CDR Matt Erdner
Commander Erdner, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, graduated from Pine-Richland High School and entered Norwich University in 1997. He graduated from Norwich with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and a minor in Mathematics and was commissioned through Norwich’s NROTC program in May 2001.
After he completed the Division Officer course at the Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS), he reported aboard USS HAYLER (DD 997) as First Lieutenant. Following a Mediterranean deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom he completed the Surface Rescue Swimmer course. Commander Erdner was assigned to Engineering Department and completed Counter-Narcotics operations then decommissioned USS HAYLER in August 2003 as the Main Propulsion Assistant. He then reported to USS MITSCHER (DDG 57) as Fire Control Officer where he completed a DPMA and her 2004 INSURV. Following his division officer tours, Commander Erdner attended the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he earned a Masters degree in Space Systems Operations. Following his graduation with Distinction, he attended Department Head School completing the Prospective Engineering Officer track.
Commander Erdner reported to MCM Crew BULWARK as the Engineer Officer in October 2008. While embarked in USS CHAMPION (MCM 4), he executed her homeport shift to San Diego, CA from Ingleside, TX. From July 2009 through March 2010, he embarked USS GLADIATOR (MCM 11) for their FIFTH Fleet deployment.
After he completed the Prospective Commander Officer pipeline, he joined MCM Crew DOMINANT as the Executive Officer in the fall of 2010. The crew completed CHAMPION’s 2011 INSURV and after five months of their 2011 deployment, he assumed command of MCM Crew DOMINANT and USS SCOUT (MCM 8). Following re-deployment, he assumed command of USS CHAMPION in December 2011, and then USS CHIEF (MCM 14) in February, 2012. The crew recertified in all warfare areas and deployed to the FIFTH Fleet AOR where he assumed command of USS GLADIATOR. After 8 months of operations and a modernization SRA, he assumed command of USS WARRIOR (MCM 10) in January 2013.
Following early command, he reported to SWOS in April 2013 as an instructor for the Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness and Surface Commanders Courses until March 2015. He completed a Joint Service tour at the Missile Defense Agency as the Executive Assistant to the Director for Test in July 2017. After completing the Surface Commanders Course, he joined USS MASON (DDG 87) as her Executive Officer in April 2018 completing the training cycle and deploying to the Fifth and Sixth Fleet AORs. In September 2019 he turned over as Executive Officer and attended the Prospective Commanding Officers Course. Commander Erdner took command of USS MASON in November 2019.
His personal decorations include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, Naval Post Graduate School Space Systems Academic Excellence Award, various unit and campaign ribbons.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
I truly feel that how you move on from failure defines your future success. That stems from looking inward to realize what you did or did not do that allowed that failure to happen. You must then use that knowledge later to ensure you prepare for similar upcoming events to make sure that same contributing factor does not happen again. This will help to ensure that event’s success in the future. I feel this concept is true for all facets of life.
During my first DIVO tour as First Lieutenant on USS HAYLER (DD 997), my division wasn’t truly ready to execute a Mediterranean moor even though we thought we were ready. We had routinely dropped the port anchor for normal anchoring evolutions without incident over the last two months. I briefed this special evolution at the Sea and Anchor Briefing with no questions or concerns from the audience. The next day the ship was navigated into port and made a perfect approach. The evolution was going very well, then the order was given for the starboard anchor to be let go, but did not drop when its brake was released. Fortunately, the harbor had a temp anchor that we used to complete the evolution. It was embarrassing for me, the BMC and for my Commanding Officer. Additionally, this mooring configuration would prevent us from getting underway on our own if needed. It was easy to make the excuse that the anchor was rusted in place because it hadn’t been logged as dropped in over three years and there wasn’t time for a test drop in our busy schedule. That may have been true, but the fact was that the ship needed to use that anchor for this Med moor and it could not be used. The main lesson that I learned from that event was to practice events/evolutions beforehand to ensure that the actual event would be executed and we then had the best chance for success. I know this is a standard common practice, but that evolution cemented it in my mind only two months into my first tour on a ship.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
“To thine own self be true” written by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. I read that in Middle School about 30 years ago and it has always stuck with me. That quote really holds a core meaning to me. You must stay true to yourself or you will always be trying to be someone you are not. This is an attribute that I have seen in unsuccessful leaders over my Naval career and while I was in ROTC. I think when people try to be or act like someone else they are seen as fake. People will realize if you are trying to be someone who you are not and they will likely not respect you.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
At sea, I verify the position of the ship and the traffic around us on VMS. At home, I feed my dogs then prepare my breakfast.
I do have a routine. I think a routine is important to be effective. It helps me to have a sense that I’m on track throughout my day. I also like to have a sense of accomplishment each day. I find that when I change my routine (due to a new job or even a new family activity) that it takes me some time to develop a new effective routine, then I feel comfortable in my daily activities. It may seem strange, but I still remember the routine I used during my first DIVO tour. It was truly that important to me.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO? What advice should they ignore?
Take care of your personnel, and yourself. Always encourage forceful backup and ask for feedback.
Taking care of your personnel doesn’t mean get them off early every day. It really means to provide them what they need to be successful. You must also get to know them, which will also help you to know how to motivate them individually and learn who the influencers are in their working groups. Ensure they understand how their work fits into the overall scheme of things onboard the ship. Articulate the command’s schedule and priorities so they understand what is going on. That will help them to understand the “why” which will translate to help them to realize the reasons their equipment must work, why they must be able to maintain and operate it. It will even help them to understand why they stand their watches that they are assigned. You must work with your Chief and/or LPO to ensure that their work is properly identified and prioritized. That will set your personnel up to be successful in each event they have a part in (training cycle event, ship evolutions, etc.). This may seem simplified, but if they don’t see themselves as members of a successful work center, division, or ship, then their morale will suffer. That in turn will affect their motivation and prevent them from meeting their full potential.
To take care of yourself, you need to look at it as a whole picture and you need to balance those aspects. First off, you are responsible for the work that you are assigned as a DIVO. In addition to that, you need to earn your qualifications, stand proper watches, and take care of your personnel. You also need to consider how you are taking care of your family, friends, your physical health, and your mental/spiritual health. This is where I have found it to be most difficult. I did not do a good job of balancing these aspects as a DIVO. I focused too much on my personnel, quals, and watches. That led me to earn my SWO qualification faster than my peers, but it was a huge detriment to my family life (newly married) and my physical health (I didn’t work out for five months straight until I earned my pin). This is an area where I still need to work on today. I am much more effective at work and home when I can balance these aspects well. You have to be in this for the long haul, and being a successful Officer hinges on getting this life-work balance right.
I recommend that driven young SWOs should avoid using “gouge.” Even if your peers are “living by the gouge,” you need to resist that urge to use the easy route because it will “bite you” eventually. Get into the actual references and learn where the actual information comes from so that you know it. It takes more time, but it is worth it. I was bitten by this in my first DIVO tour when I was at my Helm Safety Officer board with the Chief Engineer. I simply regurgitated the info that the other qualified DIVOs told me and I ended up embarrassing myself. He expected more from me and let me know it. From that point forward, I approached that type of knowledge with skepticism and looked up the information that I needed to learn. At every subsequent command there were instances where I found the “accepted” information was not correct. Some of that was antidotal, other times it was crucial to safely navigating the ship (such as the ship’s actual tactical diameter and bow shadow zones on my last two ships). Look up the information and educate your shipmates (as appropriate). It will serve you well as the basis of your knowledge and allow you to be more effective. One further word of advice on this topic, don’t get caught up in the drama on the ship. You have too much to do to waste your energy on the latest rumors.
If you really need to know what is going on to diffuse a situation, then go to the source and clear up the misinformation. That is what a leader does.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
I can’t say that I give books as a gift. It’s simply not something that I do. I have seen others do that and I have always seen it as a nice gesture.
If you are looking for a book that I would recommend, I would say the Aubrey series from Patrick O’Brian. The books in that series are a great read and are entertaining. I used my free time to read the entire series over the three years I was in Early Command. I have read a lot of books written concerning leadership, operational art, etc. over the last twenty or so years. Each has something to offer, but I always put those books down after I finish them and wonder what that author didn’t share or how they portrayed things in their book that wasn’t true to how they actually led and currently lead. As I am answering these questions for this interview, I also find myself reflecting on: how do I want people to perceive me? I think that may be part of the reason that no book on leadership will ever truly make someone else into an effective leader. You must be true to yourself. If you are not, your personnel and peers will see through you and they will not respect you which will prevent you from being an effective leader.
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
For me it comes down to the critical path to achieve a certain outcome that is needed. I know that sounds simplistic, but if you get bogged down into everything that could be done, you will probably not get much accomplished. It is crucial to talk with your boss to ensure that you understand their priorities and what they expect you to accomplish. Think about them, then set your own personal and divisional priorities. You then need to talk about your divisional priorities with your CPO and/or LPO to ensure you set your priorities for your division correctly. Generally my highest priority will be what must be done first that will have the largest impact.
What is your most effective daily habit?
I believe in the adage “trust but verify.” I meet with my leadership personnel at the beginning of the day, midway through it, and before the workday ends. This allows me to follow up with them to ensure they understand my priorities for that day. It allows me to track the important work that needs to be accomplished, and to see how they are doing. I make a point to visit with my personnel at various points during the workday. I have found that gives me the opportunity to see what they are doing and assess how they are doing as people. These visits allow me to get to know them and express my gratitude for what they are doing. Those visits normally last only a few minutes, but that time spent has been invaluable throughout my tours.
I currently meet with my Triad in the morning just after khaki call, before / after lunch, then I meet up with my Department Heads and the Triad at the end of the workday. I do walk around to visit with my personnel throughout the day and evening when underway.
How do you define success?
I look at it as personal satisfaction. I am the most satisfied when I know that I was able to accomplish something the “right way.” We are required to maintain our ship so that it is ready to execute any mission our country assigns to us. For me, it’s about how you are able to lead your personnel to complete these missions. My first ship was highly successful, but had horrible morale and most of the personnel did not want to be there, including me most of the time. There were a lot of contributing factors that led to that low level of morale which stemmed from many areas. I have always tried to foster an environment within my division, department, and in later positions the entire command that would lend to higher levels of morale. What I have found that made me most successful was to work hard and to be stern, but fair while maintaining mutual respect for all personnel under me. Maybe I have been lucky so far, but each “unit” I have led has been successful. I am proud of what we were able to accomplish and how we did it each time that I look back my past assignments.