Multifaceted Approach Taken to Developing Leaders in the Defense Industry

By Stephenie Overman Aug 4, 2010

Developing leaders in the defense arena requires addressing the needs and demands of a workforce that is not only a mix of novice and experienced employees, but civilian and military personnel.

How this is being handled was the subject of the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement’s HR summit, held July 26-28, 2010, in Vienna, Va.

The 4,000-member Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) workforce is 95 percent civilian, but NAVSEA is “run by military structure,” said Chief Learning Officer Chris Zubof, who is responsible for training and developing the workforce that builds and maintains the U.S. Navy’s fleet. “One of our challenges is that we need to understand the culture of each other, civilian and military.”

“The number one priority for us now is knowledge transfer. Take a man or woman with 30 years of experience: How do we bottle and capture what they know? ... If the economic crisis had not occurred we would have had the silver tsunami. But [Boomers] will leave, and we will have to train people to replace them,” he said.

That influx of young people means that “classroom training in the 21st century will not be the end all and be all. These young people are digital natives who have lived with computers and technology almost from infancy,” Zubof noted.

More and more training and development is being delivered online, he said, because more and more employees are comfortable with it and because “we need to deliver learning on a when-needed basis.”

Development and retention starts with effective onboarding, according to Zubof. “Once we have shaken hands on the deal, we immediately begin communicating with these folks and get them comfortable in our organization. For the first two days, they’re mine.”

Prepping, Training Growing Intelligence Community

The workforce of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has become both larger and younger since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“After 9-11 the DIA doubled in size,” growing to 9,800 employees by 2009, said Matthew Peters, DIA’s chief learning officer. What was once an experienced workforce with an average age of about 50 is now made up more of young analysts, “many right out of college with little background in intelligence.”

The agency has learned to see leadership “as a change driver,” Peters said, and offers a tiered-program system targeted at specific career development stages.

The agency starts with Tomorrow’s Intelligence Professionals program, which Peters said “inoculates” employees; that is, gives them an understanding of DIA’s role within the U.S. Department of Defense and the intelligence community.

The agency offers a six-week-long introductory program on leadership and supervisory skills as well a “nuts and bolts [program about] how do you write [performance] appraisals? How do you do the job of front-line supervisor?”

DIA also has a program dedicated to high potential employees and a Great Leaders, Great Culture program for senior executives, “the folks who are changing the culture,” Peters said. “We ask them, ‘What don’t you like about DIA, and what are you going to do about it?’ ”

DIA uses immersive techniques, including classroom games, role playing and social networks. “Instead of getting preached to,” Peters said there is “a lot of coaching, especially for the senior ranks and high potentials. There are many action learning projects in which participants actually try things and practice and fail.

“We pull participants out of their comfort zones to explore themselves, their personal values, beliefs and behaviors,” Peters said. “We engage participants to teach themselves through discovery and sharing. They pick up tools to put in their tool box and try.”

For civilian workers, he said that “if you haven’t taken the courses, you can’t advance. If you fail the course, you can actually lose your job and leave the agency.”

Although not mandatory for members of the military, much of the demand for programs has come from retired military to help them adjust to “a different way of looking at leadership,” he said.

Air Force Focuses on Technical Expertise

Air University at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., offers all levels of professional military education, including degree granting and professional continuing education for officers, enlisted and civilian personnel throughout their careers.

Command Chief Master Sergeant Brye McMillon is in charge of seeing that enlisted members of the service are trained in more than 250 technical specialties.

“I’m producing technical experts,” said McMillon. “You may say we’re not creating leaders, but it depends on what you’re trying to develop a leader to do. In the Air Force the focus is on technical expertise. The person needs to be leader in [his/her] specialty.”

The Air Force system relies on building expertise and leadership through a variety of work assignments. “Probably the most critical piece is the experience piece. A computer-based system identifies your skill set, skill level and how long you have been where you are. The next person up gets the next job, McMillon explained. “Our program is based on fairness and equity, providing the right things to the right qualified people.”

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer and author of Next-Generation Wellness at Work (Praeger, 2009).


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