With over 30 years of service in the Canadian Armed Forces and currently the Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer, Kevin West has played an important part starting from the RCN to the RCAF and then unto senior leadership within the CAF. As Vanguard’s latest Game Changer, the CFCWO feels that “the opportunity to impact and influence how we develop and take care of our sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen, special force operators and their families” has been a rewarding one for him.
Here is the full interview with Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer, Kevin West.
Q: How did you start out in this industry and how has it brought you to where you are today?
I initially joined the Royal Canadian Navy as a Naval Signalman. As much as I loved my time in the Navy, I always had the desire to fly. In 1990 I accepted an occupational transfer to the RCAF as an Airborne Electronic Sensor Operator. As I progressed through the armed forces it became clear that our most important asset is our people. As much as I loved being an operator, I felt taking the path toward senior leadership would allow me the opportunity to impact and influence how we develop and take care of our sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen, special force operators and their families. It is an aspect of leadership that is unbelievably rewarding.
Q: What is your role in your organization today?
I currently hold the position of Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer (CFCWO). The position is the most senior ranking Non-Commissioned Member (NCM) within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). The CFCWO is the principle non-commissioned advisor to the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). As such, I have several important roles including, institutional leader, co-steward of the profession of arms in Canada, and custodian of the NCM Corps.
I advise the CDS on all manner of issues and concerns relating to the welfare, morale, development and employment of our Non-Commissioned Members. I communicate widely the CDS’s intent, especially in areas of significant change within the department and the CAF. I am concerned with the development of the NCM Corps and ensuring we are ready to support the CAF mission from the tactical through to the strategic level, as occupation specialists and as full institutional leaders. At the most fundamental level, my interest is ensuring that the NCM Corps’ culture is aligned with the military ethos and that values-based leadership guides our actions. As CFCWO, I understand that one of my greatest responsibilities is connecting with Canadians to engender their trust, respect and confidence in the men and women who wear the CF uniform.
Q: What was your most challenging moment?
Although there have been many, the one moment which challenged my personal leadership is definitely the incident involving Russell Williams at 8 Wing Trenton in 2010. I was the Wing/Base Chief Warrant Officer when he held the position of Wing Commander. Following the traumatic events of that time, it taught me quickly that although we train and educate our personnel to carry out very difficult and risky missions, in the end, they are human beings. When humans are put into difficult situations, that are very close or personal to them, and for which they are not trained for, their reactions are very unpredictable.
The challenges I faced were both as a senior leader on the base and personally. The expectation of leaders is they need to be strong in times of crisis, this is absolutely true. In this situation, many of our people were traumatized by the actions of Williams. The challenge at the base level was to ensure that the confidence and faith in the chain of command. This was critical to recovering from this event. We needed to bring together all leaders at the Wing and focus on our people in a situation that had never been experienced within our CAF.
From a personal aspect, I was going through denial, how could my Leadership Partner have committed such atrocious acts. Then there was the feeling of disappointment and betrayal, how could my partner do this to the CAF and me.
The challenge became overcoming the feeling of betrayal, and at some level the feeling of guilt of not seeing any signs of what was happening. This was very difficult and has taken years with the help of many others. In the end, it is the great people that we have within the CAF that gave me the strength and courage to recover and continue to work to help them.
Q: What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?
To use a recent one would be understanding that the experiences we gain in our lives, do add up to something. In 2015, I decided to return to school and take on a Master’s program. Not having been to “formal” school or ever attend university, I was extremely apprehensive of seating in a room with people who had at the least a B.A., and working with Ph.D. professors. Not long after starting the program, I realized that everything I had done and experienced over the years added up to a tremendous amount of knowledge. We in the military often do not realize the value of the experiences we have lived through. They count, and they are just as valuable as any type of education. I am now in the last few months of my program, my experiences have allowed me to not only partake in this journey but also succeed.
Q: What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?
There have been many over my 31 years, but I would have to say it is the resiliency of our sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen and special forces operators. They are continuously being asked to work long hours in difficult condition, deploy within and outside of Canada. They endure personal and family sacrifice for something they truly believe in, the mission of the CAF. They have the ability to work through issues and place the CAF first, “service before self”.
I am in awe of their dedication to their mission, profession and country. They never back away from a challenge and excel at everything they do. Our sailors, soldiers, airmen/airwomen and special forces operators are simply some of the best in the world.
Q: What is the best advice you received?
To “breathe”. When a situation becomes intense, we as leaders must have the ability to take the time to breathe, think about what is going on around us. In tough situations, we often want to rush and potentially may make situations worse. Remaining calm in front of our subordinates demonstrates to them that we are in control and reassures them.
Q: What is a habit that contributes to your success?
Taking time for myself! Leaders, especially senior leaders, have extremely heavy workloads and demands on their time. But in order to be effective, managing our time is key to success. I attempt to maintain a reasonable work schedule and take the time to keep fit and develop myself personally through other interests. Before we can take care of our people, we need to take care of ourselves.
Q: What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?
As my entire adult life has been with the CAF, my example is military. For me, I would have to say our Canadian Special Forces Command. It is a command which has only been in existence for 10 years, but they have embraced innovation not only if the technical aspects of their role, by more importantly to me, is how they have developed the people within the command using non-traditional methodologies. It is truly inspiring and demonstrates that change is not a dirty word and that taking risks and challenging the status quo will only make us better and therefore improve the organization overall.
Q: What is your parting piece of advice?
Have a vision! When in leadership positions we are only in them for a finite amount of time. We need to have a vision for what we want to accomplish with our team and also what we want to accomplish personally. An example for myself when I became the CFCWO was I wanted to evolve how we succession plan and manage our senior non-commissioned leaders and from a personal aspect I wanted to upgrade my education, so I became a Master’s program through a Canadian University.