Over 20 Years with NNOA and Still Climbing!
Captain Robert Smith, USCG, shares his thoughts on leadership, mentorship and NNOA!
Captain Robert Smith serves as the Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard’s Recruiting Command. He is one of the most senior African American Officers in the Coast Guard and a long time NNOA member! He joined NNOA as an Ensign and has been with the organization ever since. Captain Smith also recently obtained his Ph. D. So, we refer to him as Doctor and Captain interchangeably throughout the interview. Captain Smith sat down with us to discuss his thoughts on leadership and NNOA as well as the impact that NNOA has had on him over the course of his career. The interview follows:
NNOA: In our recent Leadership Lessons on the web and expositive interviews, we have covered topics from leadership principles, to leadership standards, to the value of mentoring, commitment to service and the privilege to serve, so to begin, Dr. Smith, what got you interested in the sea services?
Captain Smith: Well, I can’t say that I was really all that interested. The Coast Guard recruiter stood in front of me and convinced me that it was a great opportunity. I was a bit apprehensive because I was actually in Army ROTC in college at the time when I, and my mom, were introduced to the Coast Guard by the recruiter. The story that I tell is that my mother was the one who joined the Coast Guard, not me; she just put a uniform on me and sent me to boot camp! The recruiter sold mom! The thing that has sold me on the sea services after being a part of it, is the continual family which has only grown because of organizations like NNOA, which I joined as an Ensign over 20 years ago. I realized then how quickly my sea service affiliation grew.
NNOA: How long have you been a part of the Coast Guard?
Captain Smith: This coming June, it’ll be 27 years.
NNOA: So you have seen the Coast Guard evolve. Now, if you could go back in time, what would you tell a young Dr. Robert Smith?
Smith: I don’t know that I would tell him anything different than I would tell a person today. The challenges that we faced as an organization 25 years ago are not too different than those we face today. However, I tell folks that if you want to be successful despite the difficulties, you have to be willing to challenge yourself to excellence, you have to believe that excellence is something that you can achieve, and you have to see yourself some place. Too many folks forget to dream or they see themselves above the dream so they don’t take the time to dream.
NNOA: So what encouraging words would you offer for our young leaders today to succeed in our sea services?
Smith: Believe. Start dreaming and see yourself in a certain way. You have to commit to making yourself better. In my case, I have achieved the rank of O-6 and earned a Ph. D. Still, I’m looking for the next challenge. Develop a plan, set goals to execute the plan or be a victim of someone else’s plan! I chose not to be a victim. I’m from the projects in Brooklyn, NY, I know what a victim looks like! The way to prevent being a victim is to plan! What is your plan? What are your goals? And, what are you doing to get there?
Smith: You have to find several mentors. If you have just one, or none, you have a problem. The best advice I give for seeking them out is to watch those folks that are thriving in the organization. You will notice leaders that you can identify with and that are excelling. Seek to learn from those folks. I recall my first NNOA Conference years and years ago; hearing the then LCDR Manson Brown [now VADM Brown (ret.)] tell us to “bloom where you are planted”. I had never heard that before, but it stuck with me. Wherever you are assigned, give it your all. You never know what will come of it! I held onto that advice and eventually developed a mentor/mentee relationship with him. Years later, I ended up serving as his EA during his 3 star flag assignment.
NNOA: Tell us about your research.
Smith: The focus of my dissertation was African American Officers in the Coast Guard: Why do they succeed? We always ask why we fail. But, we don’t often ask why those that succeed do so. Ultimately, what I learned was that those persons that had life experiences that exposed them to varying cultures and had to adjust very early on in life in that regard, were more successful than their peers. That said, I also learned the value of mentors in this regard, to help overcome the cultural challenges and/or adjustments to organizational culture. Mentors helped to lessen the learning curve. You hear the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In fact, it’s not even about “who you know” but rather “who knows you!” Sometimes those influential senior leaders will stand in the gap for you and advocate for you! In the senior ranks, you need opportunities to show what you are capable of. When you perform well in those challenging roles, then by extension, you position yourself well to gain more challenging opportunities to show what you can do.
NNOA: Well said. With all that you are engaged in these days, how do you balance family, social life, work, etc.?
Smith: I don’t! [laughter]. I have done my best to include my family in my major career decisions. I take the advice and counsel of my wife on assignments, and have turned down certain ones after talking with her. And, there are times when I will not compromise the time I spend with my family. I had a situation when I was on the Commandant’s transition team and I was required to be somewhere, but that same night was my daughter’s last dance recital. I had a conversation with the boss that day and surprisingly enough, he was very supportive. I was there in the audience for my daughter. You have to prioritize.
NNOA: Who are you mentoring right now?
Smith: I have about three dozen people that I am currently working with. I have calendar reminders to reach out to them to see how they are doing from time to time. They all know that I expect them to reach back to me and give me updates. I stay connected with them on a regular basis. I understand that the basis of our mentor/mentee relationship is to figure out how I get them to where I am. Sometimes with the younger generation, you have to be intrusive because they feel like they don’t need anyone. I don’t let that deter me. I stay connected to them to help them along.
NNOA: What would you say was the most impactful moment at or through NNOA that shaped your career?
Smith: There are probably a dozen different instances I can recall over the course of my career, but I have to say that my first NNOA Conference was it! I had a situation just prior to the conference where I was called in to speak to my boss at my unit. He told me that I needed to work on my communications skills because when I talked, I sounded black! You can imagine I was furious! I was looking for the exit at that point because I knew with that mindset, I was in for problems. I spoke to my mentor at the time, then CDR Wayne Gusman, and he gave me some great advice and insight. He also recommended that I expand my mentor network – and also that I attend the NNOA Conference, and begin to expand my horizons. It was there that I received great support and met great mentors that stuck with me – NNOA members like CAPT Steve Baynes, CDR Rhonda Fleming-Makell and VADM Manson Brown. They gave me mentorship and leadership that set my path. I have remained plugged into NNOA for the duration of my career!