What I Learned on a Coast Guard Cutter

Posted 08.22.2011

Coastguard1 For the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity each Fall to talk leadership with the newly promoted admirals of the U.S. Coast Guard and their Senior Executive Service counterparts from the Department of Homeland Security. I’ll be joining the group again this October and will be bringing a new perspective to the conversation. That perspective comes from a once in a lifetime opportunity I had last weekend patrolling the Florida Straits with the captain and crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Venturous.

Last year, I wrote a similar post to today’s titled What I Learned on an Aircraft Carrier. Some of the lessons from the Venturous are in the same ballpark, but there are a number of new ones.  I attribute the dichotomies to the difference in scale (The USS Harry S Truman has 3,000 to 5,000 crew members and is 1,092 feet long.  The USCGC Venturous has 80 crew members and is 220 feet long.) and mission. As they patrol the Straits of Florida and the Caribbean, the crew of the Venturous may be intercepting drug runners one day, rescuing boaters the next and picking up Cuban migrants the next.  I was only with them two days and, by the end of the second day, the crew had picked up a raft full of Cubans. I was in email correspondence with the executive officer, LCDMR Blake Novak,  a few days ago and he wrote that by the end of the week that started with my stay onboard  the Venturous had picked up a total of 80 migrants. For Coasties, it’s all about being prepared and adapting to the current reality.

In today’s post, I’m sharing a few of my high level lessons learned and this overview video of my time with the crew of the Venturous.

In the days and weeks to come, I’ll post more videos of specific tasks (or, as the Coast Guard calls them, evolutions) and additional reflections on what I learned onboard. For now, here are the headlines on some of my leadership takeaways from Venturous Commanding Officer Troy Hosmer, XO Novak and their crew:

  • Training and Preparation Matters:  About one third of the crew of the Venturous was new with last weekend’s patrol. The first few days were dedicated to training and preparation. In the video that accompanies this post, you’ll see about three times as many crew members as normal on the bridge as the ship gets underway. A lot of teaching is going on. You’ll see a man overboard drill.  In coming weeks, you’ll see a migrant interdiction drill and an actual migrant operation. The real life migrant operation followed the drill by about four hours. The preparation made a huge difference when the real world intervened.
  • An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure:  The Venturous was commissioned in 1968.  That means it’s about a 43 year old ship.  That also means that there is hardly ever a time when 100% of the ship’s systems are fully operational at the same time.  Anticipating problems and preventing them is critical to fulfilling the mission. In this overview video, you’ll see a 28 year Coast Guard veteran, Master Propulsion Assistant Jim O’Brien, taking me on a tour below the main decks.  Pay attention to his eagle eye for potential problems.  Leaders everywhere could take a lesson from MPA O’Brien.
  • Role Clarity Can Co-Exist with Teamwork:  One of the things I noticed immediately is that everyone on the Venturous is referred to by their role. The engineering officer is the EO. The operations officer is OPS. That practice enhances communications and clarity when time is of the essence. At the same time, because the crew is small everyone is cross trained for different functions (like security when migrants are on board).  Everyone on board has a primary set of duties but understands how and when to pitch in when they’re needed.

I learned a lot more on board the Venturous than I can reasonably share in one post. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more videos and leadership lessons learned from the Coast Guard.