Confessions of a Defense Industry Leader
After 26 years in uniform, followed by 15 in the defense industry, I reflect on some of the things I've learned as a leader “on the other side of the uniform." It seemed like a difficult decision at the time. I needed to select an Eagle Scout project, and my mind kept coming back to that hospital for the mentally ill I passed regularly on my drives about town. I was sure there was a way I could help them and satisfy my requirements for Eagle. My scoutmaster tried his best to talk me out of it. “Isn’t there something else you could do?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “but I think the greatest need is there. Why don’t you think I should do this?” I still remember his reply: “It will change your view of humanity.” He was right. Although I completed that project (and earned Eagle Scout), volunteering in a mental hospital at the age of 16 did change me. I’m not suggesting that there is a direct parallel between working in a mental hospital and working in support of governments around the world, although over the past fifteen years I have experienced more than a few Catch-22 moments where I couldn’t help but look around for the “candid camera” that must have been hiding there somewhere, recording what was obviously a very absurd practical joke. To this date, I’ve never found that camera. But my industry experience has also provided many exhilarating, heart-warming, and proud moments. Since retiring from the Navy in 2006, I’ve worked for five different companies, I’ve done business with every branch of the US federal government as well as twenty different allied governments. So if, as I describe certain individuals below, you find yourself saying, “Hey! I know that guy,” it’s likely that you will have guessed wrong. I like to say to my transitioning military friends that leadership is hard, but it's even harder when the people you are leading can actually quit. That in mind, I thought it might be nice to share a few things that I wish I knew earlier in my industry career— not because these lessons would have changed my decision to join industry, but because knowing these things early on might have accelerated my transition a bit. I will start with one lesson I already knew even before I made the jump to industry: Lesson One. Governments and militaries around the world are populated by many selfless, caring, passionate people who want to do the right thing for their uniformed services and their citizens. I can’t count the number of times where government and industry folks worked incredibly hard, side-by-side, nights, weekends, and holidays, to get the job done for their troops. The vast, vast majority of government professionals, in uniform and out, fall into this category. Unfortunately: Lesson Two. Lesson One isn’t universal. When you do business in more than twenty countries, you get to see the profound differences in the way things are done around the world. Government officials are not always selfless. In some places, a more appropriate description might be “stoic” or “resigned.” As in, “What can we do? We are not going to change the way things are, so we might as well quit trying.” When your company has been contracted to help in a particular area and it becomes clear that the government officials you are trying to help don’t actually care enough to be helped, it can be very discouraging. Which leads to: Lesson Three. On the whole, industry is populated with people who are just as patriotic, dedicated, and selfless as the best people in government, who simply want to get the job done properly. Prior to transitioning, I had presumed that for most industry workers, it’s “just a job.” I could not have been more wrong. This was one of the earliest lessons I learned, and I have to admit it came as a bit of a surprise. I remember watching a man in his late 60s volunteer to work extra-long hours in one of our factories. When I suggested maybe he could let some of the younger folks carry the burden, his response: “I’m a Vietnam vet and if I were younger I would have reenlisted. Our soldiers in Afghanistan don’t get a break, I don’t get a break either.” Others had taken defense industry jobs for far less pay than they might have received in the commercial sector, simply because for reasons of age or health they could not volunteer for the military which is what they really wanted to do. This was their way of contributing. Still others were experienced veterans of their nation’s military, who just wanted to pass along their skills in military contractor training assignments, so “somebody out there doesn’t have to relearn the lessons I learned the hard way.” In short, I have never met a more dedicated, selfless group of people than those I’ve had the privilege of working with since transitioning out of uniform. Which makes the next lesson substantially more poignant: Lesson Four. Far too many folks in government still treat contractors as “slimy profiteers.” For too many of our customers, an individual contractor’s background (e.g., former military, combat veteran, former civil servant) doesn’t play into their view of “trustworthiness.” It’s as if we become different people the moment we transition from government service. Once we cross that line into the contractor world, from some people’s point of view, we no longer can be trusted. Since we are contractors, we obviously must now be trying to “screw” that very same nation that just a few years earlier we had sworn to defend with our lives. I had a personal encounter early in my industry career with a former “staff-mate,” retired flag officer, later member of the senior executive service, who over the course of our separate journeys acted as if I was a completely different person than the one he knew and worked with in uniform. Apparently trying to channel Jack Nicholson from “A Few Good Men,” he excoriated me mercilessly during a particularly challenging contract negotiation. “There you sit in that suit I could never afford, lecturing me on what the government should or should not pay for….” The fact we had both worked together on active duty just a few years earlier, during which time he seemed to trust me implicitly, counted for nothing. I was now just a contractor, so in his mind I must be trying to spin the facts. His approach to the issue, and his opinion of me, were both wrong-headed and self-defeating. (Oh, and since his pay was a matter of public record, I knew at the time he actually made more money than I did. And that suit he held such high regard for? Purchased at an outlet store, priced around $250. But some folks just won’t let the facts get in the way of a good narrative.) Which leads to: Lesson Five. Some government folks presume that all civilians in industry must be “pulling in the dough,” and that presumption sometimes affects their behavior. While it is inarguable that senior executive salary is based on market standards that measure the executive’s contribution to shareholder value, which sometimes allows them to be compensated very well, that condition is not true for the vast majority of government contractors. Yet, there frequently seems to be a presumption that everyone out of government is compensated better than everyone in government. This is simply not the case. That presumption was particularly disheartening when I was working in the government IT industry. For reference, civilian information technicians are some of the lowest paid workers in industry. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand—there are hundreds of trade schools pumping out information technicians every day. As a result, many senior IT people with twenty years’ experience will earn less than an active duty E-5. When a government data center converted its contracted workforce to an active duty workforce, its total cost of workforce actually went up while the level of worker experience significantly went down. Elsewhere, folks in the military training business, driven by government competition, often make little more than minimum wage. (And of course, the US government actively tries to drive down the wages of middle class government contractors, pushing some to near the poverty line, but that is the subject of a different article.) Yet, there are many in government who presume that because contractors are civilians they must be making more than their uniformed counterparts. I have witnessed many instances of bad behavior by folks who seemed to have giant chips on their shoulders, not knowing what I did (since government compensation is a matter of public record) that the person doing the “wire brushing” was earning far more than the poor technician being “wire brushed.” This may be caused by: Lesson Six. Too many people fail to understand that “good leadership” is universal, applying equally to military and industry alike. I was once called by one of my program managers in Landstuhl Germany who claimed that the behavior of his Army customer (an active duty O-6) had crossed the line from merely offensive to illegal (creating a hostile work environment). My employees, all retired US military (E-7 to O-6), were not shrinking violets, and had tried their best to get the officer to understand that his behavior was resulting in an exodus of talent, thereby harming his own operational effectiveness. I flew on short notice to the location, and as I was walking in to visit the O-6, my PM whispered to me, “Be warned: this is the stupidest O-6 I have ever met in my life.” My response was something like, “Talking like that about a customer never helps.” What followed was one of the most frustrating post-transition hours in my life, during which time I made absolutely no progress with the guy, asking him at one point, “Would you treat your troops this way?” His reply: “Of course not, but leadership does not apply to contractors. I pay you to do a job. You just have to do it.” I left the meeting having changed nothing. After the meeting my PM said, “Told you.” I replied, “He’s not stupid. He’s just a ‘Seven Sigma Leader,’ one who falls way outside the bell curve of leadership.” Why did this officer think this way? Possibly because he failed to understand that: Lesson Seven. The universe where the contractor fails but the government succeeds does not exist. I’ve seen way too many programs where the customer failed to understand that we were on the same team, instead creating an “us vs. them” environment. Sometimes our customer will insist that we line up on opposite sides of the table, as if we were parties to a divorce proceeding. I recall one instance where a contracting officer submitted to one of the programs in my business a disappointing Contractor Performance Assessment Report (CPAR). The good news is CPARs are usually submitted to the contractor in draft form, so that folks have time to review them for accuracy prior to formal submission. The problem with this CPAR, which should have been fact-based and verifiable, is that none of the “facts” contained therein aligned with actual program history. When I called the government program manager to inquire, he said, “Yeah, we’re having trouble finding the supporting data ourselves. It may be that she [the contracting officer] thought her job was to keep you guys on your toes.” I was dumbfounded. “She will keep us on our toes all right, but not in the way she intended. From now on my folks will trust nothing that comes out of her office, and they will look for countermanding data every time she opens her mouth.” Even when programs do fail to perform, there is usually some form of government culpability. However, it’s rare that the government “fesses up” appropriately. Imagine a situation where a ship’s commanding officer writes a bad “Crew Performance Assessment Report” after he runs his ship aground. The government would not tolerate that, but sometimes does exactly the same thing after “running a program aground.” The problem is that when a government fails to consider its own culpability in a situation of failure, then it cannot possibly be doing proper root cause analysis. But of course, the corollary is also true: Lesson Eight. The universe where the government fails but the contractor succeeds does not exist. Sometimes our customers think that the contractor has an ulterior motive to take advantage of them or work at cross-purposes with them. While people may be able to cite examples of when this happened, companies who behave this way are not long for this world. The government is very good at sharing company performance data internally. If a company intentionally works against their customer, it will be discovered and they will eventually fail. Good companies simply don’t do this. And of course: Lesson Nine. Industry cannot succeed without the right kind of government support. To create a successful program, contractors will always need appropriate government support. Clear and stable requirements. The government meeting its commitments on government furnished equipment or information. A stable budget. Sometimes it’s just the right kind of behavior: acting like we are on the same team. And yet, the government sometimes acts in ways that are detrimental to program execution. Sometimes the government implements an inspection regime that actually interferes with industry’s ability to get things done. Sometimes the government acts like oversight of the program is a "jobs program" for them. I once had the government assign 300 people to a program office to oversee my 45 program leaders, and that was on a well performing program! This is often a peculiarly American problem, because: Lesson Ten. Our allies often do the program “teamwork thing” better than us 'Mericans. Despite the constant cry of “not enough money” from US program offices, the American government frequently builds overwhelming, byzantine oversight structures that can only be possible when an entity actually has too much money, or too many people, or is spending its money on the wrong things. For example, that government program office of 300 people monitoring my 45 managers-- when I was asked to produce an organization chart mapping my leaders to their 300 government counterparts, it became a ridiculous-looking upside-down pyramid where each of my leaders had 5 or more government folks he/she was expected to respond to. This is not possible for most of our allies, simply because they don’t have the money or people necessary to build this kind of Soviet-style management structure. When you don’t have a lot of money, then you can’t set up expensive bureaucracies to monitor performance, so you have to rely on "the teamwork thing" much more extensively. That usually necessitates a higher degree of government-contractor integration in execution, which almost always results in better program performance. This goes hand-in-glove with: Lesson Eleven. Our allies often do the “COTS thing” better. I once had a senior US government official tell me “There is no reason we should have to spend development money on this. The capability exists in industry today, so I want this solution to be purely off-the-shelf.” I was ecstatic. The required capability did indeed exist in industry, DOD officials at the highest levels had been very vocal about wanting to tie in closer to Silicon Valley, and this was an opportunity to do just that. Alas, it was not to be. By the time the lower level bureaucrats were finished with the issue, people who acted like this was a “jobs program,” so many irrational and impenetrable FAR clauses had been imposed on the requirements as to render any COTS solution not viable. For example, a FAR clause was invoked that would disqualify any software application for which the license could be revoked remotely by the software OEM. Of course, every commercial application in existence today has some kind of remote license deactivation process to defend against software piracy. But the existence of this feature rendered an application non-compliant with the invoked FAR clause, meaning no actual COTS solution could be procured without spending a bunch of development money to “engineer out” the feature for US government applications. None of the software developers I approached would agree to allow their apps to be released without this anti-piracy feature. When I communicated this to the low-level government folks who imposed the restriction, and pointed out that the high-level government leaders who asked for the COTS solution would be "disappointed," their reaction was just short of glee, as if to say, “Now you know who holds the real power around here.” Sadly, this experience has repeated itself too often. In contrast, our allies cannot afford the “army of bureaucrats,” and are genuinely happy when they don’t have to pay development costs. This means it’s far easier to deploy commercial solutions overseas than it is in the applications' “country of birth." And after working so hard to get agreement at a very senior (assistant secretary) level, the "now you know who really holds the power around here" message was a terrible morale-killer for my talented team who only wanted to get things done. Which leads to: Lesson Twelve. Leadership is hard, but it's harder when you are leading people who can actually quit. My friends in the military like to consider themselves to be good leaders, and they often are. Military folks are often challenged by being placed in a leadership position from a young age-- far younger than most industry folks are. They are usually tested in various leadership positions. They often gain years of experience. (Surprisingly, this isn't true for all military folks.) And the good ones are very good. But that leadership experience is almost always gained in a fairly limited, military environment. Some transitioning military officers usually believe that their experience, including leadership experience, is directly translatable to leading civilians in industry, but it often isn't. To quote a famous book, "What got you here won't get you there." Industry leaders are often reticent to hire transitioning military folks directly into senior industry positions without a trial period because so many of them don't transition well. Some of them are too set in their ways as it pertains to their style of leadership, and can't adjust to leading civilians. Others, to use an expression commonly used in industry to describe retiring flag or general officers, were assigned so many supporting staff members in uniform that they have "forgotten how to work." Others are used to way more "overhead" and support staff than is typical in industry. For example, it's typical for even a billionaire CEO to have just one supporting staff person travel with them. In contrast, I've had more than one retired senior military leader complain to me about having to travel alone or having to plan his own travel. This has sometimes led to friction, with requests from subordinates for reassignment. Because of this, from a purely self-defensive point of view, it's often lower risk to hire a lifelong industry leader into an industry position than to deal with the "I told you so's" if you take a risk on a transitioning military leader and he fails. So, as I like to tell my transitioning military friends, leadership is indeed hard, but it's even harder when the people you are leading can actually quit. An avid reader will point out "but somebody took a risk on you," which is true. But I was very fortunate to get hired into a rare executive training program where my company's leaders could figure out if I was a "keeper" before assigning me any actual responsibilities. Even though I was going into a line of business that I thought I understood well from my time in uniform, I prepared myself mentally for my new role by saying "I'm now an Ensign again, I'm starting over and can't assume I know anything." I did my best to learn. And I bit my tongue and complied when, despite the fact I was post-major command, I was asked if I'd be willing to attend an "industry leadership course." Further, one of the greatest lies that was told me during my "transitioning military (retirement) course" was, "all those companies want is good leaders." Let me make this point clearly: good leadership isn't all you need to effectively command a ship or battalion, you also need an actual understanding of the systems, tactics, and methods that allow you to be successful. No amount of "leadership" alone will allow a fighter pilot to successfully command a submarine in combat, and vice versa. The same applies to industry, you need more than "leadership"-- you need actual proficiency in what you are trying to do. (Admiral Rickover made this point over fifty years ago.) And then there is: Lesson Thirteen. While the vast majority of senior defense executives are great patriots who respect and value veterans, that outlook is not universal. I realized early in my defense industry career that a few, but often very senior, company executives had a chip on their shoulder with respect to the fact they had never served. They were especially sensitive if a retired flag or general officer employee gave any whiff of being a flag or general officer around the company. Admirals were warned "You had better not put your retired rank on your business card unless you want to piss off the CEO." While there was ostensibly a good, legitimate reason for such a prohibition ("You survive in industry based on your merits and effectiveness not based on your history"), it was often due to simple spite. Once I walked into a meeting already in progress, sat down in a chair by the door out of sight of the executive leading the meeting, who was discussing the potential hiring of a new business development executive. The senior executive, not knowing I had walked in, asked our HR VP, "Is the new candidate a freeloader?" The HR VP, apparently already knowing what the question meant and seeing me sitting behind the executive, feigned ignorance. "I'm not sure, what do you mean?" to which the executive replied, "You know, a freeloader. Retired military." Feeling the need to speak up at that point to make my presence known, I laughed and said, "No John, I'm the only freeloader around here." The executive turned around, surprised, and pretended to have been joking, but he also could not hide the fact he was furious that nobody had told him I walked in. A few weeks later I realized I was already the senior retired military profit/loss executive in the entire company, and realizing that probably meant there was a "glass ceiling" applied to military retirees and I was probably at my "terminal grade" within that company, I took the very next interesting job offer with a different company that came my way. After I left the company, one of my former peers (not a veteran) clued me in that being retired military was not seen as a virtue in that company, so I had made the right move by leaving. (My history since then has proved him correct.) As I said up front, my industry experience has provided many exhilarating, heart-warming, and proud moments. But there have also been moments of absurdity where I couldn’t help but think that if senior leadership, on both sides of the government divide, knew what was really going on, they would surely take action to correct. But as bizarre as things sometimes are in the United States, one of the most fundamental things I wish I had known when I transitioned to industry is: Lesson Fourteen. Some countries have essentially legalized theft. When you operate around the world, you have to expect that there will be some cultural differences you would need to adapt to. But I never, never, never thought that “legalized theft” would be one of them. In essence, what happens in some countries is that a government entity will sign a contract, the contractor will do the work, and then… nothing. The government will simply “forget” to pay. Now they will never say “we are not paying you.” They just go silent. Crickets. You make visits, write letters, threaten to take legal action (which they know can only occur in their government-controlled courts), to no avail. You plead, cajole, have your people park themselves on doorsteps, and maybe eventually ask for help from the US government. At this point the government in question will usually respond with several (secret) artifacts of administrivia that they claim you failed to complete. You complete it, and then they lose the paperwork. This can go on for years. It’s as if they hope you will simply give up. Unfortunately, your shareholders usually don't countenance that course of action. Again, the vast majority of people in both government and industry are fantastic. There will always be a few outliers on both sides-- although, in general, it’s far easier to shed the outliers in industry than it is in government, and industry generally has a lower tolerance for the outliers. Our default position should always be to not make assumptions about motive, but to treat issues on their merits, unemotionally. Has my experience changed my view of humanity? Perhaps. Just a bit. Some better, some worse. You do your best to do some good, to convey common sense to both sides of the divide, but you have to accept that you won't always succeed. Perhaps if I had started my industry career already understanding the above, my expectations would have been a little more realistic.