EP. 1 In Conversation with La Tanya Simms, 1st African-American Woman Captain, US Navy Civil Engineer Corps

Griselda Togobo from FL sat down with La Tanya to discuss her career and her experience serving in the US Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), retiring at the rank of Captain after 26 years. She was the first African-American woman in the CEC to rise to this rank in Navy history.

La Tanya shared her experiences through “sea stories” and little vignettes to convey ideas and inspire others. If you take away nothing else, she hopes you learn that you are in control of your destiny.

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Have you always been clear on your personal mission or has it developed over time?

I have not defined or developed a personal mission per se. However, I have absolute clarity on what’s important to me (family and my well-being) and how I try to live (with integrity and authenticity). Additionally, there are two principles a mentor and former commanding officer, Rear Admiral Kevin Slates, put in his command philosophy (and I later adopted for my own command philosophy) that serve me well:

Work hard and devote time to being your absolute best. Make time to laugh and have fun… yes, even during a pandemic.

The point on plagiarizing…a great one. But what if your recommendations and work are regularly passed on to seniors and they get all the credit, the promotions etc. and you are passed by? At what point is it unacceptable?

We all work to some extent for the good of an organization or company making idea and recommendation cross-pollination common. U.S. President Harry S. Truman is quoted as saying, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” President Ronald Reagan is credited with saying something similar. This is all good if you occupy positions of power and privilege. For the rest of us, I recommend keeping copious documentation, quantify your value (Ex: your idea increased production by 5%), and discuss concerns with your supervisor.

For me, it would be unacceptable if there were never any acknowledgement like a simple ‘thank you’ note, a promotion, or something in between that my effort and ideas mattered to an organization.  If my ideas were frequently being co-opted or I was routinely overlooked for promotion, and the discussion with my supervisor was fruitless, it would be time for me to look for another job opportunity or consider branching out on my own.

How do you have ‘a plan’ without having a plan?! Can you give an example? How do you get that balance of being focused but flexible?

The priorities and principles mentioned above guide my decision-making. Although I have made a habit of setting goals with deadlines, they are not absolute. I believe you can be focused on a goal but be flexible enough to revise the means and methods to achieve it. For example, while I was focused on completing my undergraduate studies, I didn’t plan to join the U.S. Navy.

No kidding, I received a postage-paid card in the mail that said something like; Earn $1,255 a month! Join the U.S. Navy. It was 1990 and friends who were in the Navy Reserves, were being recalled to active duty. So I joked with my roommate that I was going to join the Navy, completed the card, and stuck it in the mail. Needless to say the recruiter, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Ron Beasley, was very good at his job. Once I really thought about the possibility of not hustling to scrape together tuition and earning money for graduate school, I joined.

Had I not been receptive to LCDR Beasley’s pitch and eventually staying in the Navy beyond my initial 4-year obligation, I likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to: see the architectural wonder of Faisal Mosque, the largest in Pakistan, build a school addition and roads in Surabaya, Indonesia, or work for and serve with the best leaders in the Civil Engineer Corps.

Lastly, there’s a military saying that says, “A plan only survives first contact with the enemy.” In other words, you can have THE best plan but as soon as implementation starts, you’ll likely have to deviate from it. Be flexible, receptive, and prepared to seize opportunities.

What from your background inspires your present approach to your creative art?

I am blessed to have the opportunity to work in the creative space every day, immersing myself in art and graphic design. Studying architecture was a great precursor. The design process that I learned in school – interpreting project requirements, developing multiple concepts, meeting with clients, revisiting project requirements, refining final concepts – is integral to successfully complete projects in both the architecture and graphic design fields.

I teach special education. My kids often lack the confidence in their abilities (even though they are capable) what is maybe one thing/tip you could offer them to find the confidence to overcome their disability?

A good leader “knows thy self.” I can wax poetic about a number of topics but that probably wouldn’t answer the question, so I phoned a friend. Dandria Standifer has been an educator for 21 years and teaches children with differing abilities. Her insights follow:

  • Teachers should first assess students to find out what academic functioning levels they are on. There are a few different assessment tools to use to determine their functioning grade level for each core academic area. Once a baseline functioning level has been identified, then students should be assessed to find out their learning style.
  • I would recommend the above steps be completed first, before creating lessons and/or activities for students to complete. Students usually are not motivated to learn. Especially if they think the content is too challenging.
  • Teachers have to gain the attention of students to encourage and motivate them to want to learn. First give them work, a grade level below their academic functioning levels so they can feel successful working on that skill. Once the student feels successful, then increase the skill just a little to make it more challenging. As the student continues to feel success, continue to increase the skill. Set academic goals for each core area. Provide positive feedback and/or tangible rewards for students as they achieve their goals.
  • Always provide hands-on and/or interactive learning games as a way for students to retain and recall skills learned.  This way they will be able to transfer skills learned from one activity to another without feeling stressed. 

If you’re good at what you do but it’s someone else who gets to lead the project (possibly because of their face fits) etc. and always given the credit what’s the best way to overcome that?

My response is similar to the plagiarizing question above. If this consistently happens, you should discuss your concerns with your supervisor. If your supervisor seems to be one of the challenges, consult their supervisor and/or a trusted mentor in the industry to help navigate the situation. Yes, you can be very good at what you do and yet and still someone else may get the leadership opportunity. If you tick a lot of demographic boxes like me, your subconscious is left to wonder, was it because I am _______? I choose not to spend much time dissecting why someone was foolish enough to not select me. Yes, that’s pompous but…

Whenever I wasn’t selected for an opportunity that I clearly thought I was the right fit for, I was grumpy for a day or two. Then I got over myself because the Creator had just cleared the way for whatever I was destined for next. If I asked to lead a team and I am unquestionably qualified but I’m not selected, that says more about the selectors rather than an indictment about me. Am I disappointed? Absolutely! Am I angry? Likely! However, there is a biblical principle that says, and I’m paraphrasing, we should consider our trials all joy because, through trial, we develop patience and strengthen faith. And for me, I have faith that I am where I am supposed to be experiencing what I’m experiencing for a purpose.

Every experience prepares us for the next!

How do you lead and continue to stay positive, when you are surrounded by negativity, particularly negativity at home?

Hmmm… this question leads to other questions for me. First, I believe you have to ask yourself why there is negativity at home. What is being done to remove it or you from the situation? Home for me is a refuge, away from outside nuttiness so I would address that first.

Staying positive is a practice and takes practice, especially when you lead people. Leading people is hard; inevitably there will be performance and behavioural challenges. You may find yourself in the position of making tough choices about who gets a promotion or who doesn’t. In this time we find ourselves in, you may find yourself having to lay people off through no fault of their own.

Remember, the leader sets the tone. To be my best, think critically, and act appropriately, I make my well-being a non-negotiable priority. For me that includes eating healthy (a luxury I recognize not everyone can afford), getting adequate sleep, and consistently exercising.

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