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    Putting people first: Retired admiral reflects on service's ‘people culture’

    Rear Adm. Francis “Stash” Pelkowski is a veteran, merchant mariner, maritime industry business leader, licensed attorney and a professor at SUNY Maritime College. To say the 58-year-old father has accomplished a lot in life is a gross understatement. However, to hear him describe his early adult years leading to his enlistment in 1980, his present-day success and many achievements were far from predictable.

    “I was a screwed-up kid, in a big way,” said Pelkowski. “My work ethic was good, I would work at the local gas station and that type of thing, but it wasn’t good for school. I knew that I needed to do something different, and I knew that I loved the water, and so I actually walked into a recruiting station that had all five services in a common suite. I went to the Coast Guard first.”

    Boot camp proved to be a transformative experience–the structure, discipline and mission resonated with Pelkowski. As the recruit progressed through basic training, his teamwork skills and leadership qualities emerged. On graduation day, Pelkowski, sharply dressed in his tropical blue uniform, met with his best friend from high school, Patrick McGovern who looked at the beaming graduate with a smile and said incredulously, “What happened to Stash Pelkowski? You’re an entirely different person!”

    Thirty-eight years later, the newly-retired admiral reflected on the Coast Guard’s supportive people-focused culture.

    “The way I look at it, the Coast Guard is a lifesaver, but not just for the public,” said Pelkowski. “They save the lives of people that join, not all, but certainly for me. It dramatically changed my life. It’s a very person-friendly, humanistic organization. We have a tremendous people culture.”

    At his retirement in May, Pelkowski remarked on the culture he’s witnessed at all levels of the Coast Guard. “After I learned that Adm. Zunkuft had agreed to preside over this ceremony, I told him that I was surprised that he could fit it into his schedule. He casually said to me that he presides over every flag officer retirement. He said that we must value our people and their service. ‘It’s too important,’ he said. That is our people culture, as executed by our most senior leader,” said Pelkowski.

    For the organization to be always ready, emphasis must be placed on supporting the people that perform the job. “It’s all about the people,” said Pelkowski. “We can have the greatest cutters, the greatest small boats, and the greatest aircraft in the world, but it’s the people that execute the missions. Our focus as an organization on people makes total sense.”

    Beyond facilitating operational readiness, Pelkowski views the people-focused culture as being in perfect alignment with the Coast Guard core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. “If an individual shows devotion, a desire to perform and shows initiative, to me, that’s where the people culture really kicks in,” said Pelkowski. “If we see that devotion to duty, that’s when we honor and respect them by being a teammate, by being someone they can rely on, and by being someone that they can learn from. We have a really good mentoring culture in the Coast Guard, and I would say it’s at the superstar level in the Coast Guard Reserve.”

    Pelkowski recalled an experience that illustrated this. “When I joined, the Coast Guard Reserve was really separate from the Coast Guard. It was us and them. I showed up for my first two weeks of ADT in late August of 1980 at Coast Guard Station Shinnecock, fresh out of boot camp as a seaman apprentice. The commanding officer, an active duty lieutenant, grabbed me and said, ‘I know you just got out of boot camp, but we’re putting you in charge of your own cutter. Follow me.’”

    The “cutter” turned out to be a lawn mower, and Pelkowski said he spent most of his two weeks clearing huge fields of high seagrass. Another reservist, a chief warrant officer, was not happy to hear about the lack of substantive training in Pelkowski’s days. The warrant officer arranged for Pelkowski spend his evenings underway with the boat crew.

    “He went to bat for me,” said the admiral. “That was my first example of the Reserve culture at the time—they looked out for you.”

    Through his 38-year career with the Coast Guard Reserve, Pelkowski has both experienced and continued the organization’s longstanding tradition of taking care of its members by putting people first.

    Despite being a flag officer, Pelkowski has always recognized the importance of being approachable and thought of as a shipmate by his fellow reservists, in order to remain in-touch with the concerns of the people he can advocate for. “I tell people, ‘Please don’t think of me as an admiral, just think of me as a colleague and call my cellphone whenever you want. I don’t care if it’s two in the morning or it’s Fourth of July. It’s part of the Coast Guard system. That’s what we do for each other.”

    Last January, Lt. Laura Gilbert became the project officer for the admiral’s retirement. She said he was one of the most engaging leaders she’d ever worked with.

    “When he was in the office drilling, he always had a couple mentoring sessions scheduled,” said Gilbert. “He took it very seriously and made career counseling a priority.”

    Gilbert recounted her impression of Pelkowski’s best leadership trait that promoted the people culture. “It’s his ability to empower his people,” said Gilbert. “He allowed me to do my job. His willingness to trust my judgment and listen to what I had to say really set the bar and created a work environment that I was proud to be a part of.”

    Pelkowski has a first-hand understanding of how crucial family and employer support is to a member’s success in the Reserve. He has benefited from an accommodating civilian employer and great friendships. Pelkowski gives special credit to the enduring encouragement of his family, which enabled him to pursue his passion for service in the Coast Guard. “My kids’ attitudes were a really big part of me being able to put a lot of time and effort into my Coast Guard Reserve work.”

    As Pelkowski prepares to leave the Coast Guard and chart a new course, he offered advice to future leaders: “Work hard, show initiative, and focus on operational competence early in your career. The leadership and management will come naturally,” said Pelkowski. “If you do those things, it’s my opinion that there will be many, many people within the Coast Guard who will help you along the way.”

    Feature originally published in Reservist Magazine



    Date Taken: 08.31.2018
    Date Posted: 12.31.2018 18:59
    Story ID: 314384
    Location: NEW YORK, NY, US 

    Web Views: 271
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