Captain Robert Francis is a native of St. Johns Antigua and graduated with honors from the University of San Diego in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Physics. He holds a Master’s in Business Administration from National University and a Master’s in Engineering Management from Old Dominion University.
Captain Francis served as Executive Officer and Commanding Officer of USS Lassen (DDG 82). While in command of the “Sea Devils”, he completed two South China Sea patrols, a 5-month change of homeport deployment from Yokosuka, Japan to Mayport, FL, and earned the 2015 Spokane Trophy Award as the top ship in the Pacific Fleet. His other assignments at sea include Communications Officer in USS John Young (DD 973), Reactor Controls and Reactor Training Division Officer in USS John C Stennis (CVN 74), Combat Systems Officer in USS McClusky (FFG 41), Main Propulsion Assistant in USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and Reactor Officer in USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).
Ashore, Captain Francis served as Tactical Training instructor, Deputy Director Ship Specialty Training and the Single Ship ASW Division Officer in Fleet ASW Training Center; Admin Officer on the staff of Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa, Djibouti; Surface Nuclear Junior Officer Detailer in Navy Personnel Command; Military Assistant for the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Asian and Pacific Security Affairs) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Assistant Readiness Officer on the Commander, Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet staff.
His personal awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (3), Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy Commendation Medal (2), Navy Achievement Medal (2), Junior Officer Tactician of the Year and the Black Engineer of the Year, Modern-Day Technology Leader.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
As a junior officer, our ship failed a major inspection. It was not something that happened often, so it caught the attention of a four-star Admiral. When the Admiral visited the ship, he talked about his ship’s failure when he was a department head and how the event changed his life. After the pep talk, he laid into us about how disappointed he was and he demanded results on the next inspection.
We did really well on the re-inspection, but at the time, I did not appreciate the lessons from that tour. Once I got to shore duty, I thought back on that experience, and what the real lessons were. I thought about the lessons because I never wanted to be in that position again. So I wanted to internalize the hard earned lessons and make it a part of my leadership toolbox.
I attribute my success as a leader from that failure early in my career. The lessons are quite simple:
- Hold myself and others accountable, not only for their actions, but also for lack of action.
- Recognize and publicly reward truly great performance. Punish poor performance in private, as group reprimands undermine the respect every leader must earn.
- Any fool can take the hand he/she is dealt and discard until he/she has a winning hand. The consummate leader can take the hand he/she is dealt and teach, coach and mentor it into a winning hand. However, do not be afraid of discarding the ones who will never work. They must be discarded from the organization decisively and with integrity. Do not pass them onto someone else.
- Analyze your failures to determine the root cause, and put processes in place to avoid repeating them.
- Never be the smartest person in the room, as a brilliant leader does not need a staff. All he needs is a biographer to record his brilliance. But a good staff must feel needed. The first time a leader crushes input as dumb or responds, “I already knew that,” it will humiliate the individual and silence the staff.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
I grew up in a former British colony (Antigua) and was schooled under that educational system. That system requires every student take a comprehensive exam, by subject, before graduating from secondary school. The results of that exam, determines if a person can attend university, as well as what job he/she is eligible to pursue. When I took my last comprehensive exam, I remember walking through the gates of my school, the Princess Margaret Secondary School knowing that I did not do well on the six comprehensive exams. I felt ashamed, because I knew I did not do my best and would likely be failing some of the exams. That meant, in my mind, I would be a failure in life. I regretted not making the most of the opportunities I was presented. It was at that exact moment that I made the decision that changed my life forever. I said a prayer, and made a promise to myself that for the rest of my life, I would live with “no regrets!” Whenever an opportunity presented itself, I would do my utmost best. So, “no regrets” remains my rallying cry.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
I make a morning workout a part of my everyday routine, because it’s the one period of the day when I know I will not be disturbed, and I am guaranteed some “Rob time.” The workout gives me the opportunity to relieve stress as well as a time to think. I think about my family, personal and professional relationships, as well as work. I often get my best ideas during those morning workouts. If I don’t get that workout in, then I sometimes feel off-balanced the rest of the day. Being an introvert, the quiet period while working out leaves me feeling energized and ready for every challenge.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO? What advice should they ignore?
As SWOs, we are responsible for a lot. In Division Officer and Department Head courses, we are given dozens of lists with hundreds of different items that are critical to the success of one program or the other. At one point in Department Head School, I had a list of over 400 “must do items.” I knew in my heart it was madness, but I didn’t have a better way. So I struggled to optimize the hundreds of line items to align my crew and achieve the success my Commanding Officers were looking for. I learnt along the way that if my team succeeded, then my ship would succeed, thereby leading to my own success.
It wasn’t until I was in the XO/CO pipeline that I came upon a Personal For (P4) message to Commanders and Commanding Officers from RADM Wray, the then President of the Board of Inspection and Survey. The subject of the P4 was Warship Readiness: The Primacy of Culture. While the message was addressed to Commanders and Commanding Officers, it’s really a blue print for success as a SWO. It addressed how shipboard leaders should prioritize conflicting requirements in a resource constrained shipboard environment. From this message, I learned that the essential ingredient to developing a ready warship is not technology, but culture.
Culture is what our Sailors do everyday when no one is looking. It is what makes the difference often times in ships that succeed and those that struggle. Culture is set by the command leadership team. Department heads, division officers and the chiefs mess are all critical to developing the winning culture. It is based on what we say; what we do, and what we make our people do.
It requires technical mastery of maintaining the ship’s complex systems, preparing for every mission and exhibiting pride and ownership around the ship. Achieving a culture of technical rigor requires three critical actions and one attribute:
- Unrelenting rigor in performing PMS, to include documenting and correcting deficiencies. The PMS program is our asymmetric advantage in our guns shooting, missiles firing and propulsion plant steaming whenever and wherever needed. We don’t take risks with this program, because our lives literally depend on it.
- Walking and INSPECTING every space owned, everyday as required by the SORM for Division Officers. This means we always have a critical eye when we enter every space. If we see a deficiency, then write it down and give it to the Chief or LPO to fix. After a reasonable period of time, follow up with the Chief or LPO to ensure the deficiency gets corrected.
- Train, train, train. Department Heads and Division Officers are expected to command their departments, divisions and watch teams. A part of that responsibility is to train them to work as a team. This training does not require a training environment every time. Every watch should be dedicated to walk thru/talk thru of an evolution or casualty. These watch team-initiated reps and sets will ensure that ever person on the team is ready to perform as trained during the real event. If we only train once every six months, the team will likely perform poorly. If the team trains all of the time, the evolution or casualty will likely go well. The choice is yours as a leader, so remember the team’s performance is a direct reflection on your leadership. Therefore, train, train, train!
- Ownership. Use every tool available to instill this attribute into each individual Sailor. Through individual ownership, Sailors will put in overtime to repair an engine, preserve a space, document a deficiency, etc., all without having to be told. Remember, Individual ownership and responsibility will always trump collective ownership, so hold individuals accountable and reward them for doing well.
As far as advice to ignore, each individual Officer must make that decision on his/her own. I would say focus on principles as well as the advice of various mentors, then make the decision that’s right for the situation. The decision is yours.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
Turn the Ship Around by CAPT (Ret) David Marquett, the former commanding officer of USS SANTA FE, a nuclear powered submarine. It’s about developing a winning team by pushing for leadership at every level of the organization. I give this book as a gift because it breaks the false narrative that every decision MUST be made by the Commanding Officer. It also provides practical examples of how to run an organization that encourages thoughtful discourse and positive intent.
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
On the organizational level, I carve out time to think about and analyze what’s happening in the organization, our progress towards a particular goal or objective, and to develop questions or offer feedback to juniors and peers. It’s difficult for me to develop organizational priorities without the time to study and research on an issue. This normally means that for a couple of hours each weekend, I spend it planning and preparing for the week.
Executing organizational and personal priorities also require that I schedule the time each day to work towards a goal. If an event gets on my schedule, then I am much more likely to complete the event.
What is your most effective daily habit?
Working out and scheduling time to work on priorities and goals. The workout keeps me focused and alert, while increasing my energy to overcome all challenges.
How do you define success?
I define success as doing my best for my team, my family, and myself at all times. Perhaps my best may not always result in a win, but if I did my best, then I will have no regrets, and the loss will be a lesson to analyze and learn from.
In the context of my team, recognizing collective and individual accomplishments are high on my priority list, as that acknowledgement plays a big role in sustaining a winning attitude. I therefore make it a point to recognize and reward those individuals on my team whose exceptional performance enabled the team’s success.
All of us will eventually leave this organization. At the end of my time in the Navy, I want to not only look back with satisfaction at my impact on the Navy, but I also want to have established deep and personal relationships, especially those with my wife and kids. For my spouse, a successful relationship is one in which we complement, support and make each other better people than we would have otherwise been. My wife Rena has certainly done that for me . I continually try to do the same for her each day.
Raising my kids to be responsible, considerate and emotionally stable adults who are able to make meaningful contributions to society is my definition of being a successful father.