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Interview with Rear Admiral Ann Phillips on Climate and Security: “You’re the Future. No Pressure!”

Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, US Navy (Ret)

This interview is part of a series in which Center for Climate and Security (CSS) and Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) interns interview members of the CCS and CSR Advisory Boards and other key voices in the climate and security field. Vanessa Pinney interviewed Ann Phillips, member of the CCS Advisory Board and the CSR Governing Board, a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, and the first female Director of Surface Warfare in the Pentagon, who currently serves as the Special Assistant to the Governor of Virginia for Coastal Adaptation and Protection – a Cabinet position. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Vanessa Pinney (VP): To start this off, I figured it might be useful for you to give a brief summary of your experience, for those who don’t know much about you.

Rear Ann Phillips (AP): Let’s see — I’m from Maryland, grew up on the Chesapeake Bay. I kind of consider myself a Chesapeake Bay girl. My father was very interested in Maritime history, so we spent a lot of time going to maritime museums and learning about the unique craft of the bay, the bay environment, and how the community formed around the waterfront and life on the water, both from an economic perspective but also a quality of life perspective. I decided to join the Navy: I did a full career of 31 years, drove ships, and was fortunate to have the opportunity to be one of the first women to enter that field — not the first by any stretch — but in the early stages as things were opening up for women. My timing was such that I could just jump into new positions as they opened, and that included the opportunity to commission and command the destroyer Mustin, to be the first woman to be a destroyer squadron commodore, and then just by chance the first woman who served as the Director of Surface Warfare division in the Pentagon. And then my last command was here, in Norfolk — all the amphibious forces on the east coast of the United States.

When I retired after that position, I decided after a series of “what should I do” courses of action that I would go back to school. It was a recurring thing that kept rising to the top. I decided an MBA would be helpful because my experience in the Navy included a lot of interaction with people who do business with the military, but not from their side, only from the DoD side. I have a French degree, so [business school] was pretty far removed from what I had done academically. I ended up choosing William and Mary, since they were fairly close locally and had a good program. My husband ultimately decided to do it with me. It was a great experience, a tremendous opportunity. During the course of that work I was asked if I would participate in a pilot project as a volunteer, first as a part of a steering committee and then ultimately they asked me if I’d take control of a committee or working group. I picked infrastructure, since I knew what happened on the bases when it flooded. I did not truly have any idea what I was getting into but by chance, infrastructure ended up being the heart of the whole thing.   

When that ended, with a lot of great recommendations but not much action, I was very frustrated. I ended up making my way first to Retired Admiral Dave Titley, and then ultimately to Sherri Goodman and the Center for Climate and Security. What helped there was that I could talk about this challenge literally from the mud to the strategic level, and I’m living in a community with a huge national security presence that is impacted by the challenges of climate change, particularly in our case sea level rise and increased rainfall.

I found myself telling this issue to all kinds of people who didn’t realize there was much of a national security impact, and knew nothing about this part of Virginia. We joke sometimes that it’s the most important place in the country that no one has ever heard of. There’s a huge amount of federal presence here: the largest naval base in the world, the only place we build aircraft carriers, one of only two places we build submarines, huge special operations facilities, the Coast Guard’s largest training base, a major Air Force training base, major army facilities. It’s all at Ft. Eustis, yet nobody knows any of this stuff. We also have a large port here, fourth or fifth largest on the east coast. That impacts our state economy of course, and this is a vitally important area from the national perspective as well. And yet, most people have never heard of it.

Eventually, the state created a position for coastal adaptation and protection as a special assistant to the governor — I didn’t know the governor or anyone in his administration, but they found their way to me, and eventually I was offered the position. I’ve been in the job almost two years. State government is completely different than the DoD. I’ve testified before Congress 4 times, before that I testified before Congress no times. I’ve learned about the whole half of the budget that isn’t DoD — something I knew nothing about.

A lot of my job is outreach; I spend a lot of time working with the 8 coastal planning districts of Virginia. They’re rural, they’re urban, they’re suburban, they’re extremely left wing, they’re extremely right wing, but they all have something in common: they all admit there’s a flooding problem. Some of them can’t talk about climate change or sea level rise, but boy can they talk about stormwater, and rainfall, and erosion. When you ask people in coastal Virginia if water is a problem for them, they all say yes. When we work with people especially in the more challenging political areas, I say “look, we’ll meet you where you are”. If you can only talk about stormwater, great, we’ll talk about storm water, because the outcomes are the same. And the solutions are the same. We don’t need to make it a political discussion if that’s going to halt progress. While we’re arguing about politics, people’s homes are being flooded.

VP: To go back to the mid-beginning, what was your experience like as a female in the US Navy during a time when it was very much male-dominated? Do you feel your gender affected your career trajectory?

AP: Which axiom should I use? You have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. I had more awareness as a senior officer, but you walk into a room with everyone questioning whether you deserve to be there, and what you know. I’m an introvert, so I’m not typically going to walk into a room and take over, unless I’m in command of the entity. Especially as a senior officer, I always had to prepare exactly what to say, and when to say it. And how I said it mattered — keeping your voice low, speaking slowly — this may sound silly, but it seemed to help.

I was on the uniform board, and they were testing a new uniform: a dress khaki which we ultimately didn’t adopt. I had a tailor-made version of it — it looked fantastic — and my staff told me to wear the khaki to meetings because people treated me differently when I was in uniform. I don’t know if that applies to men, but it definitely applies to women. It shouldn’t, but it does. If you can’t fight it, at least be aware of it and make it work for you.

It was interesting on the ships as well. My strategy was to be really good at what I do, and that excellence will become obvious [to others] over time. The other thing that evolves over time is that eventually I end up running everything. I take on more and more because I just can’t stand to see it cast aside or not being done well. It’s not in my nature to take over, but it seemed there was a pattern of me eventually having more control than it seemed I could have at the beginning.

Another thing is that on deployments — stressful times where you’re away from everything — I learned the cues of me slipping, losing my ability to cope. Once I recognized what those were, I could stop that from happening. The other thing that evolved over time is I could see it happening to other people. As a leader, you have a difficult challenge: do you say something? What do you say? How do you tell a 30–year–old man that he’s getting fat, even though he’s someone who under different circumstances would be working out all the time? How do you approach those kinds of conversations? Is it your business? The thing about the military is that pretty much everything is your business. To keep an entity like that going, you need to sometimes intervene with people and say “You’re not yourself at your best, why not? How can we help?”

In a leadership role, you have to be very careful, especially as a woman, how you approach younger people, especially younger men. When you’re joking around and teasing people, you think it’s hilarious, but they don’t. You have to be straightforward in the way you treat people, and not lose control of the fact that you can say things to them that they can’t say to you.

The other thing is that I’m a collaborative leader — I want input and feel better if I’m talking to people and they’re telling me what they think. I think more women are inclined to lead that way than men, at least considering how my peers approach things. You have to do something with the input people give you, but it only takes a few times for them to realize you’re serious, and then you get a lot more feedback. You don’t have to act on all of it, but you have to consider all of it.

I think it takes courage to listen and to admit you don’t know something, and it takes even more courage to ask who does know. I have had male peers tell me to never do anything in front of your crew that you cannot do better than all of them, and I thought “That means I can never stand up in front of my crew!” Everybody there is better than me at something, at plenty of things! That’s what makes things good, that people combine all these skills into something that works.

The last thing that is unique to women’s leadership, at least in the Navy, is that when you look at what officers do when they retire, the women all do different things while the men tend to go straight back into the defense world. Many of my peers think this happens because the women aren’t afraid to do something they haven’t done before, since they’ve kind of been in that position their whole career. They know what it’s like to be uncomfortable and learn something new that they don’t have exposure to, while most of the men don’t. Men often have more set career paths, and aren’t as used to situations where they might look stupid. At least in the military, women tend to be more comfortable in uncomfortable circumstances because they’re more used to being in uncomfortable circumstances.

As I was leaving the service, more and more young women had highly technical degrees, and wanted to use them. We found we were retaining women with nuclear backgrounds — once they started to see they had a career path and they could get to be a nuclear officer on a carrier, and get to command, we started keeping them. That’s been a real success story for the Navy, to keep women nukes around. That’s a digression but it’s an interesting perspective since you’re a STEM person.

VP: It’s interesting how that hearkens back to the Manhattan project and the team of female computers, who were instrumental in creating the first atomic bomb.

AP: It’s the same thing here as at NASA: the whole story of Hidden Figures, that was all here in Hampton Roads. Katherine Johnson actually just passed away a couple months ago.  

VP: What characteristics do you identify within yourself that keep leading you back to leadership positions? You rose very high in the Navy and even since it seems you’ve been consistently drawn to positions that require you to lead people. Why is that?

AP: I don’t know. I might be a glutton for punishment! I think I wasn’t afraid of the responsibility and recognized that. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but I was willing to give up a lot of my time and energy to make sure I fulfilled those responsibilities. In that way, the Navy and the Military are brain suckers — they’ll take as much as you want to give them, but they won’t necessarily give anything back. You have to be careful there.

But when I’m interested in something, I find it purposeful. That’s the case with sea level rise for me: it’s not really a passion, it’s a purpose. It’s similar to the military in that it’s a very diverse world and there are so many topics to address. It can be law, it can be science, it can be engineering, environmental equity, finance. A lot of it was a willingness to take the responsibility and to do my best.

At some point, you have to want to see people succeed, because everything in the military revolves around people. We are asking 18–year–olds to give their lives for their country. How do you prepare them for that, and how do you help them move forward? There’s a lot of boring stuff in between, but when you see someone finally get it, and really excel, that’s rewarding.

VP: You’ve done a lot of important and sensitive work. Out of all your experience, do you have any particular moments that were especially fulfilling? Of all your various roles, which did you enjoy most?

AP: I think commissioning Mustin — that was my ship, DDG-89 — was one of my most fulfilling tours. There was a previous ship named Mustin and I got to work with the survivors of that ship’s crew and my own crew. I got to see a lot of young people achieve their potential. You could do that in any command, but in this circumstance with a new ship, you all start together and work forward, so it’s a different feeling to see young people in the crew and in the war room who didn’t think they could succeed, come into their own.

I can think of one example in particular: a young man who had come from the Merchant Marine world, who was struggling adjusting to the Navy. He had a lot of sailing experience from the Merchant Marine Academy, but it took him a long time to figure out how to handle this ship on the bridge, and he seemed really depressed and frustrated. I spend a lot of time on the bridge talking and checking in with people, and was really worried about him because I couldn’t understand why he didn’t get it because I knew he could do it.

And then one day I kinda realized: he’s got it. We were doing some maneuvering and he was on top of it. The next job was to let him run the ship by himself. I told him he was ready, and he questioned that, but I insisted. There was a lot of concern from the XO and department heads, but I overruled them. About two days later, we were working with the carrier and there was a lot of boat traffic, and we’re also maneuvering, and a lot of complicated stuff is going on. He has the bridge, and he called me saying “we got a signal, they want us in this position, and I did this and that and this is what we do”. It was perfect. It was a masterful job of thinking how to get the ship in position without doing crazy geometry or sailing halfway across the ocean and while avoiding all the traffic. He completely got it, and I told him that. After that, he was a completely different person. He was much more energetic in the war room, interested in everything. It was one of those moments you don’t see very often where a switch just flips, and everything is different. That was incredibly rewarding.

My last tour in the Navy was with the amphibious navy. I had never even been on an amphibious ship and they told me to go command sixteen of them. We did a lot of interesting things, including a command in the Baltic, twice. It was just a fascinating experience working with all kinds of navies that I hadn’t worked with before. It’s a huge exercise, with 50 ships in it. It’s a training exercise, so you’ve got to organize all the training and all the opposition forces. We planned it all ourselves, working with the Sixth Fleet, and then just went over there and executed it. Being able to deal with so many countries at a pretty senior level was fascinating. I loved the international engagement piece, that was a lot of fun.

VP: You’ve touched on this several times already, but what advice do you have for young people interested in doing climate work? How can people with limited influence get involved?

AP: From the military perspective, one of my bosses always told me “Take the most technically challenging job you can get because it will force you to learn new things.” That helped me, that I as a French major wasn’t scared of physics. Climate jobs at a younger level are often non-profit related. There’s a whole engineering world, so working in that space can be a way to move forward, but there are also a lot of non-profits and many opportunities to volunteer. If you’re volunteering in something you’re interested in, you’ll meet other people who are interested in that area as well, and they may be able to help you make connections to something you want to work in, or to help you find your path in that world.

Your future to some degree depends on what your skills are or what your degree is in, but you can also work in different sectors to get exposure to opportunities that you hadn’t thought of. Resilience is a very broad field, and it touches a lot of different kinds of work. Even if you end up in transportation somewhere, transportation resilience and environmental impact is a huge issue right now. There’s such a need to understand what’s coming, and how to prepare and build for it. How do we make infrastructure resilient in the face of what we’re experiencing with our changing climate — whether that’s heat or water or sea level rise, or drought? There are several young people I work with here that are struggling to get involved in this field, so it’s not that easy on the face of it, especially if you don’t have a degree that says Environmental Law or Environmental Science or Engineering. But in a lot of cases, there’s more out there than you might think.

The other thing to consider is what certifications might help you get your foot in the door: things like floodplain manager certification, which is not that difficult to get and opens up the whole urban governmental world. It’s pretty universal yet not often thought of as an entryway into climate work. If you’re a floodplain manager, you’re squarely in the mix of a changing climate, especially in Virginia given how the intensity of our rainfall is increasing. I’m a Chesapeake Bay landscape professional, which is like Landscape Architecture Lite for coastal best management practices. Am I going to go on to design well-managed rain gardens professionally? Probably not, but I could do it as a volunteer. The fact that I know even a little about it helps when talking to people who do design these large structures.

VP: How do you think the fight against climate change will progress into the future as younger people take up the mantle?  

AP: Many of the young people I served with in the Navy when I was an XO [Executive Officer] or CO [Commanding Officer] would say “We don’t want your job because we don’t want to work as hard as you, and we see how much you have to give to succeed,” and I would respond that “I have had to learn everything new, every step of the way to do what I do. You already know most of that.” I didn’t get into destroyers until I was an XO, but these recruits started out in them so they know the ships. Once they get where I am, it won’t be as hard, since they already have that background that I didn’t have.

The same thing is true with climate change: you’ll have the background that our generation is just becoming aware of. We won’t have solved the problem, but we’ll have understood it much better than we do now. Rainfall intensity and duration and frequency curves for the state of Virginia, we don’t have them! But this will eventually become commonplace. Right now, this information doesn’t exist because we don’t want to pay for it, but the point of my job is to move things like that along.

For a lot of the science we’re just starting to understand, your generation will arrive with that knowledge and awareness, and know what to do with it and how to take it to the next level. You’re the future. No pressure!

Vanessa Pinney is an intern with the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks

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