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NEWS | April 2, 2024

NAVSEA honors retiring Executive Director Giao Phan

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD – Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Executive Director Giao Phan was honored at a retirement ceremony celebrating her civilian career of 42 years serving the Department of Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, March 28.

Phan, the first Asian-American woman to serve as Executive Director of NAVSEA, sat down days before her retirement ceremony for an interview to discuss historical events, highlights and defining experiences from her career.

Q: Ms. Phan, congratulations on your retirement and thank you for your service as a civilian employee serving 42 years in the federal service! Your public service began in 1982, the same year that Sally Ride was named the first American woman astronaut; “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” were released; the Pentagon planned its first strategy to fight a nuclear war and 750,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators rallied in Central Park; Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales brought home Prince William; and all eight planets of the solar system (and Pluto) aligned on the same side of the sun. Since then, there have been many events; scientific, pop culture and political alike, that have occurred over the course of your career. Tell us about the formative events that occurred during your 42 years of service and how those events ended up shaping or impacting your career and/or personal life.

A: Among the many significant events I believe the advancement of technology and the widespread adoption of the internet has had the most profound impact.  I can still recall the days of using these 1200 baud and 2400 baud modems, and now, we find ourselves impatient with anything less than 5G! I remember when Program Executive Office for Aircraft Carriers (PEO Carriers) handed me those big walkie-talkies saying, “This is what we need to communicate,” they said. [Laughs] The proliferation of the internet and smartphones, along with the development of various digital tools, have significantly influenced how we behave and our ability to adapt. Reflecting on this in the context of the COVID pandemic, we were able to quickly adapt and leverage technology to navigate the challenges, it’s difficult to imagine how we would have coped with COVID-19 without these technological tools. The rapid shifts enabled by technology are truly remarkable. However, these advancements have also led to a decline in personal connections.  As an extrovert, personal connections are incredibly important to me. True connectedness often occurs through in-person interactions, and it’s essential to strike a balance despite technological progress.

Q: Please share with us some of your proudest moments from your career?

A: There have been so many significant moments in my career, but the proudest has to be when we delivered the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). It was the culmination of hard work from dedicated men and women across the Navy enterprise. Back in the late 1990s, I worked on CVN(X) in the Office of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Ships and later at PEO Aircraft Carriers. During those days, I had the opportunity to work on the development of the multi-billion dollar nuclear aircraft carriers, the Navy’s next generation aircraft carriers including analysis of alternatives to determine what CVN(X) would look like, what technology needed to be onboard – from the launch and recovery system to dual-band radar, and the advanced weapons elevators.  All of these contributions helped to establish the U.S. Navy as the premier naval force.  I feel incredibly lucky to have been there from the very beginning when Secretary Del Toro and Vice Adm. Downey greeted the ship as she returned from her first deployment. The sailors told SECNAV the performance was awesome.  I get emotional when I think of it. USS GERALD R. FORD was delivered by an amazing team led by PEO Carriers, RADM (Ret.) Antonio.  It was also a significant milestone that we didn’t talk about at all: the first time three Asian American women in the leadership position in PEO Carriers leading the team delivering the CVN 78: YeLing Wang and Madi Nguyen were Program Manager and Deputy Program Manager who delivered the CVN 78; I was the Executive Director.  Additionally, Ms. Karen Henneberger was the Senior Executive Program Manager leading the Naval Reactor team in the development, construction and delivery of the nuclear propulsion plant.  Four women in key leadership positions played critical roles in that significant event.

Q: As human beings, sometimes we learn valuable lessons from analyzing our mistakes. Do you mind sharing with us any missteps you've experienced and any shareable lessons you learned from the experience(s)?

A: Mistakes are part of life, right? They offer valuable opportunities for growth and learning. There have been so many.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is to recognize the importance of resiliency and perseverance in the face of setbacks. Looking back at various challenges and difficult events, especially September 16, 2013 shooting and September 11, 2001, these events were and continue to be very personal to many of us. However, we came back stronger. The resiliency and perseverance is what I’ve always admired about Americans ever since immigrating here from Vietnam. That’s why NAVSEA, and Americans in general, are so special - we always come back stronger and better. That is why “Get Real, Get Better” initiative resonated so strongly with me.  We have to look at our standards at every level and be the best we can be to keep our Sailors and Marines safe.

Q: Over the years, you’ve discussed how having strong mentor/mentee relationships have been fundamental to your career success. What tips do you have for current and future employees who are aspiring to create their own legacies as they navigate their career paths?

I would highly recommend seeking out mentors who can offer guidance and support based on their own experience and expertise. I had mentors even before I knew they were mentors many of which were my first line supervisors; each of them saw something in me. Some of my very first supervisors were at my retirement ceremony. I have been so lucky to have had mentors/role models like Anne Sandel, Allison Stiller, Barbara Young, Diane Carroll, Chris Fisher, Lionel Johnson and Brian Persons. I am a strong believer that we all need to have not one or two, but multiple mentors because each of them have different life experiences and perspective to draw from.  Before going to SEA 21, I was encouraged by then Rear Adm. Moore to take the job. I couldn’t imagine how valuable that job would be towards doing this job. I didn’t think of that at the time. I encourage all of you to take the rotational assignment. Gain some perspective and experience. You just have to trust your gut and trust your mentors diverse backgrounds. What do you have to lose? 

Q: For those of us who serve and support the Dept. Of Navy, whether in uniform or not, a lot of personal sacrifices are made to meet the missions. However, to maintain a healthy life, we must strive for balance between meeting the mission and taking care of ourselves and our families. Please share with us how you've managed your "work/life balance" throughout the years.

I am probably the last person you'd want to ask about work/life balance, but what Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Franchetti shared at the Women’s International Day event, here earlier this month resonated with me. You’ve heard me ask, “Can a person have it all?” Yes, you can have it all, but not at the same time. The examples that she shared were so great. She calls it work/life integration. There are times when one aspect of your life needs you more, and you need to pay attention to that one. At other times, you’ll focus on another. You have three circles – the circle of work, circle of family and circle of self. That circle of self is so important. Especially as women, we were raised to nurture and do it all. And so that circle of taking care of ourselves can be very small. That's why every morning from five to six a.m., I exercise. I don't mind waking up at four o'clock, driving to work so I can be at the gym to improve physically and mentally. Ms. Jen LaTorre from NAVFAC and other ladies at the gym (Junko, Brie Lang, Deb Jackson, and Julie D) are my supporters/mentors at the gym.  We all have to take time for ourselves.  For my family circle, I have three sub circles. One is for my husband, one for my elderly parents and one for my children. Now that I am retiring, I want to work more on the circle of my parents. I told my husband don't retire yet, because then I wouldn’t have time to focus on both of them together. [laughs] I want to spend more time with my parents.

Q: During an interview in early 2021, right after taking on the role of NAVSEA Executive Director, you mentioned then that your motto was “When one door closes, another one opens.” When you close the door of your office for the last time, tell us about the “door” you’re most looking forward to opening after retirement. What are you most looking forward to as you depart the executive director role here?

As I mentioned, I look forward to spending time honoring my parents. My family sacrificed so much for me. I love my family and I'm so lucky to have them by my side. Even my extended family - they have all been so supportive in everything that I do.  I know I’m going to miss NAVSEA and the Navy.  I’ve loved having the opportunity to serve and contribute each day for 42 years.  Although I don’t know in what capacity yet, I know I will continue to serve.