A native of West Lafayette, Indiana, Lieutenant Commander Robb is a 2005 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science.
At sea, Robb served as Communications Officer and Navigator in USS HALSEY (DDG 97); Operations Officer in USS KIDD (DDG 100); and Operations Officer (N3) to Commander, Destroyer Squadron SEVEN forward deployed in Singapore.
Ashore, Robb served as a Liaison to the House of Representatives at the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs, and as the Tomahawk Missile and Surface Strike section head in the Navy Staff’s Surface Warfare Division (OPNAV N96). He is currently the speechwriter for the Chief of Naval Operations.
Robb holds Master of Arts degrees in National Security Studies from both Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and from the Naval War College. He is a recipient of the Navy League’s Stephen Decatur Award for Operational Competence, Naval War College President’s Honor Graduate Award, Junior Shiphandler of the Year Award, Indianapolis Colts Horseshoe Hero Award, and is an elected member of the Surface Navy Association board of directors.
His wife, Kate, is a civilian acquisition professional at the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), currently serving as Contracting Branch Head for all above-water surface sensor programs.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
When I was a midshipman, I got in a fair amount of conduct trouble my Youngster (sophomore) year. It was enough to put me on restriction during summer break and it significantly impacted my military order of merit, or ranking—enough that, despite having a full scholarship for graduate studies abroad, I was prohibited from accepting it. I harbored resentment and regret. But as this door was seemingly slammed shut others opened, and a sequence of events unfolded that has shaped my life and career ever since.
Rather than spend two years overseas (which likely would have resulted in a re-slate to a different ship or, at best, a significant delay in getting to the Fleet), I instead reported to my first ship early, where I met some of the closest friends I’ve ever had in my life. I was offered the chance to “fleet up” to Navigator—to this day my favorite job—and work for a Captain who has since become as close as family. My timing onboard allowed me to compete for a shore duty job in Washington, DC that matched my interests and enabled me to be closer to my then-fiancé. That job, which I considered a once-in-a-career opportunity, made my decision to sign on for two department head tours an easy one.
I can trace every major success I’ve had as an Officer—including people met and jobs taken—to my timing aboard my first ship. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the course of my career would have been far different had it not been for my college “mistakes” and the sequence of events they put into place. Though in the face of adversity it can be cliché to say that things “will all work out,” I’ve never forgotten that for me, that adage rang true.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who famously signed Jackie Robinson to a Major League contract thus integrating the game of baseball, once remarked, “Luck is the residue of design”—a quote that I think of often. His meaning seems clear enough: that individuals, teams, or organizations “earn their luck” through diligent preparation, clear and meaningful communication, and detailed execution. It evokes the sentiment from William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” It’s a sense that one can control his or her destiny—so long as you’re willing to work hard.
However, recently, I’ve softened my dogmatic faith in this maxim. In terms of my relative accomplishments to date and just as I describe above, I recognize and appreciate that more than a little luck, circumstance, and beneficial timing have been involved. For starters, it’s hard not to feel lucky—to live in this country, to have received a free education, to have a meaningful job, and to have a wife and partner who embraces life in the Navy despite her own successful career. But beyond that, I’m lucky to have met some incredible people along the way—friends and leaders, including many who have been interviewed on this blog—who never fail to make time for me or consider my interests and issues as if they were their own. And I’ve had more than a few opportunities come available due to little more than being in the right place at the right time.
So, while I still believe to an extent that “luck is the residue of design,” I certainly won’t discount it.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
My morning routine now (on shore duty) is wildly different from sea duty. My wife is up early and heads to the gym before our kids (ages 3 and 2) or I wake up. It’s a deliberate decision—to give her some time to focus on herself before her own demanding nine-hour workday.
The first thing I do when I wake up is reach for my phone and check my fantasy baseball team’s performance from the night before—a mild obsession but one that comes with bragging rights over my friends that makes the time well worth it. As my kids wake up, I corral them in our bed—usually with cartoons or MLB Network on the television—get them ready for the day, and take them to daycare about a mile from our house. I’m usually stepping into my office between 0730-0800, which could be considered “late” by Pentagon standards.
But the fact that I’ve been able to help with our kids in the morning in two consecutive shore duty jobs on the Navy Staff—first as an action office and currently as part of a personal staff—is really a testament to the leaders I’ve worked for and their willingness not to subscribe to once-rigid norms about what a stereotypical Pentagon workday should look like. It gets to the heart of why I’ve reconsidered the quote above about luck because there’s no doubt about it: I’ve been really lucky.
Now, on the ship, things were and will be different. Up well before the sun to head into work to check email, formulate my plan of attack for the day, walk around, and chat with folks. My wife and I are working hard to “divide and conquer” now because my shore duty is really her “sea duty” (i.e. high-tempo job working at her headquarters). When I head back to sea, these roles will no doubt be reversed. But we’re making it work—together.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO? What advice should they ignore?
First and foremost, junior officers must perform at sea—a recipe whose ingredients include competence and character. Competence means learning the ship, understanding its systems, attaining qualifications, and mastering tactics. Character is harder to rate but is unmistakable nonetheless; it involves leading boldly, making moral and ethical decisions even if they’re harder, and cultivating bonds of trust with those around you.
Once this professional foundation hardens, I encourage smart, driven SWOs to explore—or at least not discount—opportunities outside the community that may be offered during their first shore tour. To me, one of the remarkable and rewarding things about being a SWO is the chance to broaden our professional horizons beyond the waterfront early in our careers without negative career implications; to pursue graduate education; and to develop subspecialties—in financial management, personnel, requirements, strategy, legislative affairs, and others—that can also benefit the community and the Navy for years to come. In my opinion, these opportunities not only produce well-rounded leaders but also enable us to take these experiences back to sea and help offer context about what we’re being asked to do.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
I’m a big fan of Michael Watkins’s leadership book, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter. It acknowledges that leaders have such a finite period in which to join a new team, to listen and observe, and then to act meaningfully. When I switch jobs or report to a new organization, I sometimes have to restrain the tendency to comment on, or try to make changes to, policies or procedures with which I may not be as familiar as I
perceive myself to be. This book reminds me that in order to act purposefully and thoughtfully, you first have to understand the environment in which you’re operating and consider both the challenges and opportunities from all sides.
How do you set priorities and manage time?
For starters, it helps me to understand the priorities of those with whom I’m working shoulder-to-shoulder—my boss (and my boss’s boss), subordinates, and teammates. Any priorities I have should then nest within those in order to help my leadership achieve what they’re setting out to do, to help my subordinates meet their desired goal, and to work alongside my peers so our oars are all rowing in unison to make our collective team stronger and better.
I really credit my time at the Naval Academy for helping to develop a strong sense of prioritization and time management. There were simply too many tasks and not enough hours in the day to get them all done. Priorities are really a function of importance and time; there are those things that must be done because they’re critical to the mission right now, and there are other items that, while still important, can wait. It comes down to making calculated decisions about what is urgent and important and what was important but perhaps a little less urgent.
Priorities and time management are also a function of one’s personal organization. I’m always searching for ways to improve how I organize my thoughts or task lists in order to tackle whatever is on my plate. I’m currently using a “wheel book” but it’s never been my preference because, while I may take notes in a meeting, I don’t always go back and consult them. You’re also limited in the way in which you take notes (i.e. chronological accounts, rather than organized by subject or topic). As a result, for me, it can becomes disorganized, incomplete, and thus, not helpful.
During my department head tours, I took a single piece of paper—two columns in “landscape” format, folded in half so it would fit in the back pocket of my coveralls—and apportioned space to track items of interest for each division, for my departmental leading chief petty officer, and for myself. I would type this list—a “tickler”—and update it once or twice each week and send it out to my division officers and chiefs so they knew what was important to me. Theoretically, they would then formulate their own priorities and nestle them with mine, just as I tried to do with my leaders. Broadcasting what I thought was important (and reinforcing these priorities during morning Khaki Call) ensured our team was spending its time—precious and non-renewable—on things that we collectively thought mattered most.
Finally, effective time management requires precise execution. In our business—where there is simply too much to do for one person to do it all—delegating assignments is vital. As we become more senior, it can be tempting to complete tasks ourselves that we’ve accomplished before—everyone’s heard the phrase, “It’ll just be faster if I do it myself.” But then our subordinates don’t have the chance to grow and we can become distracted from whatever our primary focus is or should be. Identifying talent in your ranks—a hot-running petty officer, a division officer who has bandwidth and energy to tackle more duties—and employing them to the maximum extent possible will keep them engaged and keep your focus on those items and issues that are principally within your purview; in short, delegation helps manage the way in which you’re spending YOUR time. To me, there is nothing more empowering mentally and psychologically than a shipmate knocking on my door asking, “What can I do to help?”
What is your most effective daily habit?
Getting coffee. No, seriously—meeting friends, colleagues, old shipmates, or mentors for a cup of coffee or over lunch is really invigorating both mentally and emotionally. It’s nice to break away for a bit from the computer screen, walk around, and socialize with others—I look forward to it every morning when walking into work.
It was no different on the ship—getting some work done in my stateroom, taking a break to head to the Wardroom, pouring a cup of coffee, and enjoying the conversation and camaraderie. I often find that thinking through ideas or challenges I’m facing with these “trusted agents” makes me more effective when I do return to my desk. The caffeine helps, too!
How do you define success?
For a team, success is about accomplishing the mission. In combat, this means winning. A definition of personal success seems harder to pinpoint and it varies by individuals. It’s easy to define personal success strictly in terms of awards or fitness reports or milestones achieved or jobs offered; I’d be lying if I said I was immune to not associating these “metrics” in some way with evaluating my own successes or failures.
However, when my wife and I talk about “success,” our conversation always seems to revolve around someone we’ve met or a friend with whom we were able to reconnect; a contribution we offered that made a difference in whatever it was we were doing; something someone did for us that made a lasting impact; fun that we’ve had in a job or tour or duty station; or something our young kids did that made us exceedingly proud.