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CHIPS Articles: Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel — Encouraging Innovation, Empowerment, Trust and Collaboration

Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel — Encouraging Innovation, Empowerment, Trust and Collaboration
Chief, Change and Learning Strategist, U.S. Transportation Command
By CHIPS Magazine - July-September 2013
Brig. Gen. John E. Michel is Chief, Change and Learning Strategist, U.S. Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, Ill. He is responsible for DoD Transportation Strategy across the entire Joint Deployment and Distribution Enterprise. This includes transportation infrastructure, long-range programs, future requirements, coalition integration and mobility, as well as relationships with transportation industry partners.

Michel responded to questions in writing in early May.

Q: Can you talk about your job as the Chief, Change and Learning Strategist and the USTRANSCOM mission?

A: My responsibilities for USTRANSCOM are to develop and guide efforts to ensure our command’s efforts remain synchronized with national political and military priorities. At the same time, I’ve been privileged to help devise the strategic learning tools and objectives we need to ensure our people, our processes and our organizational structures are properly positioned to deliver on our command’s no-fail mission of providing the mobility capability and strategic enablers underpinning our nation’s ability to project power and influence anywhere, anytime.

Q: I understand that USTRANSCOM Commander Gen. William M. Fraser III laid out a strategic five-year plan for smart change in 2012. Can you talk about the plan’s objectives and desired outcomes?

A: USTRANSCOM provides our nation’s leaders the extraordinary ability to project national power and influence anywhere, at any time — a unique, asymmetrical advantage and a national treasure.

But with the Defense Department facing a decreasing budget and the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, we had to take a hard look at how we do business. In January 2012, General Fraser gave us his vision for future operations and asked the USTRANSCOM team to develop major objectives to help the command achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness. The result is the USTRANSCOM Strategy, the most comprehensive and collaborative effort to address USTRANSCOM’s future operating environment in the command’s 25-year history. The plan focuses our efforts in four areas:

  • Preserve readiness capability by ensuring the nation has access to necessary commercial and organic/military capability. This is our top focus area. We are in a “no-fail” business. We are the “secret sauce” in the success of the commanders we support.
  • Achieve IT management excellence to guarantee systems enhance decision-making and can operate in a contested cyber domain. It’s true we are all awash in data and need the best and most timely information to make smart choices.
  • Align resources and processes for mission success to make certain USTRANSCOM continues to provide the most effective world-class transportation services and enabling capabilities as efficiently as possible.
  • We have had many years of using the same processes and structures to do business but this is likely to change in the future. This is an internal command focus that will help us reinvigorate our corporate governance processes.
  • Develop customer-focused professionals by adapting professional development programs and shaping a culture to emphasize and improve our staff’s ability to satisfy customer requirements.

Q: How have you applied your philosophy about change to your organization? How does an organization create a culture of learning and change? Does information technology have a role to play?

A: It is easy to operate well below our potential. Not because we aren’t smart enough, creative enough, or capable enough. But simply because we allow other people’s ideas and opinions convince us to go with the flow rather than step out in a new, more empowering direction. This insidious tendency to adopt a small view of our potential drives us to compartmentalize our lives. In other words, it drives us into a “box” of our own making — a box that convinces us to settle for giving less than our best to whatever we are doing. It speaks to the self-justifying thoughts and feelings that convince us mediocrity is an acceptable alternative to exploring new horizons in pursuit of our individual and organizational goals and objectives.

I believe the best leaders and most effective organizations intentionally help people rediscover all they are capable of being and doing. This is why USTRANSCOM is investing so much energy in the area of cultural transformation, teaching such programs as Emotional Intelligence, Effective Communication and Critical Thinking. We understand we are a customer-centric organization, we exist to serve others, and as such, we need to make intentional investments in training that helps people raise the bar on their personal and professional performance.

This process of intentional development of the skills, attitudes and behaviors that we value at USTRANSCOM, specifically, innovation, empowerment, trust and collaboration, are tangible manifestations of our commitment to being a strategic learning organization. And although technology certainly is a key enabler of our efforts, especially in an area such as knowledge management, it is insufficient in itself. Helping our people develop new skills that make them better people demands a personal touch.

Q: How would an organization as large as the Defense Department apply the tenets of your change philosophy? Are the concepts compatible with the culture and mission of DoD which is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country?

A: Great question! Let me answer the second part first and then provide you some tangible examples of what the department can do. Regarding if the concepts are compatible with our culture and mission, I would unequivocally say yes. Everything I talk about derives largely from the realm of positive psychology, which is the scientific study of optimal human functioning. In simplest terms, positive psychology is a science that promotes positively oriented attitudes and actions that enable individuals and organizations to be more disciplined and deliberate in achieving desired outcomes. It’s worth noting this is the very same concept both the Army and Air Force have adopted as the cornerstone of their efforts to equip members with a heightened sense of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resilience.

As for how these ideas can be applied, three specific things come to mind. First, choose to adopt an abundance orientation instead of a deficit orientation. In other words, choose to act on opportunities instead of just tackling problems. By intentionally taking a more proactive, positive approach, you make it clear to those around you that you’re more interested in building on the best of what could be rather than fixating on doing only the minimum to get by. This builds a sense of positive expectancy.

Second, keep learning and growing. For all the talk about the value of continual learning, it has been my experience federal agencies don’t do as well as the commercial sector in leveraging previous lessons learned, implementing best practices and assimilating the latest research on how to promote positive change in our individual and collective surroundings. This creates a sense of increased confidence.

Third, don’t accept easy, one-size-fits-all solutions. Be willing to attempt different approaches; value diverse perspectives; and bring in experts as advisers, not drivers. What I mean is, most people fail in promoting positive change because they fail to recognize change that sticks must be an inside job…it has to be manifest from within the organization and not be driven from outside. People need to buy-in and own the results. I would add this is the single biggest reason enduring cultural change efforts fail … people never buy-in to something they didn’t help co-create.

Allowing people to experiment with out-of-the-box solutions unleashes greater creativity and innovation.

Innovation is at the heart of what makes individuals and organizations flourish and thrive, and I think we need to do everything in our power to unleash its positive potential in our varied spheres of influence. Of course, innovation is nothing new for America. Those who left the comfort of the old world in search of a new way of living provide us the earliest glimpse of the innovative spirit of this great nation. In fact, no matter where you look in our country’s timeline, America has followed the same, repeatable pattern: We envision how things could be better and then we get busy making that hope-filled new reality come true. But innovation will not happen by accident … it must be intentional. Someone has to choose to get busy doing something to transform today’s reality into tomorrow’s possibility. And that someone is what we routinely call a leader.

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying as some form of “I’m okay — you’re okay” mushiness. The leadership orientation I’m referring to isn’t about trying to please, pamper or pacify those around us — quite the contrary actually. What I’m suggesting is that true innovation, creativity and growth are unleashed only after people’s imaginations are activated. This will not happen by accident. As leaders, we have to intentionally take into account how others think and feel and engage them in the process of promoting positive change. And the first tangible step in doing so is demonstrating to your people you are willing to go first, to lead the way in tackling the challenges before you, setting an example worth emulating in the process.

The late newspaper commentator Walter Lippmann once said, “Leadership properly executed is not a consensus-building exercise but an exercise in outgoing concern to others.” When people both think and feel as though you have their best interests at heart; when they feel genuinely cared for; when they think you truly value them for what they have to offer; then you are the type of leader they will enthusiastically follow — and when that occurs, they will not hold back in sharing their best effort and ideas … allowing your organization to make the leap from mediocre to good and maybe one day, even great!

Q: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

A: When those of us serving in federal agencies, or anywhere else for that matter, allow mediocrity to influence our business, it clouds our thinking and hinders our actions. It cultivates doubt for the future, stifles forward motion, and rationalizes away opportunities to innovate, stretch and grow. In simplest terms, allowing a mediocre me mindset to continue unchecked paralyzes us in place. It convinces us to abdicate responsibility for taking the initiative to promote the positive change we want to see occur in our surroundings. All but guaranteeing we will continue to fall short of achieving all we are capable of achieving, both individually and collectively.

USTRANSCOM is a unified, functional combatant command which provides support to the eight other U.S. combatant commands, the military services, defense agencies and other government organizations.

Vision — The transportation and enabling capability provider of choice.

Mission — USTRANSCOM provides full-spectrum global mobility solutions and related enabling capabilities for supported customers' requirements in peace and war.

Strategy“Our Story 2013-2017”

Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel is Chief, Change and Learning Strategist, U.S. Transportation Command
Gen. William M. Fraser III, commander, U.S. Transportation Command, checks for current , intelligence-related events March 8 on his electronic tablet. Photo by Bob Fehringer/USTRANSCOM/PA.
Air Force Brig. Gen. John Michel, change and learning strategy, U.S. Transportation Command, reviews notes before recording a video about the new command strategy. This video, as well as others from individuals throughout the command, is available on Photo by Bob Fehringer/USTRANSCOM/PA.
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