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Celebrating Risk Takers, SSP hosts Rear Adm. Seiko Okano During AANHPI Month

20 May 2024

From Shelby Thompson

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD - “Leadership is different in the 21st century,” Rear Adm. Seiko Okano told the room. “Leaders are everywhere in the organization.”
Okano, the first woman to serve as Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) program executive officer for Integrated Warfare Systems (IWS), spoke to the Strategic Systems Programs (SSP) workforce Thursday on the importance of making space for all opinions on a team, and how diversity is a key enabler of change and flexibility within other areas in a program.

Okano, of Japanese-American heritage, credits much of her success to the values that her parents instilled in her at an early age.

“We were raised in a household where it was stressed that our differences were our strengths,” Okano said.

“I was raised to believe everyone’s opinions are valid and our differences should be embraced.”

May is Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, and as one of three admirals of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander heritage currently leading the Navy, Okano knew early on in her career that she would need to think outside the box.
“I’ve never bought into the system,” Okano recalled.
“That was an advantage because I didn’t have to be tied to [the existing system]; I realized that there could be new systems.”
Okano’s independent thinking led to a career as an Engineering Duty Officer, where she has spent the last 23 years in acquisition, evaluating systems and advocating for new, innovative ways of achieving the Navy’s mission. Along the way Okano gained a reputation as an inspiring speaker that motivates workforces to look critically at the status quo. On Thursday, her skill was on full display.

“I ask you all, how adaptable are your systems,” she asked.

“How close are you to the mission?”

“Are you a learning organization?”

Each question was followed by real-world examples showing just how critical it is to outpace competitors in today’s strategic environment.
 PEO IWS manages and coordinates the design, procurement, and lifetime support of integrated combat systems, including missiles, radars, launchers, electronic warfare systems, undersea warfare systems, gun systems, and combat systems. Today, PEO IWS is being forced to constantly adapt and adjust to warfighter needs – nowhere more so than in the Red Sea, where the U.S. is joined by multiple countries to jointly address security challenges through Operation Prosperity Guardian.

“The threats are adapting faster than we can,” said Okano.
Instead of being resigned or frustrated, Okano effused energy, saying that when faced with increasing challenges, her team took a hard look at their ‘business as usual’ framework. Realizing that their existing operating procedures would not support the flexibility and creativity needed to adapt rapidly to warfighter needs, PEO IWS wiped the slate clean, and constructed an entirely new system of operating that prioritized streamlining work, shedding bureaucracy, and taking risks.

“We want people to fail,” emphasized Okano.

“Everyone’s been programmed to think that failure isn’t a good thing, but once they experience it they realize it’s not that bad. I prefer us to be risk takers instead of trying to get everything perfect.”

Transforming into a risk-taking organization did not happen overnight, and there were risks that had to be accounted for. Okano warned the audience what would happen if a command’s culture and values are out of alignment.

 “Capability is multiplied by culture,” she said.

“If you don’t pay attention to culture, you won’t get performance […] you won’t have a winning team.”

Okano’s presentation clearly resonated with SSP; following her remarks, she spent time answering questions from all sectors of the workforce, on everything from Artificial Intelligence to getting buy-in from stakeholders on new ideas. SSP’s leaders were similarly impressed, remarking on possible ways they could implement similar culture-shifts.

“She is absolutely on point about culture, and how we have to adapt to the responsibility we have ahead of us,” said Vice Adm. Johnny R. Wolfe, Jr. Director, SSP.

SSP is the Navy command that provides cradle-to-grave lifecycle support for the sea-based leg of the nation’s nuclear triad. This includes training, systems, equipment, facilities and personnel responsible for ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nation’s Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) Trident II (D5LE) Strategic Weapon System.
Okano’s innovative spirit is a testament to the power of bringing in new thoughts and experiences. Attracting, developing, and retaining a strong and diverse workforce is one of the Navy’s most vital missions, and is critical to the success of the force. Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month is an opportunity to hear from different perspectives, and to encourage the SSP team to develop new ideas, connections, and experiences to bring us closer to achieving the sea based strategic deterrence mission.


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