The master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG) is the highest-ranking enlisted member, appointed by each new commandant to serve a corresponding four-year term. The MCPOCG advises the commandant on enlisted workforce policies, is an advocate for military benefits and entitlements, acts as a mentor to enlisted personnel, and is a sounding board for select enlisted administrative actions.
According to the Vision statement posted by MCPOCG Michael P. Leavitt, who assumed the post on May 21, 2010: “Using the Commandant’s Vision and the Chief Petty Officer Mission, Vision and Principles as our guide, we will enhance and instill professional and personal growth within the workforce. This will produce self-motivated leaders who possess, promote and demand a more balanced and much broader spectrum of knowledge, experience, personal accountability, social skills, caring and strategic foresight.”
A 50-year-old former Idaho farm boy who joined the Coast Guard in 1982, Leavitt discussed his role and vision with Faircount Media Group senior writer J.R. Wilson.
J.R. Wilson: What do you see as the primary job of the master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard?
MCPOCG Michael P. Leavitt: It’s vast, but one of the main jobs is to be forward looking, strategically. We have a lot of working parts that make this operation run, so I have to be engaged and involved in all those. At the same time, I have to be in line with the commandant and his principles.
As the most senior enlisted member in the Coast Guard, one of my primary responsibilities is to take care of the enlisted workforce, networking with all the different elements within the Coast Guard, as well as the Reserve component, Coast Guard Auxiliary, civilians, and our family members. And that gets into housing and medical issues, special needs – just a multitude of personnel programs that need to be taken care of so our folks can focus on their missions.
How do you plan to approach that?
Years ago, I said if I ever got this job, my vision would be to instill personal and professional growth in our workforce, particularly the chiefs, so we can produce self-motivated leaders.
One avenue is through the chiefs’ messes. A good chief’s mess cares about the people above and below them, about the families, and will have a great strategic mission, which should be the end goal for any E-9 in the Coast Guard – the ability to see things before they unfold. They also should emphasize the importance of gaining more knowledge as we go along, the value of experience and the importance of personal accountability.
Could you give us a bit more detail about the chief’s mess, what it is and what it does?
The mess is a place where all chiefs – E-7 to E-9 – can come to ask questions, get mentoring, etc. It is a dynamic environment in which a person can grow significantly, regardless of rank. The chief of the mess is the most senior chief in that group and responsible for understanding the commander’s direction. That’s why you need great leaders in those positions; otherwise, it could be a roadblock to success, with the command suffering and failing to properly perform the mission.
The chief is the Coast Guard’s anchor, keeping everything steady, and we should be entrenched with our enlisted folks, especially the junior ranks. When a new person comes in, you have to know the answers to all the basic questions that individual will have.
When responding to a disaster – such as Haiti, the Gulf oil spill, Hurricane Katrina – the chiefs should get together with an agenda focusing on personnel issues. The members of the mess have different ratings and can consolidate issues to come up with recommendations to inform their command and take care of their crew to support their mission.
What are your goals and visions as MCPOCG?
My No. 1 goal is to enhance the leadership in the chief’s mess, with the objective to align our leadership continuum, from the apprentice to the master chief. Right now, we are conducting some surveys and the lion’s share of our focus within the Chief Petty Officers Academy is identifying what the real-world role of the CPO [chief petty officers] will be 10 years down the road.
We have programs like the Individual Development Plans, command climate surveys, and a lot of people programs; the goal is for the chiefs to understand those programs. But who mentors the mentor? We have inconsistencies in how we mentor our folks and a lot of that is personal, based on what the individual mentor has experienced. The Chiefs Academy is the best place to provide the skills needed to mentor our young folks one-on-one. So success for our people and our missions will hinge on the leadership among chiefs and the chief’s mess.
How much leeway do you have to change the way the MCPOCG’s office functions – and what changes do you plan to implement?
I have quite a bit of leeway to change things. If the commandant feels I need to get into a new area, I can, but the office already has the ability to have a huge impact. I’m not interested in doing things on my own, but as a team, with everyone sharing goals and directions.
Any leader knows you need a team and I learned long ago I don’t have all the answers, so I’m not interested in putting myself in charge of all the changes. You have to stay in tune with what each rating is doing and what is going on out in the field.
Basically, I’m a program manager for a lot of personnel activities. I work with the enlisted personnel management office and network with key folks there, so if we see a change that has to be done, we work together as a team.
What are the major issues typically raised to you by the Coast Guard enlisted ranks?
I’ve been in the field a long time and in charge of a lot of field units, including multiple smallboat stations. And I’ve learned a lot of things may be geographically driven. The distance to a doctor or even a shopping mall can be issues in many Coast Guard stations. Housing is always a major issue. And spouses think totally different than the active duty member, especially if they have children.
What do you consider the most important issues you can do something about on their behalf?
Obviously, the economy drives our budget and our budget and resources drive what we can and can’t do in the field. That’s reality. We always have to look within and what we can control to make things better, what I can do to make things better for my crew at my level. We’re working to keep our housing suitable to meet our member’s expectations and those of their spouses, for example. The challenge is how to take care of those issues.
We also have to look at our infrastructure; some of our facilities are pretty old, as are a lot of our ships. We’re inching ahead slowly; they just christened the [National Security Cutter] Dorothy Stratton and our new fast response cutter is coming out. So we’re making strides forward, we just have to keep our eye on the support piece for our families and members, which will always be there, just driven by different geographic circumstances.
How are you – or do you plan to – communicate with the enlisted ranks, social media, for example?
I’ve been looking at Facebook, but I would hate to start something using social media where I could not actually answer questions. I have to balance my workload – and I have a family, too. After a long day’s work, I have to ask how much time I have left to get on Facebook, for example.
On our Web site, we have the Master Chief’s Corner, a blog type format, which we will use. And we plan to create a master chief’s mess, which will be for the chiefs, but also a tool for me to ask for help from some of the sharp people we have in the Coast Guard. The goal is for all the chiefs to get on and add their comments.
What is the MCPOCG’s relationship with the commandant and other senior officers?
Professionally, we are both glued on the direction ahead and really care about the workforce. [Commandant] Adm. [Robert J.] Papp was a ship captain and a ship captain looks at the horizon, processing decisions based on a variety of factors. That’s how he thinks and I think the same way, which is what you learn as an operator, driving ships, and smallboats.
I have his ear, particularly as the voice of the enlisted personnel, and I’m confident we will be able to deal with the challenges ahead of us together, along with the senior leadership.
On a personal level, we’re both operators, with experience at sea, and we have a great relationship. I’ve also worked with a lot of the senior officers throughout my career. The Coast Guard is small, agile, and unique – so small we are like a family, in many ways.
What is your relationship with the Coast Guard’s senior non-commissioned officers?
I’ve been an officer in charge for a long time and began relationship-building many, many years ago. We meet two or three times a year and I talk to four or five every week, dealing with various issues. I’d rather be face-to-face, but most of my communication is by e-mail and phone calls. I’m also on the road a lot, so I do get a chance to see quite a few of them throughout the year and they fill me in on what’s going on in their areas.
What is your role in developing and implementing the Coast Guard’s diversity program?
I have a key role in that. We just got back from a diversity summit, where the commandant spoke to quite a few interagency and joint service folks. The Coast Guard is making progress toward diversity and the senior leadership is committed to it, although if you look around some of our ships or wardrooms, you still mostly see white males.
We’re looking for future leaders everywhere and are making headway in the numbers coming into the academy and the enlisted workforce. But it’s not just recruiting; it’s also about retaining when they hit that four-year mark. We have to make sure the route is open to everyone, regardless of the direction they want to go.
Diversity isn’t just gender or color; it can be a lot of different things. But the reality is the Coast Guard should reflect society. That will take time and commitment and it’s my job, as a senior leader, to make sure we stick to our goals and stay committed to achieving them. For me, that means working with the senior leadership to go to different parts of the country to find our future leaders.
We just have to figure out what it is that makes us all tick, to understand and respect each other’s cultures and what other people bring to the table.
This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2010-2011 Edition.