Appreciating Differences Through Collaboration


Gap. Divide. Chasm.

Call it what you will, but if you google “military-civilian divide” myriad articles appear discussing the divide between the U.S. military and America’s civilian cultures and work environments. Far fewer articles specifically address differences and challenges faced by the military-civilian hybrid organizations that are commonly found across the Department of Defense (DoD) and Navy commands ashore.

With this context, we reached out to senior executives across the Navy to obtain their perspectives and to gather some words of advice for our enterprise and for the Navy Supply Community.

The purpose of the following interviews was to carefully determine if there is a perceived gap between military and civilian personnel within DoD and the Department of the Navy (DoN), and to share what we learned. Those interviewed include Ms. Patricia Adams, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Civilian Human Resources); Ms. Karen Fenstermacher, Deputy  Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Financial Operations) Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Financial Management and Comptroller); Rear Adm. Althea “Allie” Coetzee, Supply  Corps, United States Navy, Principal Deputy Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy; Mr. John Goodhart, Vice Commander, Naval Supply Systems Command; and Mr. Robert Bianchi Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM).


In your experience within the Navy, do you perceive a “gap” between military and civilian personnel?

ADAMS: There is a disconnect with rules and culture, but I think communication and exposure help minimize that gap.Gap

BIANCHI: I’ve been fortunate to work as both military and civilian, so my perspective may be slightly biased. To be honest, the gap isn’t so prevalent to me. At NEXCOM, our military are really integrated into the command quickly. Our associates seek out our military for their frontline perspective, and have voiced that they wish we had more on staff. Keep in mind that almost 40 percent of our staff has a tie to military background—whether it be that they are family, have prior service, etc. They know their mission and they know that they are there to support the Sailor.

REAR ADM. COETZEE: I think there is still a lack of progress in the “total force” concept. In general, the uniformed members fail to recognize the civilian and contractor forces as part of the total equation. Civilians are no longer just administrative—they serve alongside us in incredibly responsible roles.

GOODHART: In the early days of my career as active duty in the Army Signal Corps, I didn’t notice any divide. Now, I can see where the gap is perceived on both sides. This seems to be common if the civilian never served on active duty.

What do you personally do to bridge the gap?

ADAMS: I advocate for civilians and, when I first came here, the military did not really think about civilians a whole lot. I think through my advocacy we are doing a better job of appreciating the civilians and what they provide and do. I don’t think they are fully appreciated but we are a very complex organization with many missions. I think the Navy military, because of their many deployments, is challenged to understand the civilian workforce. Many of the military leaders can be on a ship for 15-20 years and never really work with civilians.

BIANCHI: We create a culture that has a blurred line. I think the fact that I had the good fortune to serve and then transition, I am sensitive to both sides, so I try to create a culture
that embraces both.

REAR ADM. COETZEE: I try to treat everyone equally based on capabilities and tasks, recognizing the limitations that may be imposed due to military, civilian, or contractor status.

FENSTERMACHER: When I have military people working with me and around me, I try to make sure that they become involved in the overall culture of the organization, which can help minimize perceived gaps. Civilians are generally in organizations longer than military and often have much longer term views. Military with rotations sometimes no more than 18 months want to create more immediate change. As a leader your challenge is to find ways to create wins for both military and civilian personnel.

GOODHART: When we have O6 leadership meetings, I teach a session on working with civilians and the union. The relationship between military and civilian is beautiful and symbiotic if it works well. Transparent Traitscommunication is everything. When civilians or military have questions, I answer those honestly. For example, civilians want to know why the military receives a half day of leave on holidays and civilians receive 59 minutes. That’s a fair question and I think it deserves a fair answer. Sometimes the military asks about compensation. I say, let’s go through the math. You have to take total compensation into the picture. Insurance, vision, dental, housing—it all adds up. Civilians pay out of pocket for all of that; military doesn’t. We have two very different pay systems and both military and civilians have to understand that.

I think as leaders, we need to be open to those honest conversations. Sometimes people just don’t know—they aren’t being rude. Don’t assume the worst, have open dialogues.

Do you mentor both military and civilian personnel? What do you do similarly or differently when mentoring them?

ADAMS: I mentor both. I don’t understand enough about the military promotion system to give career advice, but I give leadership and style advice. If I have a military mentee, I educate on style, substance, and leadership. For civilians, I can get a little more involved in their careers. Some Senior Executive Service members will come and ask for advice on career paths—I am more intimate with their career system, so I can address those issues with them.

BIANCHI: I have a few military members from my active duty time that I still mentor. On the civilian side, it’s a little difficult. In my position as CEO, and knowing that I have to adjudicate performance evaluations and other personnel issues, I don’t want to create any appearance of a conflict of interest. So, I often try to mentor in group settings—indoctrination courses, executive leadership courses, and things like that.

REAR ADM. COETZEE: Yes. I normally schedule lunch meetings for mentoring—whoever asks. Private, public, military, civilian, I’m always happy to give advice or opinions. No matter whom I’m  mentoring, I generally focus on three key points that have helped me throughout my career: (1) “Carpe Diem,” which is Latin for “seize the day.” To me this means take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves—life is too short. (2) “Semper Gumby,” which is interpreted as “always flexible.” Don’t get yourself so set on one thing—know that there are options. Your way may not be the right or only way, and if you open yourself to other options, there’s no telling what you can achieve. (3) The third is “Inshallah”—it’s Arabic for “as God wills” or “God willing.” There is a plan and you might not know it. If you move forward without being stuck on a set objective, you’ll most likely find self-fulfillment along the way.

FENSTERMACHER: I have greater opportunity to mentor military in D.C., however, over the course of my career I have had the opportunity to mentor many civilians. I focus on three things for  both military and civilian mentees: what are the interests, skills and goals. I try to get to know the person….based on series of conversations I can assess what is the best way to leverage their talents and accomplish their goals.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

ADAMS: There was a more strategic piece of advice that has always stuck with me: if you’re interested in something, tell someone. Show people your plan and make it known. Make people invest in you to reach your objective. It works!

BIANCHI: I’ve observed some military folks who don’t take the opportunity to really get to know their civilian cohorts as they work in a fleet logistics center or another command, and they don’t value civilian knowledge or expertise. It’s naïve not to form a good relationship. When you’re going to make a career out of this, having that kind of network of folks who are experts in what they do, and are willing to help you and lend a hand—that’s what it’s all about.

REAR ADM. COETZEE: Let it be known. If you have goals or want to pursue a different path, let those who make the decisions know about it. One of my mentors gave me that advice, providing the example that if you are interested in a particular position in a company, if you let your interest be known, you may be providing management a qualified candidate who they otherwise may not have considered. In many cases, they would rather have this as opposed to having to pick from a pool of unknowns.

FENSTERMACHER: I think the best advice is both professional and personal: always be true to yourself. What are your values and beliefs and stick to them. I think this is particularly important as one moves to more senior positions.

What separates your high performers from others in the organization? Is it different between military and civilian performers?Adams

ADAMS: Energy, enthusiasm, interpersonal skills. The Navy tends to have very intelligent people but sometimes they can’t work well with others. When I first got to Marriott, I was a trainee at Key Bridge and I was taking orders and yelling at people in the kitchen. One by one, the employees disappeared until I was all by myself in the kitchen. Then one by one they reappeared. They taught me very early you can’t do it by yourself. You need your team.

REAR ADM. COETZEE: Results. I want to see someone who is interested, energetic, and a contributing member. I don’t mind mistakes as long as the individual recognizes them, course corrects,
and continues on.

FENSTERMACHER: I think it’s a commitment to lifelong learning. Not formal education necessarily, but the desire to learn the business and the processes and procedures and to streamline and make things more effective. High performers always question the status quo, this isn’t different between mil and civ.

GOODHART: Some of it is what the employee brings to the table. Innate talents, how they think, how they care, dedication—those soft skills matter. We take technical people and make them supervisors, but don’t teach them interpersonal skills. That isn’t fair. Character is key to success.

From the ground level, what can we do to integrate military into more civilian commands, and civilians into more military commands?

ADAMS: I think it’s breaking down the barriers to embrace a more inclusive workplace. It’s a leadership issue. Does the person in charge feel comfortable with their counterpart? Hiring talented civilian leadership is very important and balancing them with the right military leaders ensures a positive experience for the workforce. It’s easy—invite folks to the table who should be there. Communication and cooperation. Knowing your audience helps and internal communication is imperative throughout the DoN.

BIANCHI: We don’t separate things! For instance, we don’t have holiday parties or other events for just civilians—we’re really one team. Well, maybe the Physical Readiness Test. I think civilians are happy they don’t have to do that. But seriously, it’s all about exposure to both populations and opening dialogue. I think that creating a culture of inclusion and practicing it, not just talking about it, is imperative.Quick win

REAR ADM. COETZEE: I think one thing we could do would be to mandate longer tour lengths for military, at least for shore assignments. The 12-24 month tours don’t allow our military the time needed to intimately understand organizational structure and dynamics. One year or even 24 months does not develop expertise or solidify relationships. Further, if military billets allowed us to stay in a line of work long enough to see if a particular specialty is really suitable for an individual, it might help eliminate the check-the-box mentality of moving from billet to billet to move up the ladder. In my opinion, three-year mandatory tour lengths in shore assignments would do this as well as help build trust in military capabilities and contributions.

FENSTERMACHER: I really think we aren’t leveraging introductory training programs that are around DoD/DoN. The financial training program, acquisition programs, pathways program, etc. are fantastic opportunities to bring folks in early and teach the need for a symbiotic relationship. We need to get civilians to the fleet—people need to see the folks they impact. I also believe in rotational assignments. Military move around so much in their careers—civilians should be able to rotate through an organization to gain a better perspective for what’s out there and how they can best impact the Navy.

GOODHART: I really believe in our NAVSUP “Day in the Fight” series (panel discussions educating the workforce on how we accomplish our mission) and our NAVSUP Face the Fleet trips. I think a majority of people want to serve and be part of something bigger than themselves. When we can show our civilians how those men and women live on those ships…that means something. That’s tangible. I also think NAVSUP’s new wardroom structure is a good thing. We invite everyone to be a part of our wardroom—you can pay for the quarter or you can pay for an event. I think there is great value in civilians being part of the wardroom.

How does life planning compare between military and civilian counterparts?

ADAMS: I think for civilians, they come into the government and have a world of opportunity and a better chance to balance it. The military doesn’t always get the same flexibility and that can make it hard on families. The government gives you a lot of opportunity to do life planning as opposed to other companies—we have retirement planning, job security, and can take international positions without leaving the company.

REAR ADM. COETZEE: Life planning is difficult for military. We have family separation that isn’t as prevalent in the civilian population. Having to provide for your family (emotionally, security, financially) while you are away for extended periods of time is very stressful. And, the constant moves also bring instability that is difficult to manage, especially when spouses have their own careers and/or children are in school.

FENSTERMACHER: Civilians could probably embrace the military mindset of moving. I fully support rotational assignments that force people out of their comfort zones.

What does it mean to both build and foster the best leadership cadre possible?

FENSTERMACHER: Encourage people out of their comfort zones. Having a wide variety of experiences and expertise allows you to face many different challenges. As you become more senior, these are the kinds of things you find yourself learning from and applying every day to be more successful as other challenges face you.

March/April 2016