A client recently brought back memories of one of the most difficult moments/crisis in my naval career – I was the Deputy Assistant Supervisor of Shipbuilding in Pearl Harbor, HI and I received two days’ notice that my Contracting Officer was retiring.

Panic can’t describe what I felt at the time.  I had been in the position for three months and never dealt directly with contracting before this assignment.  To get up to speed on contracting, I made it a point to drop in on my Contracting Officer each day and ask him a question about contracting – the laws, procedures and practices used.  Apparently, I drove him into retirement.

The worst part was that he was the only one who could sign contracts over $1 million – his assistant could sign for contracts up to that amount.  And many ship repair contracts we handled were for more than $1 million.

But there was nothing I could do about him retiring.  So, I accepted it.  This is what I did:

  • I reviewed all our upcoming contract actions to see what the impact would be. Fortunately, there were nothing major scheduled.  That helped me ease my stress.  Little did I know what was coming.
  • I asked what do we do if a contract action was for more than $1 million? Not just anyone can sign a government contract -only someone who has the training can receive a warrant which is permission to sign contracts.  But there was an exception – the officer appointed to be Supervisor of Shipbuilding receive an unlimited warrant upon assuming the office.  My Commanding Officer, who was also the shipyard commander, had an unlimited warrant – he could sign any contract!  Of course, I realized I would have to be able to explain to him everything about any contract, so I had to be prepared in the event his signature was needed.
  • I immediately initiated the procedure to hire a new Contracting Officer. This was the no brainer portion of what to do – besides, I could turn it over to the HR department after impressing on them the urgency.
  • I reached out to everyone who would or could be impacted and asked for help. This included my superiors, the staff, particularly the assistant contracting officer, our customers and the contractors we dealt with.  I stressed it was in their best interests that everyone be and stay informed, so we could be responsive to everyone’s needs and desires.  The previous three months of developing good relations with all parties paid off at this point.
  • I was prepared to make mistakes. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.  And it was proven true in this case.  Since I was constantly communicating with everyone, when I made a mistake, there was someone who was quick to point it out so we could make a correction quickly.

What was the result?  We survived.  We even handled an emergency multi-million-dollar contract – one week from the phone call initiating it to signing the contract!  And it was only after I got my commanding officer to sign the contract at nearly 5:00 PM that we remembered that all contracts over $1 million had to be approved by NAVSEA 02 – prior to signing.  Oops!  I called back to Washington, DC and woke up the head of NAVSEA 02, a rear admiral, explained the situation (emergency need, urgent, impact to schedule, etc.) and asked for permission, promising to send a message confirming the information.  Permission was quickly given, the admiral went back to sleep, I flew the message, and we celebrated surviving the crisis.

After three months, I had a new Contracting Officer and I discovered an interesting result from this experience.  One Friday afternoon we received an emergency request from MIDPAC for repairs on a ship leaving on Monday.  The new Contracting Officer, having spent most of his career in Washington, DC, said, “We can’t respond that quickly!”  My reply was, “Sure we can!”  And I proceeded to describe, in detail, the exact steps needed to get a contract issued that afternoon and the work completed by Monday.  We did what I said, and the work was completed on Monday.

It will eventually occur that someone will surprise you with news you don’t want to hear – my client had an employee announce their retirement on short notice.  But, as we discussed the situation, we outlined the same steps I used so many years before – and our client will survive.  It will be hard work and there will be anguish but in the end, life will be brighter.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.