First African-American vice admiral in Coast Guard kicks off Academy diversity week

New London — Shortly after retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Manson Brown took over the No. 2 spot at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he brought in data showing the culture there needed to change. There was a lack of diversity within the organization that was impacting the culture there.

Brown got buy-in from his boss, Kathryn D. Sullivan, who decided to make it an agencywide priority to come up with a strategy to make NOAA more diverse and inclusive.

NOAA officials looked deeper into employee morale surveys. The responses, on their face, generally were good, better than the federal average. But after examining them more closely, serious concerns related to employees' views about top leadership and middle management were discovered, Brown said. A majority of women and people of color were concerned about diversity and recruitment.

Starting with top leadership, the agency started engaging in crucial conversations about diversity and inclusion "that spread like wildfire throughout the organization," he said. Younger employees were engaged and played a crucial role throughout the process. A robust feedback system was established.

"If you do not intentionally, deliberately and proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude," Brown said, quoting diversity consultant and author Joe Gerstandt.

Brown brought that message Friday morning to a full Leamy Hall Auditorium, where cadets, staff, academy leadership and guests gathered to kick off the 42nd annual Eclipse Week, which focuses on diversity, inclusion and mentorship. This year's theme is "Embracing a Community of Respect."

Coast Guard leadership tends to "take a 'mission first, people always' approach. ... and the outstanding mission results we achieve signal to us that our leadership is effective," he said. The "people metrics are generally good," he added, so there's often no efforts to do a deeper analysis that might point to cultural concerns.

Middle managers, on the other hand, tend to focus on day-to-day challenges, and don't believe they have the resources to help change culture. They're reluctant to think change will happen because "so many change strategies come from on high that never produce real results," Brown said.

Employees don't always trust that leadership has a basic understanding of what's happening at their level or that anything will be done to address concerns, so often they choose not to say anything, he said.

"For individuals in underrepresented groups, these challenges are often magnified," Brown said.

He advised that these challenges can be overcome by organizations taking a strategic approach to look at culture. He pointed out that experts say there's a direct link between organizational culture and organizational performance, and that it takes 7 to 10 years for organizational change to firmly take hold.

As for the cadets, Brown encouraged them to call out offensive behavior and to engage in meaningful dialogue when it happens. To those who may be hesitant to speak up, there's safety in numbers, he said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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