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NSWCPD’s 2020 JLL Program Graduates Share Insights

By Brentan Debysingh, NSWCPD Public Affairs | NSWCPD | Oct. 14, 2020

“I would have been sitting in the Pentagon with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for a brief, if it hadn’t been for COVID-19!”

Imagine being part of a senior leadership program and almost ending up at the Department of Defense Headquarters. Thanks to the Journey Level Leaders (JLL) Program, that’s exactly where Suzanne Onesti would’ve been as part of her JLL rotation.

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) engineers Onesti, Benjamin Pierson, and Dr. Felicia Powell are the graduates of the 2020 Cadre VI JLL program, a prestigious leadership development initiative created by Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) to develop, engage, and strengthen leaders. Their virtual graduation ceremony took place on September 18th and was attended by NAVSEA Commander Vice Adm. William Galinis and Executive Director Jim Smerchansky.

According to the NAVSEA Leadership Development Continuum: “The JLL program is the second level of the NAVSEA Leadership Development Continuum, which seeks the top mid‐level performers from the enterprise and provides them with opportunities to develop and strengthen their leadership skills. The program’s goal is to improve enterprise mission success by increasing the effectiveness of these selected professionals, or “Leaders,” through participation in a special leadership course and hands‐on learning experiences. Completion of the JLL Program will provide the individual with the skills and confidence to lead in the ever‐shifting dynamics of the organization. It's a demanding role for the individual and an essential role for NAVSEA.”


Like many NSWCPD employees, Onesti, Pierson, and Powell saw the JLL program listing in an all-hands email.

Powell, a mechanical engineer working the Advanced Machinery Systems Integration branch, was inspired to apply for the JLL program by her late friend and colleague William Maignan, who participated in the JLL Cadre V.

“He was participating in the program himself and shared the application process, curriculum, and benefits,” said Powell. “He communicated the value of the program, and I am thankful to him for that.”

Shortly after her acceptance into the JLL program, Powell realized it was time to take things to the next level.

She added, “I was excited! I started getting congratulations from Philadelphia and other warfare centers. When I heard from people outside my code, I realized, ‘This is a lot bigger than I thought.’ Even past cadres - people I didn’t even know reached out to me. When you’re done patting yourself on the back, you realize you really have to gear up and get ready to properly represent NSWCPD.”


In October, 2020, Onesti, Pierson, and Powell started the 11-month program, which began with two week‐long orientation seminars in the Washington D.C. area. Their robust curriculum included 12 modules, which ranged from Strategic Planning, Developing Teams and Managing Conflict.

“The orientation/training sessions were the most enjoyable throughout the program,” said Pierson, an engineer working in the Fluid Systems Automation branch. “The activities and material were interactive and encouraged connections with fellow JLL cadre members. I truly enjoyed listening to other perspectives on leadership techniques, and how I can incorporate these into my own toolbox.”


Onesti, Pierson, and Powell were required to select a three-month rotational assignment in any department or NAVSEA organization other than their own, so they could understand a differing perspective and job skill. Determining one’s rotation can be problematic, especially when each person has to find their own, outside of their own division. Onesti, a mechanical engineer working in the Department 20 Contracting Officer Representative office, sought out NSWCPD Technical Director Tom Perotti for some strategic advice.

“I requested a 30-minute meeting with Mr. Perotti because I knew I wanted to do a rotation in SEA21,” said Onesti. “They’re a major sponsor of the work we do in Philly. I wanted to develop relationships there so I could better understand their culture and way of doing business, and bring back that knowledge to Philly. I had several rotation options, and Mr. Perotti gave me his recommendation on what he felt would most benefit NSWCPD. I wanted this to not only be a beneficial experience for me, but for it to help my home organization as well. That makes it even more fulfilling. This isn’t about me. I’m helping my organization by directly participating in this program.”

“While the 90-day rotation is one of the greatest benefits, it can also feel overwhelming with the amount of options available,” noted Pierson. “In addition, it can be difficult to choose the timing of the rotation and delegation of your normal duties. I was able to mitigate this with multiple sessions with some of my mentors and narrowing down options that best fit my career goals.”


Finally, Onesti, Pierson, and Powell engaged in team capstone projects where they addressed significant issues impacting NAVSEA. The Capstone presentations serve as a combination of integrated product team (IPT), practicum and final exam that Fellows and JLL participants need to pass in order to graduate.

For example, Onesti’s team’s Capstone project, the evaluation of Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) or COTS-based ships to assist NAVSEA in reaching its desired size of 355 ships using an algorithm they created, could potentially create permanent change within Fleet.

She explained, “We presented to Mr. Smerchansky, who said our Capstone project was provocative, and we should contact Team Ships to move it forward. Imagine a year ago getting into the program, and then talking to the leadership of NAVSEA, having your recommendations get their seal of approval and being told to make it happen. What an opportunity!”


All three NSWCPD graduates attest that the JLL program played an undeniably incalculable role in their professional development.

“The greatest value I took from JLL was leading a group,” explained Powell. “More importantly, leading a group from a non-supervisory role, where I had no incentive to offer. How do you motivate people of equal talent and experience to collaborate? How do you hold them to a high standard despite outside interference like COVID-19, etc.? How do I learn to do that without any tool to compel them? It was challenging.”

“This experience was incredibly enriching,” noted Onesti. “I recently had a job interview for a position that interacted with some of the people and organizations I worked with on my rotation. If I didn’t do that rotation, I wouldn’t have had that experience. Both the classes and the rotation gave me more tools in my tool belt that could make me more effective not only in my current job, but also in any future roles. The curriculum of the two orientation weeks is fantastic, and the course content is right on the mark. I have nothing but good things to say about it.”

“I underestimated the power of networking and building relationships within my JLL cadre and mentors throughout the program,” said Pierson. “The program participants were diverse and exposed individuals to the various functions across the enterprise. This greatly strengthened my vision of how NSWCPD fits into the big picture and how each command interfaces within the NAVSEA Campaign Plan.”


The new 2020 graduates embodied their leadership training by sharing a few recommendations for future JLL attendees.

“In all leadership programs, you reap what you sow,” said Powell. “Interact more. Ask questions. During the flash mentoring sessions with top leadership in our organization, only one or two people in the program would ask questions, because often others weren’t comfortable. I was and I asked questions! These are people you wouldn’t normally cross paths with or would not have time available to answer questions. You can’t go back in time to ask questions later, so if you have the opportunity to ask questions now, ask them. If you get stuck, it’s okay. Don’t let self-conscious concerns stop you from capitalizing on an opportunity.”

Pierson also keyed in on mentoring sessions, saying “There is no limit on the amount of mentoring sessions you can have. I would recommend taking full advantage and continue to ask for mentoring sessions with senior leaders. The connections that you make may become some of the best tools to navigate your future career path.”

Upon remarking on how COVID-19 impacted the JLL experience, Onesti explained, “Unexpected things come up in people’s lives all the time. We all have these specific expectations and reality just doesn't always live up to them. You had all of these plans, then COVID-19 hits, and you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to do that rotation. That experience was taken away from you. There’s a sense of loss. But you’re still in the program. You’re still going to get opportunities you otherwise wouldn't have gotten. Now is your fleeting moment to make the most of it.”

NSWCPD employs approximately 2,700 civilian engineers, scientists, technicians, and support personnel. The NSWCPD team does the research and development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, and in-service and logistics engineering for the non-nuclear machinery, ship machinery systems, and related equipment and material for Navy surface ships and submarines. NSWCPD is also the lead organization providing cybersecurity for all ship systems.

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