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Seniority matters

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

This could be the shortest post yet. The concept is simple, yet extremely important —seniority matters. So does situational awareness of that seniority.

This is a blog about leadership and lessons for success that I learned as an Admiral’s Aide many years ago. I have used those lessons over the years as a lawyer and naval flight officer. I am convinced those lessons helped me succeed and promote both in the military and my legal profession.

What’s your lineal number?

Regarding seniority, I am not talking about age, but positional seniority as to where you are on the org chart. In the Navy, every officer has a lineal number. The lineal number lets you know exactly where you stand in terms of seniority to all other commissioned line officers. You can compare your number to any other officer’s lineal number -- including those with your same rank -- and determine if you are junior or senior to the other officer. And, situational awareness of that seniority matters, especially the more senior you get!

As a Loop, the admiral’s seniority with respect to other admirals was important. I needed to know this to choreograph his day correctly. I used my knowledge of seniority to arrange telephone calls with other admirals, determine seating arrangements at official functions, and ensure the proper rendering of military honors.

Pick up the phone

For example, I needed to know seniority when connecting the Admiral on a phone call with another admiral. Here's how seniority came into play with a hardline phone call.

If the Admiral told me he wanted to have a teleconference call with Admiral Fitzgerald, and all I knew was that Admiral Fitzgerald was another two-star Admiral, being the same rank as my boss, I still needed to know who was the more senior Admiral. I would quickly look up Admiral Fitzgerald in the "admirals seniority book," which told me from top to bottom, from the most senior Admiral in the Navy to the most junior Admiral. I could figure out exactly where my Admiral stood in relation to Fitzgerald and every other Navy flag officer.

Telephone etiquette was essential. The junior Admiral always got on the phone first and waited for the senior Admiral. That transaction would go like this: If Admiral Fitzgerald was senior to my boss, I would call Admiral Fitzgerald’s staff and tell them that Admiral Johnson wanted to speak to Admiral Fitzgerald. I would state: "Admiral Claron Johnson would like to speak to Admiral Fitzgerald. Is Admiral Fitzgerald available?" The staff or loop on the other end might put me on hold to check availability and also with his boss as to whether he even wanted to talk to my boss. He would then answer, "Yes, he is."

I would immediately state: “Ok, Hold please. Let me get Admiral Johnson on the phone.” This signaled Admiral Fitzgerald’s staff or loop that Admiral Johnson was the junior Admiral. The senior Admiral was never to wait for the junior Admiral to join a phone call.

I would then buzz the Admiral and tell him that Admiral Fitzgerald was prepared to take his call. My Admiral would pick up the phone and answer, "Admiral Johnson here," signaling that it was time to connect Admiral Fitzgerlad.

Admiral Fitzgerald’s staff would then say, "Sir, hold please for Admiral Fitzgerald."

Admiral Fitzgerald’s staff would tell him that my Admiral was on the line holding for him. Admiral Fitzgerlad would then join the call, and depending on the instructions from my boss, I might stay on the line to listen to the conversation or drop off. It was common for routine matters for many loops to remain on the line, take notes and be prepared to help with the post-call action item, always recognizing that confidentiality mattered and absolutely nothing in that conversation left the room.

While this might sound overly complicated and complex and a bite trite, it was a perfect way by which the Navy recognized tradition and seniority. Simple professional courtesy grounded in situational awareness of seniority.

Where’s my seat?

Seniority also mattered with respect to seating at official military functions. The more senior person always sat to the right of the more junior person. This would be the case at official change of command ceremonies and formal military dinners. Flawlessly coordinating the seating arrangement for a military function can be pretty daunting when it revolves around seniority and many attendees. However, getting this right was simply part of the “attention to detail" I have talked about that is required for being a loop.

And the flag officers usually did not need to look at the seniority book. They knew very well who was above and below them in terms of seniority. I messed that up once on a phone call and had the senior admiral join the call and hold for my boss. I know because I heard Admiral Johnson apologize as soon as he joined the call. After the call, the boss came out and said, "Mark, did you know that Admiral Jeremiah was senior to me? That was very awkward for me. No big deal . . . . , let's not let that happen again."

Seniority also mattered concerning arrival honors and meetings. If the junior admiral was to meet the senior admiral at a specific building or location, his aide made sure he got there first, never keeping the senior admiral waiting. I have discussed that previously in my post entitled Timing is everything.

Who’s who in the zoo at the meeting?

For all meetings, as an Aide, I knew all the attendees, their positions, and their seniority. I verified there had been no late add-ons or cancelations minutes before the meeting. Before we arrived, I briefed all that to the Admiral, so he walked in smart and looked smart. No surprises. Good situational awareness.

In the civilian professional world, many individuals need help understanding their place in an organizational chart in relation to others. While a person might look 5 to 10 years younger than you, that person might technically be very senior to you in terms of her position. You need to know that. And you need to be aware of that before you talk to or engage with the other person. You need to know who's who and who reports to whom before you engage either verbally or in email.

Lessons Learned

In my law practice and the corporate world, I've often made the mistake of being too aggressive or naïve with respect to the individual contacting me about an issue only to find out that in terms of positional authority, they are much senior to me.

At the same time, I have received emails from a junior person with the dreaded red exclamation mark demanding that I review a document by a specific deadline. That can be rather irritating. I know how to prioritize that request based on where the individual falls on the org chart and their positional seniority, and also in relation to my existing workload. I have always told my employees and executive assistant to never send an email with a red exclamation point to a senior executive.

I am not saying that you should cow tow to someone senior to you or provide them automatic respect simply because of seniority. However, I am saying that you have to have the situational awareness to know the seniority of the individual you are about to engage. Absent that, you could be completely missing the ball. That said, with bad leaders, I have over the years respected the position, but not necessarily the person. There’s a difference. Realizing that difference comes with the job and a level of maturity.

Finally, situational awareness is essential for work meetings. You should know the proposed agenda and the attendees’ titles and positions. You have to know this if you are pitching at the meeting. You are already far behind the power curve if you walk into any discussion without knowing who’s who in the zoo.

Next, we are going to discuss family trips. I traveled with the Admiral's family on several official trips. On those trips, the Admiral would say, "Mark, you are just part of the family on this trip!"

That was very nice and usually quite true. Until something went wrong.

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TD Smyers
TD Smyers
Nov 03, 2022

Thanks for another great sea-story-based leadership lesson, Mark! I'm anxious for that next one too.

Replying to

Thank you for always being there shipmate!

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