After-Action Report: RVM #51 with Cutler Dawson

Many thanks to VADM Cutler Dawson (USNA ’70) and his ghostwriter Taylor Kiland for their presentation last night on their new book: From the Sea to the C-Suite: Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office.

VADM Dawson had his first command, of WWII-era ocean-going tug USS MOLALA (ATF-106), as a LT at the ripe old age of 27, making him the youngest afloat CO in the Navy at that time.

Fast forward a few years, and in 2004 VADM Dawson hung up his uniform to take over as CEO of Navy Federal Credit Union. He’d spent his whole professional life in the Navy and had never run a business… but he knew how to lead, and as it turned out, that’s what counted most.

We asked for a quick show of hands before we got started: out of the 20-odd people on screen, how many were NFCU members? The result: almost everybody. My own mom has been a member since 1970, I had my own first account before I learned to walk, and when RINGKNOCKER Dad Robert Williscroft (NESEP ’69) got HIS first NFCU account, submarines were still made of wood! True story.

So there is a RELATIONSHIP between the Navy Federal Credit union and, you know, US. Used to be, us meant sailors and Marines. Now, us means every veteran from every service, plus their families, and NFCU is the largest credit union in the United States.

When we passed the microphone to Taylor to introduce VADM Dawson, she set the stage by playing a 3-min tape of a telephone exchange between an NFCU customer service rep and a member who wished to pass on a remarkable story. Half the RINGKNOCKERs in attendance were blowing their noses before she was done.

The most remarkable thing about this story was that it was NOT REMARKABLE… that it was, in fact, precisely the sort of thing one would expect from a valued employee, exercising her enthusiastically-supported initiative to serve a customer she cares enough about to serve in a meaningful way. Under VADM Dawson’s 14 years of leadership, Navy Federal’s culture of service grew to a point where stories like this were commonplace.

Last night, VADM Dawson dug into just how he achieved these results.

All of these lessons are covered in his book… which, by the way, will probably wind up required reading in Luce Hall, home of the Naval Academy’s Leadership Department. As is so often the case in leadership, the lessons are easy… it’s the application of them that can be a challenge.

Here are a few:

  • Spend your time on the deckplates, not your office chair.
  • Sail boldly, and choose your targets wisely.
  • Look with your eyes, listen with your ears, and be silent with your mouth until you’ve done the first two.
  • Protect your people, especially from yourself.
  • Know which stars guide you, and why.

VADM Dawson discussed all this and more, liberally salted with the sea stories for which he is famous. Definitely a Meetup to remember!

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