It has been two months since Defense Information Systems Agency’s newest chief of staff took office July 22, but in that time, she’ has been charting a clear path forward for DISA’s diverse workforce.
Laura Williams, a nine-year DISA employee, is tapping into her corporate knowledge and the relationships she has cultivated along the way. She is using existing resources the workforce knows well like the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and the Climate Synergy Group to take the agency’s temperature, but she is also exploring new ways of doing business.
As the chief of staff, Williams directs staff efforts for the agency as it provides effective global command, control and combat support systems for the president, secretary of defense, combatant commanders, joint staff, military departments and combat support agencies.
In her first interview since taking office, Williams said the first eight weeks have already been both exciting and interesting, and she reflects with great pride in how the workforce accomplishes so much … considering the depth and diversity of its mission set.
“There are so many challenges our agency faces on a daily basis,” she said. “When you look at our mission overall, and you think about everything we do as an agency … it’s really amazing how we make so many things happen.”
She said she hopes the team feels the same sense of pride and accomplishment when reflecting on the agency’s combat support role. She also asks the team to remain flexible when facing DISA’s unique challenges.
“We often talk about enabling the warfighter, she said, and I really want each person to understand his or her particular role in that mission. I really do believe most people make that connection. However, for me, understanding somebody, somewhere in an austere environment requires access to our network, requires the capabilities that we deliver — from a command and control perspective or UAV capability to a radio or telephone — anything we provide — the fact that we’re there and providing that capability is somewhat a surreal idea.”
Williams continued, “We may not think about that enough as we go through our day, as we deal with the bureaucratic processes required of us. I think about our culture every day, and as a DoD agency — as a government agency — those processes are in place to make sure we are always doing the right thing. I realize the built in bureaucracy is frustrating, but I also realize we must recognize this fast-paced, ever-changing IT field requires a balance that must be achieved.
“DISA’s mission is fluid and evolving at a daily pace, and our ability to remain flexible in this type of environment really highlights our unique mission profile and requirements. Many government agencies have a more definitive, repeatable mission every day — or very similar year-to-year, whereas we are seeing emerging technologies and trying to implement those at a speed that doesn’t really align with the timelines associated with policies and procedures, and it does challenge our culture a bit. I believe nobody strikes that balance better than DISA.”
Not only is the mission set evolving and ever changing within the agency, so is how the DoD is filling senior leadership positions. Williams is the first civilian to hold the chief of staff position, and she talked about the advantages it brings when she is making long-term goals.
“I really feel the military is taking this route because of ongoing engagements and its commitments around the world,” she said. Although each of the services wants to do everything possible to support all missions within the DoD, they have to prioritize.”
What this means for Williams is she is able to take a different approach to the way she manages her expectations.
“The benefit here is it leads to continuity,” she said. “If you look at the past chiefs of staff, at least in the recent past — you’ll find they served in the position for only a year. At a year, you are really just getting started — just learning the culture. This is such a unique opportunity for me because I know a lot of the people, and I understand a lot about what we do based on my nine years here. I can think about long-term goals and objectives, and not worry as much about, ‘this has to be done within a year.’”
Williams said realizing things just cannot happen in a year — and that projects may take a little longer is okay.
“I can look at things with fresh eyes, learn more as I go, and not work at such a fast pace — unless when necessary — to really make the type of changes we want to see in our agency.”
Armed with her own goals for the agency, Williams is focusing on the people and working toward seeing tangible progress. She is also using the tools her predecessors put in place.
“Before I took this position, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what I really, really want to work on,” she said. “Our culture at DISA has changed over the past nine years, and we’ve become a much more agile organization. As we change because the mission evolves, we also must make sure we are taking care of the people, and that is always going to be my focus — my No. 1 focus.
“As we work to improve our culture, every, single person in this agency needs to be part of that effort. When I sat in my first [Climate Synergy Group meeting] and listened to the people involved in that effort, and I listen to the admiral, I firmly believe [senior leadership] cannot communicate enough about what is going on in our agency. It is a challenge because we are a large agency, there are security concerns, we are geographically separated, and truthfully, some things are just unknowns. Based on technology, based on threats, things are going to change. All of us getting an understanding of what that ‘change environment’ looks like and having broad, open discussions are the types of things we are committed to doing in an effort to make things better for our mission partners and for our people,” Williams said.
Williams, an Air Force veteran, said candid discussions and open mindedness are bringing the most change to DISA.
“When we have ideas for improvement, and we are able to bring those ideas out into the open — into the fresh air — and have a discussion, that is where I see real, tangible progress being made at the agency. My promise to the workforce is to take feedback I receive, whether from the CSG or otherwise, and provide it to senior leadership because I believe we need that candid transparency in our organization.”
Along with transparency, Williams said the agency is making strides by empowering everyone, including new hires and recent college graduates within the agency, to make a difference.
“I really believe that every leader in this agency sees the value our talented workforce does bring, and will bring, to the agency,” she said. “I really believe our talent diversity is one of the things we should be celebrating. We all come from different walks of life, we all have different life experiences, and we all think a little differently about things. I have learned when you can bring all of that diversity together in an environment like this — the sky is the limit.”
Williams continued, “I was talking to a group of young AFCEA professionals at a social event, and I was amazed; I was blown away. They are such go-getters, and facing some of the challenges we see in our own culture — they’re very willing to ask questions like, ‘why do we do it this way,’ and they’re trying to break down barriers to develop new ways of thinking. We can all really grow from a group perspective by listening to individuals and creating a team atmosphere — an agency that all works together. We have to empower everyone in the agency, to use his or her individual thoughts, education and experience to effect change. Sometimes, ‘no’ is the answer, but you know what, sometimes, it is not the answer. We need to be willing to challenge each other and work together to get to ‘yes.’”
Breaking down barriers and working toward yes means Williams’ challenge is to keep the staff excited about coming to work every day. She knows mission creep can sneak into any organization, but building from Norton’s mantra — mission first, people always — Williams continually asks herself what is the agency doing well, and where should DISA be placing its focus?
“The director has done a great job laying down her vison for where the agency is going through her strategic plan and now we need to make those mission sets a priority. We always want to do everything because we have always provided mission partner support, and when we prioritize and focus on those priorities, we can avoid mission creep and complacency.”
Williams said her top priorities are — mission, taking care of the people, executing the strategic plan, and working to create a sense of urgency around DISA’s diverse mission so the workforce does not let bureaucracy gain the upper hand.
“I believe by creating a sense of urgency, the agency continues its forward progress … which is important for both the workforce and the warfighter.”
At the end of the day, Williams’ leadership approach illustrates her willingness to hear new ideas, empower people, celebrate diversity, and walk out the admiral’s core tenant of mission first — people always.
“I’m really humbled by this opportunity, and I wholeheartedly believe that us working together to understand each other better, understanding our individual roles and really appreciating what each individual brings to the table is so important,” she said.” If somehow I can have an influence on those things and make it so we value one another and try harder to help and support each other, I’d be ecstatic.”