How The Secretary Of The US Air Force Builds Innovation Through Diversity And Inclusion

22 November, 2016 / Articles
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This Veterans Day, I thought I’d share this wonderful interview with Deborah James, Secretary of the United States Air Force. I had a chance to sit down with Secretary James, a Duke alumna, during Duke University’s Women’s Weekend, and hear her thoughts on why diversity and inclusion are critical to finding innovative solutions and how they factor into talent development of our U.S. Air Force personnel.

Secretary James is one of our highest ranking civilians overseeing a military service branch.  Under her leadership, she is responsible for more than 660,000 active-duty Airmen and their families and oversight of the Air Force’s $139 billion plus annual budget.  She has crafted a remarkable career of growth and service and in her leadership role, is leading the creation of those opportunities for others.

Sanyin Siang: Can you share with us a little bit about your career prior to becoming the Secretary of the Air Force?

Deborah James: While working in my first job in the Department of the Army, I had a wonderful boss who gave me advice, was a sounding-board, and introduced me to new experiences and opportunities. That led me to my second job, as a staff, for 10 years, on the House Arm Services committee. I later worked in the Pentagon as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs during the Clinton administration, for 5 years, and the defense industry for about 14 years.

So by this point I had seen defense issues from the executive branch, the legislative branch, and now from private industry. And finally, the experience of a lifetime occurred two years ago, when I got a call concerning the possibility of becoming Secretary of the Air Force.

Siang:  You had shared with me how mission, purpose, people, and the mentorship have become your life.  How do you create the same conditions for others so that they are surrounded by mission, purpose, and people?  What role does diversity play into this context?

In my role as Secretary of the Air Force, an important part of my job as a leader, is set the tone from the top by setting expectations, using my position of authority to launch new initiatives, and trying to move the Air Force in a certain direction, particularly when it comes to diversity.

While diversity typically refers to demographics like gender, race, and ethnicity, I am actually talking about much more. Diversity is also diversity of thought, which comes from different experiences in life, different backgrounds, and different educational perspectives. All of this wrapped up together, equals diversity.

And it’s important for the future of our Air Force, to have as much diversity as possible. We have to have a continual in processing of really smart young people into our service, and we need to draw from all of the talents that America has to offer: from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders. Once we get all those fantastic young people in the door, we need to develop them, reward them, and make them feel like they’re growing. If we do it right, we will retain them into our service, and they will become the senior leaders of tomorrow.

Diversity is important because we have to be top notch in innovation. We are a high tech force that is facing enormous challenges around the world. We need people that can handle ambiguity and work on their feet. People that can make split second decisions with life or death consequences.

These young people grow and become leaders, not by just telling them what to do, but by getting them to all march in the same direction and take on a mission.  All of which, comes back to diversity of thought, innovation, and problem solving.

Siang: How do you connect the dots between diversity of thought, innovation and problem solving?

James: I’ll give you an example. If we have five people with the same educational background, say they are all scientists, or humanists, and they are trying to solve a problem, but have similar experience, education and career track, chances are they are going to have only one approach to that problem. That approach may or may not work in today’s 21st century, given the complex nature of the problems we face.

However if we have people from different backgrounds, experiences, education and career tracks, say a pilot, a cyber-expert, and someone who understands space and how it applies to the military, they’ll probably come up with several different approaches and be able to solve that same problem.

Siang: Conversations about mentorship often shift to the creation of formal programs, or are focused on how to find mentors. But I believe cultivating a mentoring mindset is critical also for organizational continuity; it’s the sharing of values, perspectives, skillsets, and professional norms. What makes for an effective mentor and how do you cultivate a heart for mentorship throughout the organization?

James: Throughout my life I think I’ve had about five different mentors, but none of them came from a formal program. My mentors have come from people I have seen in the environment whom I admire, and whose path I may want to emulate one day. Connecting is as easy as approaching somebody, introducing yourself, explaining what you’re interested in, and asking if they’d be willing to have coffee and talk about their story.

I think this works with about 90% of people, who are willing to tell their story and help others who are trying to come along in their footsteps. You just need to have the nerve to go up to somebody and ask.

But just because you’re successful, doesn’t mean you’ll be a good mentor. A good mentor has to be willing to give their time, to be a good listener and hear the other person’s story and goals. And finally, a good mentor should be willing to use their position of authority to introduce the other person to new experiences, people and opportunities.

A good mentor knows their own career field and is able to provide appropriate advice so the mentee is thinking about the right possibilities.

My mentors have opened doors for me, which doesn’t guarantee I get the next job, but they made that connection and gave me opportunities I may not have had on my own.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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