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CHIPS Articles: Vice Adm. Nancy Norton leaves behind a legacy rooted in trust, accountability and continuous improvement

Vice Adm. Nancy Norton leaves behind a legacy rooted in trust, accountability and continuous improvement
By DISA News - February 25, 2021
From February 2018 through February 2021, departing Defense Information Systems Agency Director and Joint Force Headquarters-DoD Information Network Commander, Navy Vice Adm. Nancy A. Norton, led both organizations’ no-fail missions, at DISA to connect and protect the warfighter in cyberspace and at JFHQ-DoDIN to secure, operate and defend the DoDIN.

Under Norton’s successful leadership, JFHQ-DoDIN adopted initiatives that shaped new ways of thinking and operating DoD’s global federated network. She shepherded a dramatic maturation in JFHQ-DoDIN’s mission area, reduced the DoDIN’s attack surface and guaranteed DISA and JFHQ-DoDIN cyberspace superiority in 42 countries. Norton also postured DISA as DoD’s leader for accelerated cloud adoption and as a cloud center of excellence.

These accomplishments came during one of the most trying periods in each organizations’ history, the novel coronavirus pandemic 2019, which was also a critical time for DoD, as strategic, operational and tactical-level efforts in the cyber domain evolved as a coherent continuum.

“We had to change everything. We had to increase capability and capacity, put new tools out, deliver new circuits and teach people how to use the capabilities properly,” Norton said in a Feb. 10 interview about her role at the helm of both organizations. “We did all of that, and we did it from home … We were able to deliver – without hesitation, without pause, we never stopped working we delivered.”

Leading DISA and JFHQ-DODIN while cyberspace was in a constant state of flux required more than adaptability and strong leadership, however. It would require trust, accountability and continuous improvement – the same enduring principles that Norton modeled from day one.

Early on in her tenure, Norton led the charge to update DISA’s organizational mission, vision, values, creed and ethos. As usually happens when dozens of senior leaders get together, editing as a group became a difficult task; therefore, Norton asked DISA Senior Enlisted Leader, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Andrea Gates, who retired in September 2019, to establish an agencywide working group of representatives, across every rank, from junior enlisted through senior officials, to refine these concepts.

The result? The principle of trust would forever be imprinted in Norton’s legacy as the working group built the concept of trust, which they knew she valued most, into every part of what they developed, including the ethos, Trust in DISA: Mission First, People Always.

“I wanted people to recognize that TRUST in DISA: Mission First, People Always is not just a bumper sticker that’s put on the bottom of slides,” she said. “But, our ethos is something that we live every day; and that we are focused on our mission and that we always care about our people. We are always looking at how we empower them to do their mission, to be successful and to be healthy.”

The DISA creed was also rooted in trust: We are a combat support agency. We unite diversity of Talent through Respect, Unity, Service and Teamwork, leading innovation and success for the warfighter in defense of our nation.

Parallel to the principle of trust, DISA’s core values focused on accountability: Duty that Inspires Service and Accountability.

“That actually gave me goosebumps when I first read it because that's exactly how I feel about the work that we do every day,” she added. “It's what makes us come to work. It's what makes us do our best every day. It's what allows us to hold ourselves accountable. That was just such a wonderful day when I saw the work [the working group] had done. I was so proud of the team and so grateful to Chief Gates.”

Norton recognized the importance of the accountability principle and delivering on promises, which meant holding each other accountable as it pertains to how DISA and JFHQ-DODIN operate, deliver and work together with partners.

“We're working with our mission partners every day, day in and day out, through every element; whether that's the Mission Partner Engagement Office, or our field commands with the combatant commanders, or every office who's having an interaction with the services, the combatant commands, the other agencies and understanding that what we want to do is deliver on our promises to improve their capabilities and assure their mission,” said Norton.

These principles — trust and accountability — would continue to guide not only her leadership, but both organizations during the most uncertain times brought on by a pandemic. Members of the workforce and their loved ones interpreted and processed these principles in their own unique ways. For example, late one evening, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, DISA Cyberspace Operations Executive Joseph Wassel told his wife that he perceived the admiral to be a calm leader. His wife corrected him and said, “The admiral is not a calm leader, she is a leader who brings the calm.”

When Norton heard this story, she returned to the principle of trust, “I’ve always believed in empowering people and giving them the opportunity to do the things that they need to do in order to be successful. That became absolutely critical in a time of crisis. With COVID-19, we rapidly sent people home, asked them to telework, and had to then trust them to understand what the priorities were and how they would fulfill their mission … That approach to trusting your people and making sure that they had the tools and the ability to do their job and fulfill what they actually know they need to do, really became important.”

Still, these were not the only principles by which she led. As a young officer, Norton adopted a personal mantra, kulia i ka nu‘u. Its literal translation is “strive to reach the summit.”

Thought to have first originated in 1834 by Hawaiian Queen Esther Kapiolani, those who live by this value pursue continuous improvement and personal excellence. For them, the most satisfying competition is the one with their previous selves because they consider life to be a work in progress. They see hard work as good because hard work employs the energies of striving and reaching higher.

To Norton, kulia i ka nu‘u means one can always strive to be better and continuously improve. This principle, continuous improvement, would turn out to be another marker of her widely praised DISA and JFHQ-DoDIN leadership.

When discussing JFHQ-DoDIN and the workforce she notes, “Cyber offense is easy. Defense is the hard part. And we do that day in and day out … knowing that the scope, scale and complexity of the DoDIN is far beyond what anybody else is dealing with and our responsibility to command, control and synchronize the efforts in order to deliver on mission assurance for DoD components is absolutely critical ... Continue to grow, continue to fight every day, fight the DoDIN and win the day.”

This daily effort to continuously improve, push, strive and win began prior to Norton’s DISA and JFHQ-DoDIN leadership.

“Continuous improvement is so important to me. I've actually had it as one of my core values since I was in O-5 command … I believe that anybody can improve themselves if they deliberately work on it,” she said. “I don't believe that any of us are stuck with the capabilities that we're born with. I think that we can focus our efforts as individuals and as organizations to improve on any weakness, but that requires deliberate action. So thinking about continuous improvement in a feedback loop of understanding where our gaps are, where our deficiencies are, where we need to hold ourselves more accountable, and then improving on that is really valuable.”

The culture Norton created, rooted in trust, accountability and continuous improvement helped to reaffirm what the total force understood, which was that if all personnel continued to uphold these enduring principles past Norton’s command, DISA and JFHQ-DoDIN can continue to make the important strides needed to achieve success in the contested and ever evolving cyber domain.

JFHQ-DODIN commander had very little do with her personal legacy or her leadership. Instead, it had everything to do with the organizations’ Mission First, and People Always focus.

“My greatest accomplishment in my tenure as Commander of JFHQ-DODIN has really been all about the people. It's about putting together the team that can effectively lead and grow the organization and growing the bench, pulling up a lot of people who had been on the sidelines or not understanding the importance of the leadership role that they could play and allowing them to play as leaders,” and she continued, enthusiastically, “The one thing that I am most proud of at DISA for our achievements is that when the nation called on us for a crisis, DISA delivered.”

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Defense Information Systems Agency Director and Joint Force Headquarters-DoD Information Network Commander, Navy Vice Adm. Nancy A. Norton
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