Carol Geffner, Professor of the Practice of Governance, Management and Policy, and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program, interviewed Joy White, Executive Director, Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base. Discover Joy's leadership journey.
Geffner: I'm here today talking with my colleague Joy White from the Air Force. Joy, why don't you share a little bit of what you do?
White: I'm the Executive Director at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles Air Force Base, and what we deliver is all of the satellite capability to serve the DOD and our warfighters. We also deliver satellites and provide the launch services to put those satellites in orbit as well as all the ground systems that operate those satellites.
I supervise an organization of over 5,000 individuals, and we execute a budget of about $7 Billion a year to acquire and manage those assets.
My Leadership Journey
Geffner: I'm curious how you arrived in this position. Tell us about your leadership journey.
White: My father was active duty Air Force for many years, made a career, and we ended up in Virginia, which is where I went to college. And on graduating with a business degree, I was recruited by the Navy to be a civil servant in the Navy in a contracting intern program.
My father said, "No daughter of mine is gonna work for the Navy." He thought similar programs would exist in the Air Force, so he found one. However, the opportunity was out here in Los Angeles, and so I moved 3,000 miles, came to Los Angeles and started my career here at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in the space business.
After spending a few years in England with my husband, we returned to Montgomery, Alabama for a year where I worked in contracting. Then it was back to DC, and then I took a big risk in the middle of that time frame.
While working for the Air Force, I had an opportunity for a promotion and to move to the Missile Defense Agency, which is a separate agency from the Air Force. A lot of folks felt like once you left the Air Force, it was difficult to get back in. Knowing I could hurt my career growth in the Air Force I took the opportunity anyway.
Ironically, while I was there, my boss at the time left and the new boss that came in had been my mentor back here in Los Angeles. When he came into the organization, he boosted me in terms of giving me authority and made me his deputy. So that was kind of the spot in my career that really leveraged me into that next step.
Eventually, I applied and came back to the Los Angeles Air Force base as senior executive and director of contracting. A lot of folks thought was really neat - the place where I started my career as a little unit, GS5, a government service term, I was coming back as a senior-level executive.
I'm all about developing and taking care of the workforce that delivers the mission. And I went from supervising in my prior job, where I had about 300 folks to now the executive director of a 5,000 person organization, so it's exciting. I love it. I'm very happy to be where I am.
Geffner: This is a real success story. You were willing to take on a number of different opportunities that may have been risky. Can you discuss the choices you made and how that impacted your career looking at it today?
White: I look back on it and try to think, I was moving around with an Air Force officer, so I wasn't picking and choosing my jobs, I was going in and hoping for the best.
However, I learned that wherever you land do, your best and bring that upbeat attitude and willingness to take on whatever challenge. Sometimes you may feel the job is below you, and it may be. You still just step up and respect the people that are doing the job with, you respect everyone around you.
I like to say the halo effect is real and that certainly was what I found in my career in the Air Force. When we came back from overseas, I didn't tell the Air Force folks I was coming back. They actually found out where my husband was getting stationed, and they reached out to me.
I tell that to women who are worried about when they're going to have a child, and they're going to step out of the career field for a while for maternity leave - if you've set a baseline that everybody knows your behavior and how you're going to deliver, they'll welcome you back. They'll beg you to come back when you're ready.
It was a matter of opportunity, folks helping, and then it ended up where I am.
Overcoming Leadership Challenges
Geffner: What advice would you give leaders at any level, if someone is working with a difficult boss, what would you say to people?
White: So one thing is patience. Certainly, in those situations, it never serves you well to buck the boss. To a degree, you need to assimilate to whatever that boss's behaviors are. You've got to be the better person. You've got to remember that you don't know where you're going to end up again in 10 years, so you try not to burn any bridges and you try to treat everyone with respect.
In a prior organization I was brought in for a job opportunity that a lot of people thought I would get, and I hoped for it. Instead, they brought in another individual who I knew to be less capable than me (based on what I've heard from other folks on their performance). I was then asked to show them the ropes, show them how everything operates.
I remember grumbling about it to myself, but I never showed it. That individual ended up doing fine on the job, but they ended up helping me in my career later. They recognized in hindsight what had happened. That goes to show that the grace with which you handle those kinds of situations will serve you much longer than the grumbling and your emotions would at the time.
Handling Industry Change and Competition
Geffner: Can you talk a little bit about the large transformations or the disruptions that are happening in your industry?
White: I'm very excited about where our industry is going.
We deliver space capabilities for DOD, warfighter services, and since we deliver GPS for the entire world, it’s absolutely critical, that we don’t have a glitch in our GPS satellite constellation. We deliver infrared detection capability, so anywhere in the world, there is a launch we have eyes on the launch and can warn in the event that it's a negative launch against us. And finally, all of like I said, the launch systems.
So what's been happening is our adversaries have recognized the asymmetrical advantage that these systems are providing to our warfighters, guided munitions, all of our fighters, all of our fighter jets, and deliver bombs that are guided by GPS and have that capability.
Unfortunately, because our adversaries see the advantages it gives us, they have started to invest and developed capabilities to be able to, at least, beat our systems, potentially do something to hurt our systems.
We're in a completely new realm in terms of how we need to deliver our space capability. We've got to be able to turn technology faster than it has taken us in the past. Some of these satellites are so exquisite it takes us seven years to build a single satellite.
Geffner: Is that changing? Is that timeframe shortening?
White: So along with the great capability, we have been a very risk-averse organization.
When you spend a billion dollars on building a single satellite, you want the satellite to work. So we've gone to a near-zero risk mindset in developing our rockets and satellites, but we find a better balance of speed and risk aversion.
There's a lot of checks and balances to make sure we do that fairly and equitably. Unfortunately, those checks and balances, also add timelines into how long it takes us to go out and actually order one of these satellites.
So all of those things, we need to get faster. The commercial industry now is all about space, so there's all this commercial technology that we're not able to get because they don't want to deal with DOD and all of our bureaucracy, so we need to change.
Continuing Innovation and Leadership
Geffner: How are you thinking about innovation? What are you and other leaders doing to recapture that so that you can move faster and take the lead in some areas where you might not be now?
White: We're trying to get back to our roots of innovation. A part of that is we've always tended to treat every single action we take in terms of an acquisition of a new system with the same complexity. So even the smaller, simpler things, we're doing the full up; all the checks and balances.
We're delegating authorities down to lower levels, trying to get folks to move faster and innovate, bringing in commercial industry, and giving them opportunities to show us what they can provide.
We want to take advantage of a lot of flexibilities that are already out there. The workforce tends to get comfortable, and we're trying to push the workforce out of their comfort zone and into this new environment. And the urgency makes that a lot easier.
Geffner: A lot of people feel like their organization needs to move faster, be more creative, more innovative. What are you and your leaders doing in a practical way to create a culture that acknowledges and rewards creativity, agile thinking, and innovation?
White: Yeah, it's challenging, and it's hands on.
The leaders that we have right now grew up in this culture of risk aversion and so some of them are very resistant to change. I’m of the mindset that you work with them and try to drive them to understand. Some of them I think will get left behind, unfortunately.
I'm hoping that with the younger folks that we're delegating a lot of authorities down to understand. Their energy is extremely important. My role is knocking out the people that are trying to slow them down. I want to cut out meetings and knock those people aside and say “let's go!”
Leadership and Management
Geffner: In regards to other industries, what advice would you give managers in organizations that they feel may lack creativity or innovation? What have you learned along the way that you would say to people like that, who aren't working for you?
White: To me, the first step of being able to go fast and be innovative is that you have to be an expert at the skill that you're bringing. You can't shortchange the knowledge you have to be innovative. You can't say, "I'm just gonna run fast, and I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just gonna run fast." You still have to be grounded in knowledge of whatever your field is. Then know the areas where you can take shortcuts and move fast.
Geffner: What do you think is going to be different for leaders who are now in the earlier stages in their career? When you look into the 21st century, and you say, it's not going to be like the past, what do you think leaders are going to need to have?
White: For a good leader to me, you need to be passionate about the mission and equally passionate about the people that you lead. It's not a single body workforce, and you have to know your people.
The most successful leaders I've seen know their people, well enough to know their dreams in life, their goals, and even their family situation, and it can be tough. One of the hardest things about being a leader is that if you want to be good, you have to care and know your people, you can't just hold the workforce and then drive in the mission.
If you care about people at a high level and are really passionate about what you're trying to do and the mission you're trying to deliver, that all will blend together and people will become passionate about the mission.
That's how I see leadership.
Geffner: What leadership capabilities do you look for when you're looking to promote leaders? Consider people already in mid-level management, or early senior-level management looking to go forward. Even if it's not always a match, what is most important to you?
White: So you've probably heard the phrase attitude and aptitude. It's knowing your job, but it's in how you deliver your job, how you interact with those around you, and the respect you show around you. To me, it's equal.
I will not promote someone who's just wonderful at their job, but they beat everybody up on the way to delivering it. What’s critical to me is in how they behave in the workplace and the halo effect when you're hiring. You're going to know the feedback of what other folks have given about that individual, positive and negative.
When you go to an interview, especially if it's within your company or structure, you're already bringing in what you've done over the last ten years, and the interview is just kind of the icing on the cake, positively or negatively.
Emotional Intelligence and Leadership
Geffner: Talk to me about whether emotional and social intelligence is important in an agile and innovative environment, how you look at that, what you look for, and how you try to screen for people who can work well with others and have some awareness of self.
White: Emotional and social intelligence to me, are the linchpin of being a great leader.
Recollecting many different bosses I've worked with, the ones that have achieved the most are the ones that have had the happiest climate and workforce are those with social and emotional intelligence. Obviously, they've got the rest of the intelligence to go with it in the space business, but the truly successful ones, [social and emotional intelligence] has been the key.
So how you learn that along the way goes back to how you treat people. It's a tough thing to learn. Self-awareness should start early in folks careers. I always encourage people to find their blind spots and to try to do that earlier in their career. A lot of times they get up to that first management position, and they can't break through, and those blind spots are usually social or emotional intelligence issues.
Geffner: So as an experienced leader, you know that employee engagement levels in this country are very low. In an industry so reliant on technical knowledge, how do you create emotional bonds?
White: That goes back to knowing your people. If I think about what I do that's different than a lot of leaders is I will pick up the phone and call anybody in the organization myself. I don't have my secretary call and schedule a meeting or schedule a phone call. I call, and I do get shunned.
I'll throw in a “how's the baby,” or if they're in DC, and it is a snow day, “hope you're safe.” Those little touches go a long way. I hope they do.
Geffner: If you could speak a little bit to women in leadership and give them a little advice from what you have experienced and observed about other women, what would you say?
White: We’ve come a long way. We're the first ones that really were part of the workforce. It may be because I'm in a military organization, but I think women feel that when they come into a room, they have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts. I don't think that's true.
I think women need to remain proud and not feel like they need to be overly vocal or overly dramatic to make their points. I think sometimes it can undermine women because of the culture of our world and where we are.
Try to maintain life balance. I raised three kids while I was pursuing my career. A lot of women think they can’t or won’t be able to do that, but you can, and it works. My boys are very proud of my career.
Geffner: is there other advice you would like to give to men and women who are looking for careers that have formal leadership roles?
White: I think my best advice is that you need to set and maintain a high bar for your employee's performance, and then be the one that helps them reach that bar. That way they're achieving, and you're the one that's bringing them up to it.
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