Competitive advantage

Adelaide – A Royal Australian Navy (RAN) aircrewman in an MRH-90 (NHIndustries’ NH-90) multirole helicopter above the landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious ship HMAS Adelaide in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in 2018. While new platforms such as the LHDs are boosting the RAN’s combat capability, the service sees people as providing its competitive advantage. (Department of Defence, Commonwealth of Australia)

Dr. Lee Willett – The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sees people as central to winning the next fight.

Over the last decade, several factors have converged to shape the future strategic purpose, direction, and output of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

The RAN has always possessed capacity to project power at distance across both the Pacific and Indian oceans. In the South Pacific region, Australia is the major military power. According to Professor Eric Grove, the RAN has a long-established position as a medium regional force projection navy across the entire Pacific region, “with a capacity to deploy usable and useful maritime power far into the Pacific”. As regards Indian Ocean presence, the RAN’s maritime footprint extends from Western Australia to the Northern Indian Ocean and Gulf regions, where RAN ships support several maritime security campaigns including Australia’s national Operation ‘Manitou’ tasking and the US Navy (USN)-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) naval partnership.

The last decade, however, saw the Indo-Pacific region perhaps become the first theatre within which the stirrings of superpower competition at sea became evident. This resurgence of maritime competition occurred parallel to a major capability re-capitalisation programme within the RAN. Today, the RAN arguably is renewing its position as a regional naval power, with its presence underpinned by new, state-of-the-art platforms and capabilities such as two landing helicopter dock amphibious ships, three air warfare-capable guided-missile destroyers, nine anti-submarine warfare frigates, 12 diesel-electric submarines, and other core maritime capabilities such as maritime patrol aircraft and offshore patrol vessels.

Globally (including, more recently, in the European theatre), the resurgence of state-based maritime competition has raised fears of increased conflict risk. In the Indo-Pacific theatre, the growing presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has brought peer competition for the USN and its allies. As in the European theatre, many Indo-Pacific navies are now re-emphasising and refining higher-end operational capabilities.

Perhaps reflecting this re-focus, the RAN’s new Chief of Navy (CN) Vice Admiral Michael Noonan said – in his handover address in Canberra in July 2018 – that the service must “think like a fighting navy, and fight like a thinking navy”. The RAN, he continued, needs to be a “ready, agile, resilient, and lethal fighting force” able to contribute to maritime safety and security, support freedom of navigation and global trade, and “fight and win at sea”.

CPO – The RAN’s Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan (left) promotes Petty Officer Mark Smith to Chief Petty Officer at the RAN’s HMAS Cerberus training establishment, Victoria in December 2018. The RAN’s ‘promotion courses’ are to be re-titled as ‘leadership courses’. (Commonwealth of Australia)

Winning the fight

As regards winning this fight, while the fleet of new capabilities entering RAN service undoubtedly upgrades its fighting power significantly, the RAN’s people will play a more prominent role, Commodore Justin Jones, the navy’s Commodore Training, told Asian Military Review.

In parallel to introducing its new fleet, the RAN also has been focused on strengthening its people power, including changing how it trains personnel for leadership roles.

“The Australian Navy philosophy – or central concept – is that our competitive advantage is people,” said Jones. “If we truly expect to be able to fight and win at sea in the next conflict, then the true competitive advantage won’t necessarily come from modern ships, modern capabilities, weapons, sensors, and equipment because, in every single part of the continuum to develop those, a human was involved.”

“Ultimately, a human will operate the equipment or set up the equipment even for its automatic responses to different threats,” the commodore continued.

“So we take the view that our capability edge comes from people,” he added. As a result, “You have to invest in people, and that comes through good leadership and management.”

The RAN’s approach to people development is manifested in its ‘New Generation Navy’ cultural reform programme; 2019 is the 10th anniversary of the programme’s introduction. Vice Adm Noonan noted that the navy’s growth in terms of people skills will be underpinned by “an ‘NGN’ culture” designed particularly to boost personnel recruitment and retention.

Reflecting the enduring emphasis on the ‘New Generation Navy’ concept, Jones said that Vice Admiral Noonan has made clear that people and culture will be “his central focus in terms of the human dimension”. Leadership training is central to this personnel journey, the Cdre added.

Underneath CN, Rear Admiral Mark Hammond as deputy chief of Navy is “the single rallying point” for leadership development “because his role is dual-hatted also as Head of Navy People and Training”, said Jones. Under Rear Adm Hammond, Commodore Tony Partridge as Director General Navy People owns the leadership and culture development programme, with Cdre Jones as Commodore Training owning the leadership and promotion training programme.

The two branches “work very closely … to make sure that we’re always working complimentarily to each other and in collaboration”, said Cdre Jones. “We design our leadership training with reference to them, and vice versa.”

Leadership training

As the RAN itself has developed, Cdre Jones noted that the service’s “leadership training has evolved over time” too, for example with a leadership training course now attached to each step of the promotion path for sailors of all ranks. Such promotion courses are now “heavily leadership-training centric”, he said.

“The Australian Navy approach is that you don’t get promoted without having done the [leadership] course prior to promotion,” the commodore continued. “In some cases, people fulfil all other requirements to be promoted, and have to wait until they can get on a course in order to be promoted.”

Such courses currently include: the ‘Leading Seamen Promotion Course’ (for Able Seamen); the ‘Petty Officer’s Promotion Course’ (for Leading Seamen); the ‘Chief Petty Officer’s [CPO’s] Promotion Course’ (for Petty Officers); and the ‘Warrant Officer’s Promotion Course’ (for CPOs).

Such is the focus on the importance of leadership that ‘promotion courses’ are about to be renamed as ‘leadership courses’, said the commodore.

“The most extensive probably exists at the Leading Seamen level,” he added. This course covers: basic leadership theory and style; the role of command; motivation techniques; ethics in leadership; leadership, team concepts, and team effectiveness; and mentoring, situational leadership, problem solving, and decision making.

Leadership journey

Developing the navy’s approach to leadership “is a journey we’re on”, the commodore continued. “I think it’s an ever-evolving thing.” As an example, he noted that in 2017 the navy mapped the leadership behaviours it is seeking at all ranks, from seaman to admiral, into a leadership and management framework, and now is reviewing its leadership courses to ensure they reflect this framework.

WO – A Warrant Officer Marine Technician (standing) advises a Seaman during engineering casualty drills onboard HMAS Adelaide while the LHD is underway. Interaction and feedback across ranks sits at the heart of the RAN’s leadership culture. (Commonwealth of Australia)

As this leadership development journey has continued, how the service approaches leadership training also has evolved. In the last 10 years, this evolution has been built around the ‘New Generation Navy’ initiative. This initiative itself “was built around the navy’s signature behaviours”, said Cdre Jones, with leadership development work designed to demonstrate “the actions and behaviours that we wanted on display from our people”.

The RAN’s signature behaviours fall under three headings: people, performance, and professionalism. ‘People’ covers respecting the contribution of every individual, promoting the well-being and development of all the service’s people, and communicating well and regularly. ‘Performance’ includes challenging and innovating, being cost conscious, fixing problems and taking actions, and driving decision-making downwards. ‘Professionalism’ focuses on strengthening relationships across and beyond the navy, and encouraging personnel to be the best they can be on behalf of their service and country. These signature behaviours have endured across the last 10 years or longer, but what has changed is how the RAN uses leadership training to reinforce them.

Two examples illustrate this.

The CPO’s Promotion Course, underpinned by a team-based leadership philosophy, fosters respect for each individual’s contribution by acknowledging the benefits of a diverse workforce, and achieving synergy by bringing out the best in people. Participants learn how to optimise individual engagement using scenario-based learning to practice team-building techniques and effective communication.

The RAN also has adopted an innovative problem solving-based approach to embed signature behaviours in leadership training. Reflecting the ‘train as you fight’ concept, personnel are presented with real problems facing the RAN and, and as part of solving the problem, identify their own learning requirements and are supported in addressing them. The approach, trialled at the Lieutenant Commander level, proved successful and is planned for roll-out across the leadership training continuum.

Cdre Jones – The RAN’s Commodore Training Cdre Justin Jones (pictured foreground, overseeing training at the HMAS Penguin fleet training facility) is responsible for the navy’s leadership and promotion training programme. (Commonwealth of Australia)

While quantifying the impact of its evolving leadership focus on operational outputs is challenging, Cdre Jones argued this focus has impacted demonstrably on personnel leadership skills. “Across a range of measures that we analyse relating to behaviour, performance, annual training if you like, we’ve seen steady improvement over time, much of which can be attributed to better leadership and people skills,” he said.

Moreover, the navy seeks feedback and continuous improvement in how it monitors and develops leadership processes. “We’re agile enough that – if, for instance, an annual pulse survey is turning something up or we get a bit of a misnomer in one sort of data we’re tracking – we can actually adjust the system,” said Cdre Jones. Here, the navy addresses the situation by embedding any required change immediately into a leadership and promotion course, he added.

Joint effect

The RAN argues that its leadership focus is having demonstrable impact on recruitment and retention.

“As it stands right now, the Australian Navy has the most positive retention statistics that it’s had in five years,” said Cdre Jones.

The RAN’s success in re-invigorating its leadership development processes has also generated interest from its sister services. “The Australian Army has been quite interested in the navy approach to leadership training and development, and did embed an officer in our training authority for initial training, leadership, and management in 2017 to look at what we do,” said Jones.

In particular, the Commander noted the army’s interest in the RAN’s 360-degree reporting appraisal process used for leadership development. This process sees individuals gain feedback from subordinates, peers, supervisors, and superiors with the aim of generating a more rounded appraisal than traditional supervisor-subordinate reporting. The benefit lies in individuals gaining insight into ‘blind spots’ (areas for improvement of which the individual was unaware) and ‘unexpected strengths’ (a particular strength the individual may not have recognised), Jones explained. “We are the only service that does that for officers and senior sailors (non-commissioned officers), and we’ve been doing it for ten years, and that’s unique in the Australian Defence Force.” The use of 360-degree reporting “has been a very powerful tool,” he concluded.

by Dr. Lee Willett