Author Interviews

Naval Officer’s Guide to the Pentagon — Interview with RDML Fred Kacher and CDR Doug Robb

One of my favorite quotes is from Eleanor Roosevelt.

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

And after a combined EIGHT tours at the Pentagon that is exactly what RDML Fred Kacher and LCDR Douglas Robb did. They compiled a handbook on life and work in Washington DC and the Pentagon. Drawing from hard-won personal experience and guest authors along the way the Naval Officers Guide to the Pentagon is a must-read for any Military Officer, Naval or otherwise, getting ready to take their first tour inside the walls of the 5-sided puzzle palace.

What is the backstory behind the Naval Officer’s Guide to the Pentagon?

Just as the U.S. Naval Institute has done for years, Naval Institute Press approached us about creating a meaningful tool to help naval professionals—officers, enlisted, civilians, and their families—in this case to navigate the complexities of working in the Pentagon either for the first time, or when returning for an additional tour but in a different capacity.

The “breadth and depth” of jobs young leaders from the Fleet head to when they report to the Pentagon is astounding; and yet, there seemed to be only a single relevant preparatory book—the excellent Assignment Pentagon by retired Air Force Major General Perry Smith, first published in the late 1980s. It contained valuable information but wasn’t tailored specifically to a Navy audience.

So we set out to describe the types of things—a history of the building, how to get around it, the different staffs and assignments one may be detailed to, other government branches and organizations, and information about the area—that a junior or mid-grade naval officer coming to Washington would want to know in order to get off to a great start.  Through the entire project—from conception to execution—we were guided by trying to answer the question, “What material would WE have benefited had we had this reference during our first tours in the Pentagon?”

Was there an experience that you had that caused you to see a need for this book about working in the Pentagon and living in Washington, DC?

Between the two of us, we’ve served eight tours in Washington, DC in the Pentagon, White House, on Capitol Hill, and in graduate school.  Each experience had a deep impact—but no two tours were the same and, in some cases, there were few, if any, similarities.  Though we both worked hard to be fast learners, we would’ve benefited from a one-stop, tailored “scene setter,” a list of best practices, or some things to consider as we embarked on those assignments.   

As we set out to develop a book to help guide officers—just as we learned in our Pentagon tours—we quickly realized that we didn’t have all the answers. To us, the solution was simple: we gathered a group of extremely talented people from across the service whose professional backgrounds, past experiences, and desire to help made them natural partners for this project. This book is an anthology of sorts of these subject matter experts’ terrific insights as they break down complex topics in a way that will be useful to DC-bound naval officers and civilians alike.

At its core, we wrote the book to help young naval leaders coming to the Pentagon from the Fleet succeed and thrive. And as the book helps a new generation of leaders better understand how to identify the Navy’s needs and advocate for its interests, the results will directly impact the Fleet where the real work of the Navy happens.

What lessons can Junior Officers take from this book?

Most obvious is the fact that a quick scan of the book will spotlight just how varied the opportunities are for folks looking to serve in Washington. And in some cases—for example, assignments involving identifying the service’s technological requirements or formulating the service’s budget—it also can seem like the work is being conducted in an entirely foreign language. So just from a content perspective, a new job in the Pentagon or in DC will have a steep learning curve. This book is designed as a “ready reference” for folks to keep handy and consult when they need a quick fact or want to learn more about a topic or role. In short, it’s our attempt to flatten that steep Pentagon learning curve.

We organized the book thematically by discussing the history of the building and how to navigate its corridors, the various staffs that reside within Pentagon and the specific types of jobs junior or mid-grade officers may find themselves in.  Further we discuss other government entities “across the Potomac River” folks will likely interact with during the course of their tours and we touch on other facets of living in the National Capitol Region, such as how to get around the area and communities where a newly arrival to the Pentagon might choose to live.

Additionally, aside from specific topic areas, a theme woven throughout the book is that nearly every job in the Pentagon or in Washington requires a network of friends, colleagues, and advisors if it is to be done well; the scope of issues people work on is just too broad to be done alone. Building these relationships takes time—often the length of one’s entire tour—and you begin to establish professional trust on your very first day in the office. It helps if you arrive prepared—and that is exactly where this book fits in.

Finally, opportunities often arise for seasoned and high-performing officers to shift offices or positions within the Pentagon, so pulling this book off the shelf could help someone learn about a new job, prepare for an interview, or execute a new assignment.

What are you reading now?

Reading is an important part of who we are for both professional development and life-long learning, so we wind up sharing book recommendations with each other frequently.

Fred: I’ve recently received some of my best recommendations from my teammates on USS America, our flagship at Expeditionary Group Seven.  In fact, I’ve almost completed The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle that focuses on how truly elite teams build psychological safety, share vulnerability, and forge a common purpose and it was recommended to me by a superb Navy psychiatrist who deployed with us. I also recently enjoyed Admiral Jim Stavridis’ Sailing True North which examines ten of history’s great admirals and what they can teach all of us about character.  Finally, I’m a few pages into a book by a terrific former boss and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, No Time for Spectators, which shares lessons from “West Point to the West Wing” with the reader.

Doug: Like Admiral Kacher, I have enjoyed a variety of titles recently.  I just finished Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein about the history of memory and cognitive development, written by a news reporter who, on a bit of a dare, decides to compete in—and train aggressively for—the USA Memory Championship less than a year away. Before that, I enjoyed Bob Iger’s book, Ride of a Lifetime—part memoir and part leadership book about his career with ABC/Disney and how he leads and manages such a large and diverse company. And now I’ve just started Thomas Buell’s iconic biography of Admiral Raymond Spruance, Quiet Warrior, about the man who led the U.S. Navy to victory at Midway.

What books did you read, and recommend, which influenced your thinking on leadership?

As we learn on the first day of our first class on naval leadership, no one book perfectly captures all the challenges that leaders at sea face, nor does a single volume offer all the answers universal to the many issues we encounter at various points in our careers at sea.

Fred: At this stage in my career where “leadership development” often focuses on “command development,” I gravitate towards Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, a superb novel about a small Royal Navy minesweeper in the Atlantic during World War II (a book that I hope will get renewed attention given Tom Hanks’ forthcoming movie, Greyhound, based on another wonderful book, The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, is set in the same theater and time period). The Cruel Sea is a wonderful profile of command leadership, especially during tough times. One line strikes me every time I read it: “The Captain carried us all.” I have been blessed to serve as part of wonderful teams during my command tours, but I always tried to live up to those words while in command.

Doug: As I move from tour to tour, I try to continually refresh or update my leadership and management style to meet the new demands. I use Michael Watkins’ book, The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, to remind me that leaders have a finite period in which to join a new team, to listen and observe, and then to act meaningfully. This sometimes means having to hold back tendencies to act too quickly or make impulsive decisions that may seem right in the moment but which could be out of step with the ways in which the team has operated in the past. At its core, though, the book’s central premise is that in order to act purposefully and thoughtfully, you first have to understand the environment in which you’re operating and consider both the challenges and opportunities from all sides.

What would you recommend to a new Private or 2nd LT who is interested in one day writing about leadership?

We both find huge benefit and enjoyment in writing—primarily because it helps us to organize, formulate, and articulate our thoughts. We’ve also been writing for a good portion of our careers, which is perhaps the most obvious piece of advice we could offer: the key to writing is…writing.

We’ve all heard people say, “I’m not a good writer,” or “I don’t have experience writing.” And yet, none of us were born knowing how. The more one puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), the more comfortable one gets crafting an argument effectively and concisely. And in today’s day and age, there are no shortages of print or electronic outlets willing to publish or post your work.

The other not-so-secret to writing is…re-writing. Start early and work through multiple drafts, leaving time in between each to clear your head and approach the piece with a fresh perspective. The end product is always far more polished than if it had been rushed to completion.

Where can people find your book?

We’re grateful the U.S. Naval Institute has added this project to its bookshelf alongside the other “guides” in their Blue and Gold Series professional series, such as the Naval Officer’s Guide, Watch Officer’s Guide, and Division Officer’s Guide just to name a few. The book is available on the Institute’s website

The book is also available on Amazon

Where can people reach out to you? Are there any LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter/ links you would like me to add?

We always enjoy the opportunity to connect with folks to talk about the Navy, leadership, our past experiences, and our shared love of family and sports (namely, baseball). We’re both active on LinkedIn and appreciate the opportunity to partner with DODReads there.

Fred’s LinkedIn profile

Doug’s LinkedIn profile

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