CXO Conversation Podcast

Interviewing to be a Sub Skipper, then CEO with Chuck Melcher

Chuck Melcher is a retired Naval Commanding Officer that has served in various roles including Chief Engineering, Executive Officer and Commanding Officer on several Nuclear Attack Submarines.

After retiring from the United States Navy, Chuck joined Veolia, an international energy company as a VP and quickly rose to CEO.

Chuck talks to X experiences:

  • Interviewing to become the Commanding Officer of a Nuclear Submarine
  • The importance of not being focused on a job title- see the big picture

Chuck looks at new challenges and roles, not for a CXO title, but rather how can he contribute to and learn from that opportunity.

He also shares leadership tests and why “that’s not my job” doesn’t exist in the deep.

A graduate of the USNA, Chuck earned his MBA at John Hopkins. The interview was conducted outdoors in the Colorado Rockies in-between altitude training hikes for a Mount Kilimanjaro excursion.

Thank you Doug Gattuso for recommending Chuck as a guest.

Enjoy the show? Review us on iTunes – thanks!

Thank you Jalan Crossland for lending your award-winning banjo skills to CXO Conversations.

Episode Transcription

Michael Mitchel:

Welcome to CXO Conversations at 10,700 feet here in Leadville, Colorado. We are sitting outside in the woods in the valley as we record this podcast. I am joining Chuck Melcher, a C-level with a career that is full of experiences. I’m actually a bit of a loss of words to describe his career, because it’s one of the challenges, rewards, experiences, that are unique while serving our nation within the silent service. Chuck graduated from the United States Naval Academy, attended nuclear power training, served as the chief engineer on the USS Omaha, XO on the USS Boise and Skipper on USS Scranton.

He served in many other executive command duties, including base commander for NSA Hampton Roads. Upon retirement from the US Navy after 20 years, Chuck was the VP of operations at Veolia Energy, where he became a CEO within 6 years of one other conglomerate operating companies, the Nuclear Solutions Group. On LinkedIn, he has one of the best examples of translating military experience into civilian speak. Chuck, welcome to CXO Conversations. We’re out here in the woods. I got to ask, I was glad to come up from Denver. It was 100 degrees in Denver this weekend, so it was a great excuse to get up in the high country. You live in Chicago, but what’s brought you to Leadville?

Chuck Melcher:

We came to the highest incorporated town in the United States in preparation for a trip we’re going to make to Kilimanjaro in a couple of weeks to try and acclimatize a bit.

Michael Mitchel:

So doing some altitude training, it sounds like. And we could talk about hiking for a long time, but I’m going to try and stay in focus, which for Michael, is a little bit hard to do. Why’d you choose a career in the Navy and specifically the submarine service?

Chuck Melcher:

So my father was in the Navy, that certainly had a big impact. I spent a lot of time with him, particularly in my junior year of high school, building his retirement home on a farm he’d bought. So it was just he and I and no plumbing and no showers for a summer. And frankly, that was one of the best times with him. I got to know him the best during that summer and I’d done what all kids do, read some books and Horatio Hornblower and thought for right or wrong that the Navy would be a cool career. I’m not sure that’s a good reason to do it, but it certainly worked out pretty well.

Michael Mitchel:

What did he do in the Navy?

Chuck Melcher:

He was a bomb disposal officer on a carrier in World War II. And we still have one of the unsuccessful bomb defusing episodes he had and lived to tell the tale in the family.

Michael Mitchel:

I don’t know how they get people to volunteer for that job.

Chuck Melcher:

He volunteered for that to apparently get out of submarine duty.

Michael Mitchel:

Okay. So I was an airdale. I worked on the flight deck, I worked on F-18s, aircraft mechanic. What I liked about being on the carrier and the deck was, if something really bad happened, I’ve got options. Submarine duty, your options I would imagine are unlimited. It’s probably fix it.

Chuck Melcher:

And that is the hallmark, it’s not to be tried. It’s very much one for all and all for one, and doesn’t matter if you’re a seaman or the CO, you all go down together. And so, I think I don’t have experience in the surface fleet, but at least in the submarine fleet, that gives a bit of camaraderie and a bit of understanding of an 18-year-old sailor maybe the guy that saves your life, and you may be off a farm from Idaho, and you may think you’re all that in a bag of chips, but that kid might be the guy that saves your life.

Michael Mitchel:

So when it hits the fan, it’s the very definition of there is no such thing as that’s not my job.

Chuck Melcher:

That’s exactly right.

Michael Mitchel:

So how did you get out after 20 and within a year I’m assuming you took some time off, but you found an opportunity that was pretty impressive. How did you get hired as a VP of ops? Let’s just start there for your transition from the Navy.

Chuck Melcher:

So I retired after 28 years because when they offered me base command, my ego would not let me turn that down. And command of anything is the best job in the Navy. So it was 28 years, didn’t take much time off. Took my family to Italy for 4 weeks, went to the Olympics, then on Italy for four weeks. I had two teenage girls still at home. Came back in September, October, started looking for a job in Ernest, but had no idea what I was doing. Thought I could do anything but didn’t know what I didn’t know. And ran into a guy named Neil McNulty and spent some time with him, he’s a head hunter.

But he turned me onto the idea that what people are looking for outside the military, and why military veterans from seaman to admirals have value is they know how to make decisions and they’re willing to make them. And that’s what you need to market. Not that you were a nuke or a submariner or anything else, just that, Hey, you’re here, you know how to make decisions and you have a technical basis of some sort. And so he said, “Don’t start dropping your resume on job boards and sending it in, because that’ll never get you a job. Research where you want to live, decide where you want to live. Research the companies that look of interest to you in that area and just start calling them.” So that’s what I did.

Michael Mitchel:

Can you walk me through your progression to CEO?

Chuck Melcher:

So a bit of a tortured flow path. I certainly didn’t, even when I was following that advice, I certainly did not expect to land as good a job as I did. I called maybe half a dozen companies in Boston at the C-suite level and said, “Hey, this is who I am. I just got out of the Navy. I was a nuclear submariner looking to move to Boston and I’m interested in your company. Would you like to have a conversation?” And most of them called me back almost right away. One of them called me back, the CEO called me back, Veolia Energy CEO called and said, “Well, it’s funny you should call because we’re looking for someone with exactly your skillset, but in Chicago, would that be of interest to you?” I said, “Well, describe the job to me.” And I was expecting something that sounded like plant manager or GM, and he said, “We’re looking for a vice president of operations for our conventional power plants in the Midwest.”

I said, “Well, that sounds really interesting to me.” Mostly because of the title and the initial salary, which was more than I had reason to expect. It wasn’t crazy, but I just had a very relatively low expectation. I expected to be something that sounded like my Navy salary. So they flew me out, interviewed me, and within a month I was at work for Veolia Energy. And it was largely on my own. The headquarters was in Boston, the plants were in the Midwest. I reported to the COO who was in Boston, but it was a very much sink or swim. Probably 18 months later, that company did a merge with another sister company that was by the name of Veolia Water.

So as that was happening in the back of my head was, “I’ve heard about these mergers before. Somebody always gets axed, and I’m the new guy, I might be in jeopardy here.” But pretty quickly there was a joint position of senior vice president for what would then become Veolia North America. And so, I immediately called the COO and said, “Hey, I’m really interested in that job. I figured it might be move up or move out.” And he said, “Yeah, you’re not going to get that job. We’re going to give it to a guy named John Wood, and he’s been in the company 20 years, but you don’t have to worry. You’re going to work for him. And when he retires, you’ll be certainly in a great place for that job.”

Michael Mitchel:

Now, I’m going to jump, because most people would think, “Oh, that’s a negative, that’s the end of my career at this company. I’m going to start looking for something else.” However, that’s not necessarily the case, because it ends up being a… Isn’t that the opportunity you want from VP to SVP?

Chuck Melcher:

It is. And it’s a good thing I didn’t get the job. So one of the things that, if and when I ever write a book, the highlight of that book will be every negative experience I’ve had has turned into a win. And so, had I gotten what I asked for in that job, I surely would’ve failed because I had no idea, but they gave me maybe 30 wastewater plants about which I had no knowledge whatsoever how commercial or residential wastewater system worked. But John, who did, he came out of the water business, taught me everything I needed to know, and my way around a wastewater treatment plan and how those contracts work in what turned out to be about 18 months before he did in fact retire.

Michael Mitchel:

When you interviewed originally for the first time with them, what was that experience like for you? Because, I guess one question I got for you is, because I was enlisted in the Navy. When you’re up for command roles, chief engineer, XO, skipper, are you assigned or you are you interviewed? How does that selection, at a high level, how does that happen?

Chuck Melcher:

So particularly for command, mostly up until that, I mean there are benchmarks, there are schools you have to pass, there are technical wickets you have to hit, but to go to command of a submarine, you actually go to a 6-month school, 3 months of which is sort of focused on the nuclear safety aspects of it and 3 months is focused on the command portion of it. And if you flame out in that, there are plenty of interviews along the way, interview with naval reactors, you interview with the fleet commander.

So interviews in the nuclear Navy are common. You have to interview to get in, you have to interview during your engineer’s exam. Everybody gets a day’s written exam plus 2 or 3 oral interviews, it changes over time with engineers. And I completely bombed my first interview for my nuclear engineer certification, completely bombed it. The guy asked me a question, he gave me a mathematical formula and he said, “I’d like you to draw the 3-dimensional picture that this formula describes.”

And I had no idea what he was talking about. I could tell it was, I don’t know, a triple derivative or whatever it was. And I just looked at him and said, “I have no idea.” And so that interview ended immediately, and that gave me the privilege of having a fourth interview, you usually get three. And I went into that fourth interview and the guy started talking to me a little bit, and we immediately broached into my Navy career on my first ship. And we spent half the interview talking about launching tomahawk missiles and how those work. And then he said, “Oh, I guess I should ask you a question about nuclear stuff.” And fortunately he asked me a question, which I actually knew a lot about, and he said, “I don’t know why you had a fourth interview.” I said, “I don’t know. I choked up on the first one a little bit.” So I had a lot of interview experience through my career.

Michael Mitchel:

So when you went for that first interview for the VP of ops, I mean, I got to imagine that prior experience of those interviews were probably more stressful, more intense than for the VP of operations?

Chuck Melcher:

I was pretty nervous. It was a civilian interview about something you don’t really know a lot about. It’s something you got to prepare a little bit for. I did not know what district energy was at the time. I certainly knew what power plants did and how they worked, but I had no idea what the format would be. But I did carry with me the basic idea that all particularly nukes learn through their interview processes, if you got a question you don’t know the answer to, answer a question you know the answer to. And that worked pretty well.

Unfortunately, the very first interview was the guy I would relieve. So he had a vested interest in making sure I passed that interview as well. So that was good. And he passed me onto the Boston interviews. But in the civilian world, I found as much as a technical interview, people want to know you’re not a jack wagon. They want to know they can get along with you, that you’re approachable, that you can be worked with. And so, the rest of the interviews were all about that. The lawyer, the HR guy, my technical boss, even the secretary I’m sure was interviewing me, the CEO’s secretary, when I walked into the office, I made a point of talking to her and being responsive and not being condescending and as people can be. 

Michael Mitchel:

I think that’s the true test of someone’s character, how they treat what they perceive as a lonely secretary.

Chuck Melcher:

Exactly right.

Michael Mitchel:

Because that person actually… I mean in the company there is no lonely anything, but that person is very instrumental to our roles. But how you interact with us, is well do we really want you in this organization?

Chuck Melcher:

And the first person when I started interviewing with other candidates, once I was in the company, the first person I would go talk to after the interview was my secretary or executive assistant, “So how was it? Were they polite? What did they say?” And so, my first check on what I thought was what the executive assistant did. Fortunately, submarine force really does stand you in good stead for that, for the reason we talked about earlier. The junior sailor might be the one that saves your life. And everybody on a submarine, every single person particularly every single enlisted person knows more about something on a submarine than you do. So you better keep that in mind.

And so you want them to be able to tell you when you’re off kilter in some way. And so, every time you read about a submarine that hit something, and there’ve been a few of those over the last couple of decades, what the report says is the CEO was not approachable and he had a bad command [inaudible 00:15:26]. So the enlisted guys knew the answer and didn’t tell him, because it was just too stressful for him to do that, particularly some legendary ones. I won’t name the submarines. But one of my sailors was on one of those submarines, and I ran into him years later. So he was on my JO ship, he was on a ship that got clobbered. And I ran into him years later and I said, “I know you, you knew the right answer. I know you knew the right answer.” He said, “Yeah, I knew the right answer, but the CEO, I tried to raise it to him, he told me I was wrong and to go back to my job. So that’s what I did.”

Michael Mitchel:

Yeah, what’s that skipper doing now?

Chuck Melcher:

He is still writing books, trying to justify the poor decisions he made.

Michael Mitchel:

So a mutual friend, actually Doug Gattuso in introduced us to each other. There was a moment in his career, he went from a C-level to on paper, looked like he got knocked down, but then embraced that opportunity, excelled at it, and actually propelled his career even further. I see similar similarities with you from, you went for the SVP, got the VP, best thing that happened, the military, going from sub commander to the Bay… I guess there’s a case being made that I think civilians when they don’t get tapped for a specific job, they’re like, “Well, okay, my career here is done. I’m leaving.” Whereas, if you take on that new responsibility in that job and you just do the best you can, you come out ahead. I mean, what are your thoughts on that?

Chuck Melcher:

So I had a similar experience rose to C-suite position. I was really batting cleanup on a company that was struggling. And Veolia is an enormous company. It’s probably 10 or 12,000 people globally, very big going concern, and they’re on all continents on the globe. And so being tapped for this job, I certainly

had some concerns because the company was struggling. B, it was again in a field that I was not fully versed in. This cleanup of nuclear waste and cleanup of Fukushima and decommissioning of old technology reactors was not in my wheelhouse.

But I certainly understood nuclear waste and nuclear energy in general, but weapon waste is a very different thing. And it was a multinational job. I had six companies in my group that were on 5 different countries. So that was a level of complexity which I had not experienced. At the SVP job I was in 2 countries, Canada and the US, and I had maybe 70 business units that worked for me. This was a whole another level of complexity. And so, I toyed with the idea of declining, but every time I had accepted a challenge in my Navy career, it worked out. So I sort of fell back on that and after a short think on it, I accepted the job. But again, you go into it and, “Okay, I’m going to have to fake it a little bit till I make it. I’m going to have to rely on the people that are there, trust that they know what they’re doing.” And had a very successful tour there. As with all businesses, businesses are currently merging and diverging and divesting and buying new events.

And so, when Veolia decided to sell off their entire energy portfolio, which is where I’d come into the company on, the CEO of Veolia North America, I no longer worked for him. I worked for essentially the CEO in France. I was one of his 6 CEOs of multinational companies. The CEO of Veolia North America said, “Hey, we’re selling off all our energy businesses and oh, by the way, I’m going, would you come?” So it took a bit of lip biting. Everybody has an ego, I think. And so he said, “You’re not going to be a CEO, you’re going to be an SVP. But there’s a lot of upside in this thing, personally, professionally, certainly financially, there’s an upside here. Would you come with us?” And I said, “I would.” And that’s where I am today.

Michael Mitchel:

So you’ve been a CEO, how would you define CEO success metrics?

Chuck Melcher:

So you can’t mistake that the ultimate metric of being a CEO is the P&L. So if you are not hitting financial metrics, you’re not going to stay in that job particularly long. But that single metric incorporates a bunch of the other things you talk about. If you don’t have a strategy that looks beyond the next quarter, it looks 2 or 3 years out, you may even make your numbers this year, but you probably won’t make them next year. So you come out of the Navy and we all think, and I thought, “Oh, I’ve done budgets, I’ve had big budgets, I’ve gone through the budgeting process, I understand P&L.” Those are absolutely not the same thing.

I had some study to do. I didn’t tell my bosses that often I had no idea what they were talking about with the P&L, and I’d gotten my MBA, but most of those are case studies rather than accounting and finance. So I had some research to do, which I did, but setting a strategy which is achievable, is not too different than what you do in command in the Navy. And so, you got to be the person that looks 2 to 3 years out and says, “What do I want to be happening at that point?” And it’s going to take a year before you can even begin to turn the ship…

Michael Mitchel:

Pardon the pun.

Chuck Melcher:

Pardon the pun. And at a year, if you’re in a place where you’re, okay, now I understand all the moving parts here, now I can begin to seriously implement the changes that I know need to happen. One of the questions I got in that interview process with Veolia was, “So what is it that you think sets you apart?” It’s a standard interview question. Why should we hire you is the underlying question. And my answer, which I had rehearsed, which everybody should do before they go into an interview is, “I have a broad range of experiences, some of which are relative to your business, most of which are not. But in fact, what my strength is, I have the ability to see opportunities where a lot of people will only see problems and they won’t know how to deal with those.”

So every problem has an opportunity, at least has a solution. You may have people to afford the solution, but it has a solution and it certainly has an opportunity. And if you can identify that opportunity and set that opportunity as your strategy and importantly convince everybody else that that’s the right opportunity and strategy, then you’re on your way to meeting success in all those metrics. If you can’t bring the team to agree with you that this is the right solution, it’s going to bring us to this opportunity which will strategically land us here, then you failed. Because, if they’re not on board, they may tell you, “Captain, I think this is what we should do.” And if you just shut them down, they won’t tell you that again. You’ll be on your own and nothing will happen. You may survive it, but the significant things won’t occur that you need to.

Michael Mitchel:

Do you feel that, how your military service prepared you to be a successful CEO?

Chuck Melcher:

I’m sure I would not have been successful without it.

Michael Mitchel:

With what?

Chuck Melcher:

Without the Navy experience. So I mean, in the Navy, no matter what you are, whether you’re a seaman or an admiral, every day is fraught with some kind of stress. And so, it’s fraught with problems. It’s fraught with people problems, it’s fraught with technical problems, financial problems, and it trains you to take them in stride. It doesn’t mean they’re not stressful, but it trains you to this will pass. There is a solution. What’s the best solution I can make?

May not be a great solution, but it’s the best one I have right now. And you go execute it. And importantly, again, in the submarine force, I can’t speak to the others. If you’re in a place where you make a decision and it’s going badly and you’re okay with changing your mind and telling the crew, “You know what? I thought this was a good idea. It was a terrible idea, we’re going to go do X.” That’s really valuable in the civilian world, because it’s the same. If you make a decision, which you’ll do and you make them wrong, and the P&L is the ultimate arbiter of success, says it’s not working. You got to be able to change.

Michael Mitchel:

Well, Chuck, I really appreciate you being on CXO Conversations. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. Trust me, I could go on for a lot longer. For those who are listening, please leave a 5 star on Apple so

people can find it. If you want to look me up on LinkedIn, it’s Michael Mitchel with one L out of Denver and thanks for listening. Thanks Chuck.

Chuck Melcher:

Thank you.

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