Commodore Kurtz leading the way for women in the RCN

Navy News / October 28, 2019

Commodore (Cmdre) Josée Kurtz is leading the way for women in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

As the first female commander of a principal warship (Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Halifax) and the first female commander of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), Cmdre Kurtz hopes her accomplishments will motivate other women in the navy to set goals for themselves and work hard to achieve them.

As the RCN joins with all Canadians in celebrating Women’s History Month, we look at the career of an exceptional sailor who believes that strong coaching and mentorship will ensure that women who aspire to leadership in the RCN are better equipped and prepared to map and implement their career plans.

In the question and answer below, Cmdre Kurtz shares her thoughts and views on her own career, what helped make her successful, and how her experiences can help other women who aspire to naval careers.

How difficult was it to achieve command of HMCS Halifax?

Every step in a naval officer’s career progression rests on demonstrated competency at the previous level and so the achievement of command at sea requires hard work and dedication over a significant period of time.

This includes challenging training and, obviously, time at sea. I was appointed to command at 20 years of service, which is about the average time for officers of my generation.

The path to command is definitely not easy and I did my best, working as hard as my peers to get there. And I could not have done it without the support of my family.

What did it mean to you to be given this command?

I was obviously very proud when I was appointed to command as I was achieving a personal career goal that offered much professional satisfaction.

I was also aware that the appointment was a signal of the Admiralty’s confidence in my ability to assume significant responsibility for the employment of a warship and, importantly, the care and custody of the 225 people in its crew.

This was, and is, very humbling.

How did you proceed in that role?

I joined the navy in the late 1980s as one of the first women to serve at sea in an operational ship. That was an interesting time and as a young woman leading the way in a traditionally all-male environment.

I remained conscious that acceptance would come from a position of mutual understanding: from men who were faced with the changes associated with women joining ships, and from us women accepting that change could not be forced and would not occur overnight. Success would come from an attitude of give-and-take.

When I assumed command of HMCS Halifax in 2009, the RCN had had women serving at sea for two decades, so the novelty had somewhat worn off. That said, I sensed that there was some apprehension on the part of the ship’s company about the spotlight that the first woman to command a principal warship would bring and the possible resulting impact on the ship and the crew.

I tackled the challenge by reassuring my sailors that the attention was for me only to deal with, and that I would make it a priority to protect and promote a normal environment, free from additional pressures.

Once they realized that their Captain was much like any other, their concerns faded and we were able to quickly come together as a team. My time in Halifax was without a doubt the most rewarding experience in my career and that is in a large part owed to the outstanding people I served with then.

As the first female commander of SNMG2, how have you been accepted by allies and other regional players?

Going into the job, I was fully aware that not all navies I would work with in SNMG2 or interact with in the course of my command would be where Canada is in integrating women and other minority groups into their ranks. In fact, while they are gathering headway in terms of diversity, some navies remain quite homogenous institutions.

As a result, I was not sure how my leadership would be regarded. That said, if I felt uncertainty at first, I was very rapidly reassured. I am getting nothing but respect from my all-male international staff and from every ship – from navies of the United Kingdom, Romania, Turkey, Spain and Greece – that has integrated into SNMG2 under my command.

What strategy or approach are you using to command SNMG2, and is it different from your time with HMCS Halifax?

My approach to the SNMG2 command is indeed very similar to my style in Halifax, but with the benefit of a little more experience and some professional wisdom, perhaps.

I make a point of being myself – there is tremendous value in leading with authenticity, and listening to my team, and there is nothing they want more than to contribute.

I also remain curious about different ways of tackling challenges, and I find that there is no shortage of different perspectives when working in a multinational naval task group led by an international staff. Finally, I try to learn from others, especially from their successes, of which, fortunately, there are many.

What are the challenges and rewards of working with this group?

I would say that the challenges and rewards of working in SNMG2 stem from the same element: diversity. If it takes a lot of effort to integrate the many contributing nations and foster a cohesive group (both at the ship and staff level), the output that comes from such a diverse team is quite powerful and extremely motivating.

In the last 10 years, what were your biggest mistakes and what lessons did you learn from them?

I think the most significant recent lesson I have learned is the importance of making time for myself. It is easy, after work demands, family activities and other life pressures, to run out of hours at the end of the day.

I make a point of putting wellness activities in my calendar and to attend to them as I do important meetings and events so that I give consideration to self-care as well when I juggle and prioritize the many everyday time requirements.

What have been your greatest achievements?

I am obviously very proud that hard work has allowed me to reach Flag Officer rank. That said, my most enjoyable career moment after commanding Halifax has been to work with the people at the Directorate of Naval Personnel and Training in Ottawa.

Our team, comprised of Regular Force, Reserve and civilian personnel, was as close as a directorate in National Defence Headquarters can be to a ship’s company.

Through their willingness and commitment to working together, they made me extremely proud to be their director and to help evolve the navy’s human resources to meet the needs of the future fleet and of the next generation of sailors.

Are there additional steps you think the RCN can take to promote both female enrollment and their promotion into leadership positions?

There are many great stories of women enjoying success across the ranks and in all occupations. I think that as a starting point we need to do a better job of showcasing these stories to young Canadians who could be inspired to enroll. I also think that the best way to reach out is in person, to foster a conversation and make a connection. In my opinion, this is essential to recruiting and retention.

In terms of progression to leadership positions, I believe part of the solution lies in stronger coaching and mentorship, so that women aspiring to leadership advancement in the navy are better equipped and prepared to map and implement their career plan, with people – men or women – with whom they can build a relationship of trust.

How do you feel about your personal achievements having an impact on women in the RCN?

I don’t like to focus on myself and I certainly do not seek the limelight. I am fully aware, however, that because I enrolled just as the navy opened sea-going combat occupations to women, I have had to lead the way into uncharted waters. I have always done my best to do so in a professional manner to reflect positively on the navy.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not acknowledge the tremendous support I received along the way from many men – superiors, peers and subordinates, leaders equally committed to evolving the fabric of our naval institution.

Ultimately, I will be delighted if my career path motivates smart and talented young women – and men for that matter – to set goals for themselves, and to work hard to achieve them. And I look forward to celebrating their successes.