| Recently, I changed jobs.
I moved from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where I
had worked for 30 years managing programs, to a newly
created job in Washington, D.C. as the Director of the
Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence (whatever that
means!). This experience has led me to reflect some on
job changes and how to adapt to them.
My first insight is that I have had to restart the process
of developing my credibility. While I am well known
within the Air Force as a program manager and, hopefully,
a capable one, it is clear to me that I have to re-establish
my credibility in this new job. In other words, I cannot
live on my past laurels. How do I get people to listen
to what I have to say? More importantly, how do I get
them to act based upon what I have to say?
Certainly neither my position nor rank is very helpful
in my new role. Lots of people at the Headquarters have
high-sounding positions and high grades, but don't deliver
anything other than words of caution or dissent. Many
view their roles as keeping something bad from happening
rather than helping make something good happen. These
folks have no credibility and the system merely tolerates
their roles as keeping something bad from happening
rather than helping make something good happen.
I have to prove that I can be effective here -- effective
not just in generating new ideas, but also in making
them bear fruit. That's tough. It demands that I don't
promise more than I can deliver which, in turn, infers
that I should know reasonably well what I can deliver.
Right now, I don't know because a lot of it depends
upon my ability to persuade people to my way of thinking.
I do have some confidence in my ability to persuade,
but I know that results will hinge on my skill in getting
people to buy into my agenda for change and to accept
accountability for it. As a program manager, I never
had that challenge. I had (or took) lots of authority
to act unilaterally and my goals seemed clear. Now I
have come to understand how fragile credibility is and
that establishing and maintaining it is continuous.
My second insight has come from pondering over the answer
I give when people ask me how the new job is going.
My stock answer is that "It's too soon to tell." The
real answer is "I don't know." The reason is that I
still haven't grasped what constitutes success in this
new job. Is it as simple as making my bosses happy?
How about pleasing my customers -- program managers
and industry partners? I am not comfortable with these
measures because they imply that making people happy
or comfortable is equivalent to doing the right thing.
My experience tells me otherwise. Approval-seeking behaviors
virtually always produce bad results both because (1)
we never really know what will make others happy and
(2) making others happy often hinges on telling them
what they want or expect to hear. I am still working
on this one and am fairly certain that there is no easy
metric for this.
Third, I am finding to my surprise that my experience
as a program manager is, on balance, a liability in
my new job. The problem is my unconscious reliance on
that experience to know what is right without taking
into account that every situation is different. No matter
how well intended, one-size-fits-all approaches never
work. The reasons are simple. Every situation is unique
and thus demands different approaches -- different from
what may have worked in the past for me or for others.
More importantly, I know the key to success is implementation,
not strategy or approach. There are plenty of OK approaches
to every problem, but the best one will always be the
one that someone can implement well.
For example, one of my first tasks in the new job
was to totally rewrite the Air Force's instruction for
managing acquisition programs, starting with a clean
sheet of paper. I wrote the instruction based upon what
I thought would be some guiding principles for an empowered
manager; it contained no long list of "how-to" instructions.
To my dismay, many in the field have been critical of
the instruction because they don't know how to translate
guiding principles into action. They want more detailed
guidance. What I concluded was that I wrote the instruction
as one that I would want and didn't consider that most
managers in our system view lack of guidance as a problem
and not an opportunity. That's something I mean to change,
but it hasn't happened yet. My experience played too
dominant a role in my thinking.
Finally, I have already confirmed what I previously
thought. This change is healthy for me. It has re-ignited
my passion and given me a new challenge that I never
would have had where I was. Admittedly, it is uncomfortable,
but it is also exciting in a way that my previous job
was not. I had done it so long that my zest and sense
of vitality were gone. In short, I was bored and didn't
even realize it. Three cheers for change!!!
Little is currently the Director of the Kinetic
Energy Boost Office of the Missile Defense Agency.
Before that he was the head of the Air Force's Center
for Acquisition Excellence. He is one of the Air
Force's most seasoned program managers. He entered
the Air Force in 1967 and served on active duty
until 1975. In 1997 he was promoted to the grade