard. “No change for change’s sake.” The Guardian. 13 Jul 2007: Web. 24 Oct. 2012.

[11] De Jager, Peter. “Resistance to Change: A New View of an Old Problem.” The Futurist. May-June (2001): 24-27. Print.

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