As a Loop, I was responsible not only for the caretaking of the Admiral, but also for all of his stuff – his luggage, his briefcase, his uniform, and his official Navy sword for formal military ceremonies like Changes of Command. His stuff was my stuff, and I treated it as such.
This is a blog about leadership from the perspective of a lawyer and a naval aviator.
This is the seventh post in my series about the many lessons I learned about leadership and success from an admiral when I worked as a flag aide over thirty years ago. I still use those lessons today. This is a continuation of the theme in my previous post entitled “Details matter,” in which I discussed how “knowing the details” mattered. In this post, I will talk about “checking the details” and shed a little more insight into how the detail-oriented mind of a Loop works.
As an aide, I was also responsible for ensuring that his speeches were well written, appropriate for the audience, and most importantly, properly positioned on the podium of the stage where he would be speaking. This last task was much easier said than done.
The timing for executing the admiral's speech at a Change of Command could be quite a challenge. Admiral Johnson was akin to taking a paper copy and a red pen and making edits within hours before his speech while we were en route to the event. Late edits and changes made my job even more difficult, but not impossible.
This is a story about pages in a speech and checking the details.
When the Admiral was asked to be a guest speaker at any event, the enlisted Senior Chief Flag Writer and I would draft the speech weeks in advance. We would edit it and revise it. The Admiral might see the speech very briefly a couple of times before the event. He might have had a minimal window of time to study the speech in the car on the way to an event or in a quiet holding room an hour before the event. He would often make minor pen and ink changes before the event as there would be little time to edit it significantly.
Of course, the Admiral trusted the Senior Chief and me to know what he would say and to write the speech in his voice and style. The Flag Writer was superb, and we worked very well together as part of the “front office.” Like me, she had been hand-picked by the Admiral, but she knew him better than me. I owe much of my success to her as she guided me on many occasions by saying, “I don't think you should do that. The Admiral won’t like that, Lieutenant.” And she was always right!
The splendor of a Navy Change of Command Ceremony
A Navy Change of Command Ceremony is very impressive and steeped in tradition. It includes a lot of pomp and circumstance in full dress uniforms, the flag, all the troops standing in formation in inspection-ready uniforms, and typically a Navy band playing ceremonial music. I say “typically” because a less visible and hastily executed change of command “without a band” was what we referred to as the passing of authority when a CO was summarily fired for his boss’s “loss of his confidence in the CO's ability to lead.”
The ceremony marks the official passing of command from one commanding officer to another. The outgoing CO and the incoming CO report the passing of authority to their boss on the stage. The reporting senior officer boss is on the stage with the guest speaker and the chaplain.
I attended, planned, and participated in many of these during my Navy career. They are the epitome of Navy tradition, and a classic, timeless ceremony signified with a hand salute and the words exchanged by the incoming CO: “I relieve you, sir,” and the outgoing CO states: “I stand relieved!”
The speech shuffle
On the day of this Change of Command in Jacksonville, Florida, the inevitable time crunch did not preclude the Admiral from making those pen and ink changes to the paper copy of his speech within minutes of the event’s start time. His standard practice was to hand me his marked-up copy, and I would then have to scurry to the nearest photocopy machine and make two copies of the speech. I would always keep one of the copies in my possession, place the second copy in the official speech binder on the podium of the event stage, and then provide the original marked-up copy back to him. The Admiral always got the original.
Back in those days, it was not uncommon for the aviation squadron's unofficial “Junior Officer Protection Association,” called "JOPA," to play a practical joke on the Admiral by removing a page or two from the speech in the binder. Or, they might have replaced the water in the glass sitting near his chair on the official dais with 100% pure grain clear alcohol. Sipping from that glass made for an unpleasant surprise on a blazingly hot and humid Jacksonville, Florida, day while sweating profusely in a polyester choker white dress uniform.
With this fail-safe speech duplication process, we were always prepared for contingencies. If the Admiral got to the podium and the speech was missing from the binder on the podium, he had a copy in his pocket that he could pull out. Likewise, I had the second copy as an emergency backup in my possession that I could always pass up to him, although doing so might have been somewhat awkward. It would have been the last resort.
That day as the guests were all seated before the red, white, and blue stage, I checked my watch. We were fifteen minutes away from the ceremony’s commencement. They all start on time. The Admiral handed me his copy of the speech, which he had marked up some. I raced to the squadron’s administrative office to make two copies of it.
I knew the copy machine was working that morning because I had gone by the admin office to check it as soon as I had dropped him off at the holding room where the VIP guests were meeting with close family and friends. I also knew it would be available because I told the young petty officer sitting closest to the photocopy machine to make sure no one was using it twenty minutes before the ceremony. He had asked me, "Sir, can I help you with anything?" on my reconnaissance trip to the admin office. The successful execution of this plan depended on the photocopy machine being "free and clear" and working that day which was always a risk!
When I returned, the Admiral was lining up with the official party to prepare to walk to the stage. I helped him properly secure his Navy sword to his sword belt and handed him the original. I quickly walked downstairs in the hangar to the ceremonial stage to insert a copy page by page in the master speech binder on the podium. I was off the stage about seven minutes before the ceremony began.
We were in our choker white full dress uniform on that day. That uniform is all white, with large medals, white gloves, and the ceremonial Navy officer’s sword. The Admiral was the guest speaker at a summer Change of Command ceremony for one of the P-3 squadrons under his command.
As this ceremony began, I was sitting in the third row near the aisle almost right in front of the podium when the Admiral started his speech. I always sat in a seat with a direct line of sight visibility to the boss. As a loop, you needed to know where your boss was at all times or have a “visual” on him, especially when in a large group setting.
As an aside, “losing” the admiral was not a good thing. It was always humorous at a large conference full of flag officers for a colleague loop to run around the corner and ask, “Have you seen my Admiral?” We all knew that an admiral on the loose could mean trouble and a resulting deviation from the planned schedule. Equally entertaining would be when an admiral rounded the corner, bumped into a bunch of aides waiting on their bosses, we would pop to attention, and the Admiral would ask, “Hey, any of you seen my loop?”
For this particular occasion, the Admiral was right in front of me. He began the speech with the appropriate greetings and acknowledgments to the CO’s family and special guests. He was probably halfway into the twenty-one-minute speech when he turned the page on the speech binder at the podium and took a slight pause. At that point, it became clear that he was going off the transcript. I knew that because I knew the speech by heart. The Flag Writer and I had written the speech, and I had rehearsed it by reading it out loud at his pace to make sure I got the timing just right – twenty-one minutes.
Something was wrong. He typically did not deviate from prepared remarks. He glanced at me briefly.
After a minute, he returned back to the transcript that I knew. However, I realized there was an awkward moment when he had lost his place. I doubted anybody else in the audience had noticed it, but I certainly did.
When the ceremony ended with the Navy Chaplain’s benediction and retiring of the colors, the Admiral and the official party left the ceremonial stage as the band played on. As was my practice, I made my way quickly to his side to retrieve his Navy ceremonial sword, his cover, and his gloves.
An officer whom I knew approached the Admiral and stated, "Admiral, I sure enjoyed your speech! It was spot on and just perfect for the occasion!"
"Well, thank you, I always appreciate hearing that. The Loop here helped me a lot with it." The admiral grinned, then grimaced slightly and gazed at me again.
More folks came up to compliment the Admiral. In between the small talk, he leaned over to me and asked, "How did I do?" He would always ask me this after a speech.
I stated, "You did good Admiral, even though it appears around the middle of the speech you got distracted or lost your place just for a few seconds. I don’t think anyone noticed it,"
"Indeed I did, Loop. The speech was missing page 12,” he said. “Don't ever let that happen again. Always make sure you page check my documents."
“Yes sir, it won’t happen again,” I stated.
And it never did.
I learned then and know now that details matter. Getting the details right is essential. Checking the details is critical. To this day, I always page-check every document I copy or scan. I did that during my time as a litigation partner when filing documents and pleadings with the court and still do so years later as an in-house corporate attorney. I also insist that the page numbers be visible on every page as I count the pages.
As a leader and executive, executive presence matters. Flawless execution occurs when you know the details and verify the details in advance. Such preparation builds confidence in your appearance and presentation.
Today, I exercise the same care with all of my presentations. Before I give a presentation to a large audience, I go to the presentation room and run the presentation on the exact equipment I will be using, making sure every page advances properly, and any audio file or video executes on cue at the right volume. I also test the microphone and the hand-held slide PowerPoint clicker. There is nothing more embarrassing than being on stage before a large audience or pitching in a small conference room to a bunch of senior executives and your presentation stutters, stalls, or does not work.
As an aviator, you always preflight your equipment. As a member of the P-3 aircrew in the Navy, our aircraft preflights for every mission lasted three hours. Every single piece of equipment was checked and verified.
You should check everything in advance. Not only does this provide you the time to adjust your presentation, if necessary, but it also provides you with a sense of assurance and confidence when you start your presentation.
There is no excuse if you do not preflight the equipment and check the presentation in advance.
For the Change of Command, I had inserted a copy of the speech in the speech binder that was missing a page. Apparently, the photocopy machine missed a page, and I was unaware of that.
Will you bet your job on that?
Fast forward to about five years ago, I was helping the General Counsel of my multi-billion dollar employer prepare for a public speech that the press was covering. He had flown in from Chicago. He was editing the speech minutes before he was to give it, much like the Admiral used to do. My trusted and exceptional administrative assistant Patty was helping me by hastily making the edits and reprinting the speech. When we printed the last edits, I retrieved the speech from the printer and put the speech page by page in a three-ring binder.
I handed it to the General Counsel.
He looked at me and asked,” All the changes made correctly?”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Are you sure?” he asked
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Did you page check it?” he asked.
“Yes sir, I did,” I said.
“Are you willing to bet your job on that?” he asked.
“Yes sir, I am,” I said with a slight head nod.
I had been page-checking documents for twenty-five years since the Admiral told me: “Don’t let that happen again.”
In the next post, I will wrap up the discussion on the significance of details. I have discussed knowing the details and checking the details. The next post will close out the discussion with “attention to the details.” It discusses how to ensure organization in fast-paced chaos. It is entitled, “Don’t touch my stuff!”