A native of Christiansburg, VA, CDR Phillips graduated with honors from the United States Naval Academy in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. After selection to the Immediate Graduate Education Program, he graduated with honors from the Naval Postgraduate School with a Master of Science in Computer Science. He is currently pursuing his MBA from Imperial College London Business School and was named the school’s Dean’s Excellence Award recipient.
His first assignment at sea was as the Communications Officer in CLEVELAND (LPD 7), completing a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After finishing the nuclear training pipeline, he served as the Reactor Mechanical Division Officer in DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69), completing a deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Selected as a distinguished graduate from Department Head School, CDR Phillips served as the Operations Officer in NICHOLAS (FFG 47), where he coordinated a counter-narcotic deployment that interdicted over $500 million of cocaine traffic. Most recently at sea, he served as the Chemistry and Radiological Assistant and the Main Propulsion Assistant in GEORGE H. W. BUSH (CVN 77), completing a deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Ashore, CDR Phillips returned to the U.S. Naval Academy as a Company Officer and taught courses in Leadership as well as Seamanship and Navigation, and served as the Men’s Glee Club Officer Representative. Following his department head tours, he served as a Junior Board Member on the Pacific Fleet’s Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board. He was then selected for the White House Fellowship and served as a Special Assistant to the Vice President and Second Lady. Most recently, he served as a Military Assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as the Assistant Director for Officer Force Management.
His personal awards include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (with two Gold Stars), and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (with one Gold Star) as well as multiple unit and service awards. He and his wife, Amy, have three children: Jackson (10), Emma (9), and Hank (6).
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
My most life-changing failure came as a new Lieutenant during my nuclear division officer tour. I was serving as a Reactor Mechanical Division Officer onboard USS DWIGHT D EISENHOWER (CVN 69) and was approaching the end of my tour. As the nukes out there know, that’s when we head off to the Navy Yard in Washington, DC and have our PNEO Exam (Prospective Nuclear Engineering Officer examination) at Naval Reactors. And though I studied and tried hard, I failed. I didn’t pass this milestone exam that would allow me to continue to serve as a SWO(N).
The failure hit me hard and I spent a lot of time in introspective thought. Am I in the right profession? How do I face my ship? How do I continue to lead the Sailors entrusted to me after this failure?
After a tough weekend talking through these thoughts with my wife Amy, I came to a harsh, but true reality that I’ve carried with me – Sometimes the effort I think is my best, isn’t. More often than not, I can do better. And, I think that’s a message people don’t want to hear, but – sometimes your best isn’t good enough. We can either choose to change course and not reattempt a challenge, or we can will to make our best better. I chose the latter. After the weekend talking with Amy about this failure, I improved my “best”. I hadn’t encountered a hard failure like this before that pushed me past my self-imposed limits. A couple months later, I retook the exam and the interviews – and passed.
I think it’s important to share this failure with junior officers I mentor to help illustrate that even if you fail, you can go on to enjoy success in that field by not accepting the failure as a period, but rather working to make it a semi-colon. Personally, after my PNEO failure, I continued my efforts to improve my technical knowledge and, following my CVN Principal Assistant tour, was chosen to serve on the Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board – an honor I didn’t think possible that weekend immediately following my failed PNEO exam.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
One of the most influential mentors on my approach to leadership is VADM Al Konetzni. In the twilight of his career, during a visit to the Naval Academy, I was fortunate to share a beer with him as a Midshipman at the Officer’s Club. After we got to know each other a bit, he leaned in and said, “Matt, I know you’re going to go on and do great things in our Navy, but I want you to remember one thing –
"It’s all about the Sailors."
His words and his example, earning him the Sailor-given nickname “Big Al the Sailor’s Pal”, greatly influenced my approach to leadership in always trying to keep the Sailor first.
Additionally, I lean on God’s word in the Bible for guidance and one verse that’s been a common refrain in my life is Isaiah 40:31 –
“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Lastly, music plays a large part of my life, and one of my favorite artists is Johnny Cash. His song “I Walk the Line” is one of my favorites and describes how I approach aspects of my relationship with Amy –
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine, I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds, Because you're mine, I walk the line.”
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
My morning routine isn’t long or intricate – mostly functional. The only aspect that might be different than others, is that I prioritize reading. I like reading a physical newspaper – either the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. I read a daily devotional along with a biblical scripture reference. I read through the Economist every week. And, when I’m commuting, I have several podcasts that I like to listen to: “The Art of Manliness”, NPR’s “Planet Money”, Politico’s “Nerd Cast”, USNI’s “Naval Institute Podcast”, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”, “Thank You For Your Service”, and NPR’s “Hidden Brain”.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO?
Treat every day like your first day at the job. On our first day, we come in early, we stay late. We work really hard to impress our boss and our subordinates. I’ve found that most people strive to be their best self on their first day. Mentally, make every day your first day.
Stay hungry. Often, when we start to enjoy a series of successes, we slow our progress. That’s because we haven’t set new goals that continue to challenge us. Set goals high enough that you’re a little embarrassed to share it the first few times you tell people about it. Set goals that help you stay hungry.
Regarding advice that should be ignored, it took me a while to learn, but not everyone is qualified to grade your homework. Meaning, it’s not so much particular advice that should be ignored, but rather, do your best to surround yourself with good people that have your best well-being in mind.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
I’ve started giving my nieces and nephews a different book each year that I’ve read and has had a positive impact on me during the previous year. The last two books are Admiral McRaven’s “Make Your Bed” and J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”. I especially like the book “Make Your Bed” as a gift for young adults because it’s an easy short read, that’s digestible and has tangible, pragmatic advice for improving your daily mentality.
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
Our family is incredibly busy! Our three kids participate in lots of different sports and activities, and it’s a challenge to manage our time and our goals, along with those of our children. Between football, lacrosse, basketball, ice hockey and cheerleading, our three kids keep us busy! One tool we use that really helps is an app called Picnic – it’s a life management app that, among many different functionalities, has a shared group calendar that allows a singular place to update our many commitments. We’re at a point in life that our children’s growth and successes are our priority. And, along with my responsibilities as a Naval Officer, my most challenging and most rewarding responsibilities are those in my role as a father and as a husband.
Certainly, I still have my own goals and my own priorities outside of our family. I think it’s important for my kids to see me set academic, physical, religious, and community involvement goals and spend time and effort in pursuit of those goals.
What is your most effective daily habit?
I think one of the most powerful influences on a person’s day and, more broadly, a proven indicator on their quality of life, is their relationship with their spouse or other significant person. The advice I offer all newlyweds is to make a daily decision to love your partner. It’s not an emotion or a feeling. Love is a series of acts, personal sacrifice, and honest communication. In that light, my most effective daily habit is always doing the dishes. Amy hates doing them, and I know it means a lot to her when I do it. That small act, along with others throughout the day, helps share the physical and mental load of running our household. She helps me be my best self, both at home and at work, so I owe her my best self in our relationship.
How do you define success?
I’ve always enjoyed the definition of success penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Too often, people focus on professional or financial success as the only metrics of success. It’s much harder to measure a person’s character as a definition of success. Emerson offers that success is –
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”