Lessons from a Transition Past By Kevin Billings


US Pentagon, Washington, DC

Last week, my good friend Admiral Jim Stavridis wrote a very thoughtful piece in the Washington Post, “Don’t Brand Everyone Who Served Trump with a Scarlet T.”

Having been one of the small handful of George W. Bush appointees to be asked by the Obama administration to stay on after 20 January 2009, this inspired me to reprise and update a piece I wrote for Government Executive after I left the Pentagon months later, having been dined out by the most amazing group of uniformed and civilian patriots I know.

What follows are the lessons learned by a civilian who, like many that came before me and have since followed, never wore the cloth of our nation but was nonetheless granted an extraordinary opportunity to serve.

So, to everyone who will get the privilege to serve President Joe Biden in the Pentagon—especially those who have never worked in the Department of Defense—congratulations! This will be one of the most challenging jobs you’ve ever had, and if you do it right, one of the most rewarding.

You’re going to be working with the best people in the world. Every day, you’ll get to work with more than a million Type A volunteers, all of whom would give their lives to defend this country.

These exceptional Americans understand you are part of the civilian chain of command. Like you, they have taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. They will treat you with deference, but don’t let it go to your head.

Staff and action officers will facilitate your efforts and pay you genuine respect—perhaps more than you think you deserve or are comfortable with. But keep in mind it’s not about you, it’s about the position you hold and the president who appointed you.

With that in mind, here are some lessons learned. Most of them are obvious—good manners and kindness go a long way—but it’s startling how many folks don’t get it.

Honor the Traditions

People will stand up when you walk in a room. Everyone, it seems, calls you sir or ma’am. Your staff will walk on your left, leaving the honored position on the right—a tradition from medieval times. You have rank, and you will be treated accordingly. You will have peers, subordinates, and superiors. It is imperative that you understand those relationships, and the enormous history and tradition that surround this protocol.

For one of my colleagues from the private sector, informality was the order of the day in his previous life. He wanted to change the culture to reflect what he was comfortable with, thinking it would put people at ease and create a more conducive working environment. All noble goals, but it had the opposite effect. Instead of being more comfortable, people were put in a position of compromising long-held traditions that actually facilitate getting work done.

It is much like doing business in a foreign country. You are expected to appreciate, learn and practice the local customs. You wouldn’t go to Japan without understanding the importance of bowing, or simply take a business card from someone, glance at it and move on to the next conversation. You would bow in a manner similar to your host, and take a business card with two hands, and take an appropriate amount of time to read it and reflect on it. Simple gestures go a long way toward saying you respect the institution and those who serve it.

Be Humble

You work for a lot of people. There is your direct boss, your boss’s boss, and up the chain, the Secretary of Defense and the president. Most of all you work for the American people, which is both great for the ego and humbling. It’s important to reflect on the humbling part, your ego will take care of itself. 

Take Care of Your People

These dedicated professionals are not motivated by the same things as folks in the private sector, and their reward systems are different. Take the time to understand how performance reviews are written and do what you can to make sure the system takes care of the people who are taking care of you. Make the appropriate phone calls on their behalf when they are competing for new job assignments. Work with your senior staff to make sure the right words and stratifications are in the military performance reviews.

Money doesn’t motivate the way it does on the outside. Look for ways within the system to give people time off or other incentives for work well done.

Be aware of the stress level among your staff and down your chain. You’ll want to go at warp speed all the time, especially when you first come in. Do what you can to effectively manage the workload, so people don’t get burned out. While they might be working 18 hours a day for you, they have family at home sometimes more than an hour commute away.

Listen, Listen, Listen

There will be plenty of opportunities to share your wisdom. First, listen. Listen for the nuances of what is being said and by whom. Have a sounding board so you can make sure you heard what you thought you heard.Take the time to ask for others’ thoughts and ideas before making up your mind. Just about everything has already happened at least once in the Pentagon. What seems new to you might not be new at all, so put it in context for your analysis and decisions.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Transparency is a large part of ensuring the success of your organization. Make sure people inside and outside your organization know what you are doing and why. Clearly communicating priorities and expectations is fundamental to managing and leading. Like it or not, speculation is rampant. The antidote to rumor is transparency. The more you communicate and encourage feedback, the less likely you will step into something unpleasant.

Respect the Systems

You are in an organization of hundreds of thousands of people in uniform, civilians and contractors. They manage thousands of programs worth hundreds of billions of dollars. There must be systems and processes to manage it all. Will you find that constraining? Yes. Can they be improved? Yes, and your ideas on how to improve them are important. How you get from here to there will depend on how well you work within the system.

You will be able to change certain things simply because of your throw-weight. But if you want the change to be lasting, it must be written down, vetted, and cemented in policy. This is the really hard work of government. Walking things through what seems to be endless coordination is often what separates lasting policy from the flavor of the month. Cultivate those who understand and can effectively work the system.

Get Out of Your Office

People will come to you when you ask. Your staff will schedule appointments or come in with things for you to sign or read. Walk your spaces. You don’t always need an agenda. It’s amazing what you learn when you get out of your office.

The real business of the Department of Defense is not the inside baseball of the Pentagon; it is supporting the airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines, as well as Coast Guardsmen and merchant mariners in the field. Visit them, listen to them, and bring their thoughts back and share them with your colleagues. The things you see will be invaluable, and the people you meet will make you proud.

Say Thank You

People will do little things for you all the time. Acknowledge them. You might think, “It’s their job, why do I need to thank them?” Well, when you need someone to go the extra mile, you might find it a lot easier if they know you appreciate what they do every day. Recognize exceptional work and effort with notes or pizza, or even champagne, but say thank you for the little things as well.

Admiral William Halsey once said, “There are no great people, just ordinary people called upon to do great things.” When it comes to our men and women in uniform, answering the call to serve them, is a great thing. Congratulations, good luck and thank you.

Billings is CEO of Legation Strategies and is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power. He was appointed by President George W. Bush as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, and later served as Assistant Secretary for Installations, Environment and Logistics. In addition, he currently serves as an Honorary Group Captain in the Royal Air Force and is a member of 601 (County of London) Squadron.