Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success as a Leader
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Episode 162 Transcript:
This episode is brought to you by business advancement incorporated, enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success on the web at businessadvance.com. And now here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated, and sitting right across from me, as always, is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi there, Pam. It’s always a pleasure to join you for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. And as always, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves and their companies to their next level of game changing innovation, growth, and success.
Now Pam, as we often discuss, being a visionary leader — a person that we call a Growth Igniter — requires not only having a vision, it also requires igniting and sustaining the momentum it takes to bring those big dreams to life.
Pam Harper: The challenge is that it’s not a linear journey from where you are to where you want to be.
Scott Harper: Yeah, that’s true.
Pam Harper: Right? Life happens and the world keeps changing, but the leaders who are the most successful keep focused on their vision and find new opportunities for growth no matter what else is happening.
Pam Harper: Now. Someone who exemplifies this growth igniter talent is Deborah Lee James, who has a three decade track record of leading, transforming and driving lasting results in both the legislative and executive branches of government. Debbie currently serves on the board of directors of public, private and not for profit entities. She’s an advisor and speaker on national security business and leadership topics.
Through January, 2017, Debbie served as the 23rd secretary of the United States Air Force with a responsibility for 660,000 military and civilian personnel and a budget of nearly $140 billion. Prior to that role, she served as president of SAIC’s Technical and Engineering sector, a $2 billion, 8,700 person enterprise. She’s recently published a book on leadership based on her life and professional work experience titled Aim High: Chart Your Course For Success. And you can read more about her by going to Growth Igniters Radio, episode 162.
Debbie, welcome to Growth Igniters Radio.
Deborah James: Thanks so much, Pam. It’s great to be with you and Scott.
Pam Harper: This book of yours is fascinating. I’ve really appreciated the way that you’ve brought your experiences to life. So, what drove you to write this book?
Deborah James: I really had two reasons for writing the book. First of all, in my lifetime, I have been a great beneficiary of mentors. I’m a believer in mentorship. I try to pay it forward as much as possible. So that’s reason number one. And reason number two is I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my life, both personally and professionally. And through it all, I believe I developed over the course of decades a certain formula for realizing success and bouncing back after turmoil, or trauma, or failure. And so I wanted to, first of all, be able to share that formula with others. And secondly, it’s a way that I was able to feel like I am mentoring people on a much broader scale.
Scott Harper: Debbie, can you tell us a little bit about how the philosophy of Aim High has guided your own choices and career path?
Deborah James: First of all, I would tell you that I borrowed the phrase “Aim High” in part from the US Air Force, where I’m so honored to have served as the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force. Their tagline is “Aim High, Fly, Fight and Win.” To me, Aim High means swing for the fences. It means dream big and be part of something big. And I believe, really, as a young child, I always had that inherent desire to be part of something bigger than myself. So, I would say that part of my philosophy came naturally to me.
Another part that came naturally to me was this idea that you’ve got to be positive and upbeat in your thinking, that is true as a leader, but it is also true starting out in your career when you are an individual contributor. Let’s face it, nobody likes a “Debbie Downer,” so positivity is important. I think that also came naturally mostly from negative experiences that I had as a child and I didn’t want to replicate.
And then the last part that was natural was I always wanted to have a full life beyond work. I always wanted to have a family. I wanted to be a mother, I wanted to have hobbies. Eventually, at least when the children got older, I think a full life is important. The rest of the Aim High philosophy came to me through trial and error, trying things. Some things worked, other things didn’t, and they represent more of my life’s reflections as I look back.
Pam Harper: What was fascinating to me is how you had so many opportunities that you managed to find. I mean, they didn’t just drop in your lap. You found them.
Deborah James: Well that’s true. Some of them were thrust upon me because an original dream didn’t work out. Others, I specifically navigated, I planned, I focused on it through my mentors, my network and so on. And I went for it. I swung for the fences so to speak. So, it really gets to this zigzag philosophy that I’ve always believed in, that you have to have a plan A, where you want to go in life and build toward that. But at the same time you have to be open to new opportunities. Again, they could be thrust upon you or you could seize them as you see them in a more affirmative fashion. But Plan B can be every bit as good, if not better than plan A if you open your eyes and take a risk.
Pam Harper: So, what would you say then is the most valuable leadership lesson you’ve learned about applying the Aim High philosophy, especially when you’re dealing with the unprecedented high stakes situations?
Deborah James: If I had to boil it down to one lesson learned is that whether you are the leader of a government organization, or a for profit company, or a nonprofit company, you need to double down on people issues. Strategy is important, technology is important, process is important. Don’t get me wrong, all of these things are important. But none of it is as important as the people issues, and getting the culture right, and getting people inspired, and heading in the direction that you, as the leader, are directing. So people are number one with me; they have been number one in all of my leadership capacities. I state that always verbally, it’s in all of my written communications, and I try to put my money where my mouth is. It’s also the way I have invested as a leader.
Scott Harper: Absolutely. No matter how big or small your operation is, even if it’s a one person, people do the stuff. If the strategy is great, people do it. If they don’t want to do it, it doesn’t happen. And so we’re absolutely online with that philosophy.
Pam Harper: I think another thing that I found particularly impactful was that here you were, you were leading this incredible organization. You had all kinds of responsibilities and accountabilities, and the security of our country was at stake in a lot of what you were doing, and helping people to come together. Such a diverse organization, and we’ll talk about this later. Do you see Aim High bringing people together when you’re talking about such high stakes?
Deborah James: I would like to think that the answer is yes, Pam. I do think the overall philosophy brings people together, and I have always been a woman operating in a man’s world. I’ve always been different in some way than most of the people around the table with me, and many people may view Aim High as a women’s leadership book and I’m proud if that is the way it is viewed, but I think it’s more of a life leadership book. I think it works for both men and women.
And the philosophies that are contained therein, again, I believe work for different types of people from different backgrounds. And let’s face it, every company, every government organization nowadays should be, if they’re not already, focused on diversity, and inclusion, and getting the best people to the table within their workforce, retaining them, developing them, because from that diversity inclusion springs the greatest innovation that we can produce as a country.
Pam Harper: Yes. So we’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’re going to speak more with Deborah Lee James, 23rd Secretary of the Air Force and author of Aim High. And we’re going to dig deeper into how she’s been able to lead such a diverse organization. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper — brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. We focus on enabling visionary leaders to ignite, sustain and boost the momentum it takes for game changing results. On the web at businessadvance.com.
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper — that’s me — and Scott Harper. Today, Scott and I are speaking with Deborah Lee James, 23rd Secretary of the Air Force and author of Aim High, about what it takes to succeed as a leader, especially under some of the most challenging and unprecedented circumstances. Debbie, how can people find out more about you and your book?
Deborah James: Well. I have a website, which is www.DeborahLeeJames.com. There is a tab there about the book as well as more about me and more about my other work, which involves being an advisor, being a board member for public and private companies, and also as a public speaker, not only on leadership but on national security and defense issues generally. That, of course, has been the bulk of my life’s work and has been my passion for decades.
Pam Harper: Okay; and you can also see Debbie’s bio and other resources for this conversation by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 162.
Before the break, we were talking about the importance of being able to lead and all of the lessons that you’ve learned. You’ve kind of compiled them. And one of the things that you talked about in the book was something called BLUF, which is an acronym. So why don’t we start with having you explain what exactly the BLUF is?
Deborah James: And it is not bluffing in poker or another form of [crosstalk 00:12:17] game either.
Pam Harper: B-L-U-F, right?
Deborah James: Right. It is an acronym which stands for Bottom Line Up Front. And I learned it just about on my very first day in the Pentagon. The Pentagon of course is a world filled with acronyms. The different military services have different acronyms, and you have to be a quick study and learn at least most of these acronyms pretty quickly. The other thing I’ve found out on day one was there is no issue, big or small, that can’t be covered by a very lengthy PowerPoint briefing. So, PowerPoint rules the world of the Pentagon.
Deborah James: And what made these lengthy briefings palatable for me was that every one of them would start with the Bottom-Line Up Front, or the BLUF. So these were the top takeaways of the briefing, so that you would have them in mind early on, and then the briefing would continue and there’d be many proof points to illustrate these takeaways. And then at the very end, there would be a repetition of these bottom-line points.
Scott Harper: So, tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.
Deborah James: Precisely. And so, I tried to structure my book according to my own personal BLUF, or Bottom Line Up Front.
Pam Harper: It works. So let’s apply it; I want to go deeper into the zigzag, because it’s a really interesting way to put your philosophy and your story. Tell us a little bit about how it helped you to lead through a tough challenge, well, as Secretary of the Air Force.
Deborah James: The zigzag is my way of saying that life doesn’t always turn out as you expect, and it throws you curve balls. Some of those curve balls can be positive and others can be negative. It doesn’t so much matter what curve ball you’re thrown. It’s how you react, how you catch it, how you bounce back if you drop it. So when I was Secretary of the Air Force, I had a plan on day one of what I was going to be working on. But three weeks into my tenure as Secretary of the Air Force, I had a major curve ball came my way, which was related to the nuclear enterprise. And so literally, I had my plan A and I had to rip it up because the zigzag was upon me, and I needed to now focus on what was a crisis in the nuclear enterprise.
And after all, let’s face it, nuclear in Washington is very serious matter as it is all over the country. You have got to drop everything and focus, which is what I did. And that was my top focus for probably six months until the crisis abated. And I’d like to look back on that experience, and because of the focus, and because of the teamwork that went into that as the number one issue that was of concern to us at the time, that a lot of good came out of that original bad.
Pam Harper: So, when you go through a zigzag, of course, things are not just as you left them, you’re in a different place as well, right?
Deborah James: That’s right. You have to, in effect, at a minimum, set aside your plan A and be able to focus your attention, your time, your calendar, your teamwork on what has now become your plan B. So for me, that meant I literally ripped up a travel schedule that I was intending to pursue for my first six months as Secretary of the Air Force.
I was going to be tracking on certain themes during that first six months. Well, that shifted as well. And so, calendars got cleared, and team members got redirected to focus on something else. It was literally, if I can borrow a naval expression, all hands on deck, focusing on this one thing above all others, it became the new plan A.
Scott Harper: So, when you are dealing with these twists and turns and ups and downs, and having to adapt, and having to change, how do you keep focused? What keeps your eye on the ultimate goal?
Deborah James: Well, it takes intentionality. It takes working your own calendar. It takes calling meetings on a regular basis to make sure that the team remains focused on what the new plan A has become. For me, whenever there is a problem or a challenge, there’s really a five-part process to either solve it or advance the ball in some ways, so that you leave behind a better situation than the one that you encountered.
And that five-part process very simply is Investigate: get your facts, know how quickly you must act. Next comes Communicate: you need to build the case for action with your team and perhaps an even larger audience. The third element is Activate: okay, now that we know the facts and we have built the case for action, what are we going to do differently? What are our initiatives? Next comes Iterate: because whatever new initiatives you put in place, you probably won’t get it right from the very beginning. You’re going to have to change or negotiate. Then, finally, is Follow-up: relentless follow-up is so crucial, particularly if you are trying to change things in a fundamental way.
So this is exactly what we did with the crisis and the nuclear enterprise and it’s the way I tried to pursue all of my endeavors as Secretary of the Air Force.
Scott Harper: And this really comes down to, or back to, one of your other key elements of success, which is inspiring and leading teams. As you said, it’s all done through people. So, tell us a little bit more about how you role modeled ethical behavior during a crisis.
Deborah James: Well, the first thing I try to always role model during a crisis, or tension, or a period of great change, is what I call speak up and listen deeply. So this is the power of communications. People need to hear from their leaders that you need to build that case for action. You need to be able to put it into plain English that will not only move an individual from the standpoint of data and facts, but will also move them from the heart. Why is this important? Why should we be making this change? Or why does this matter to me?
And so that’s the power of perhaps your verbal communications. But the other very, very important part of communications is listening. Part of any investigate phase for me is not only receiving briefings, for example, from top leaders, but also doing focus groups or getting a sense of what other stakeholders at lower levels believe. And so back to the nuclear enterprise, I not only spoke to some of the top leaders at the bases where these irregularities had occurred, but I then dismissed those top leaders. And instead, I met with groups of younger airmen who were the front line workers to find out from them what exactly is going on? And what are the dynamics? And what is the culture like here? And those were invaluable pieces of information for me. So, speak up and listen deeply think is really, really an important part of being able to inspire and lead teams.
Pam Harper: And one of the things that came across, especially in your book, was that people could see that you were exemplifying, so that you weren’t asking something of others that you weren’t willing to do yourself.
Deborah James: That’s true. And I think that also goes to another key lesson learned for me. And that is the importance of always role modeling ethical behavior. Because I think most people are smart enough, and astute enough, that they can smell a phony about a mile away. You can simply get a sense of it. And so you’ve got to be prepared as a leader, or an individual contributor, I say this is not just leadership. You have to be prepared to walk the talk.
And as you rise up through the leadership chain, in government or in the private sector, this is where I think people get tempted. They get tempted to start assuming that they’re entitled to perhaps more than they are. They get lost a little bit in the trappings of office. Perhaps they lose authenticity if they even had authenticity to begin with. I think this is crucial to be able to not have this happen to you, to navigate through it, and to keep your own grounding as a person, so that you can identify with the people that you lead and not trip yourself up through an ethical violation of some sort.
Pam Harper: This is so true, and it applies no matter where you are, whether it’s the Air Force Or whether you’re sitting as part of the top leadership team of a private company.
Deborah James: Right. And as a corporate director now, I will tell you that my boards, the boards that I am sitting upon, we spend a lot of time on culture issues, which of course involves ethics. It involves whether or not the company and the people who serve the company are exemplifying that those high ethical standards, and whether or not there is a culture of leaders accepting that people may disagree, they may speak up, they may take a different point of view. And if those people see something that worries them, that there are avenues to report those worries without a fear of retribution of some sorts.
there are lots of questions that I now ask as a director and heaven knows, when I was an operator and a business unit leader in the private sector, I had a front row seat to a major scandal within my company, and I could see firsthand the destruction that a few bad apples could wreak for the rest of thousands of people in the company and the reputation of that company if ethical procedures are not followed.
Pam Harper: This goes to the heart of another aspect that you talk about, which is getting things done. And I was thinking; you know, right now you were talking about how to hold people accountable and there are people who will say, “Well, I can’t be accountable, because I’m at the top of the company. I can’t know what’s going on.” But it sounds like you do have a way to hold people accountable even when you’re not in control technically.
Deborah James: I always advise people, when you’re taking on a challenge or trying to solve a problem, and yet you don’t have full control over all the aspects of the challenge or the problem. I advise, number one, focus on what you do control as your top priority because you may not control everything but most assuredly you control some things. And number two in those areas that you don’t control, be a vocal advocate for change within your organization.
Deborah James: And my best example that I can offer you on this is what I call the stop doing stuff campaign, which I ran both as an industry leader and I ran it when I was Secretary of the Air Force. And what I mean by this is stop doing stuff in both corporate America and in the government. There are many rules and regulations, and additional trainings, and additional responsibilities that employees have accrued over time, which do not directly relate to the specific nature of their training or their work.
Deborah James: These are all the extra things that suck up time and energy and attention. And for the most part they are dissatisfiers. They certainly were dissatisfiers for airmen in the Air Force. And I know for a fact they were in industry as well. And so in both roles, we ran a process which was designed to catalog what are these various rules, requirements, regulations, and which of these have we done to ourselves because of Air Force regulations or because of the company’s own ideas versus what is law. If it was law, that was something we became advocates for change. But we of course obeyed the law and we followed those rules unless and until we got them changed.
Deborah James: But when it came to things that we had done to ourselves, that is where we stripped a lot of it away and we streamlined. And that is a major satisfier for employees, when they feel freed up from the so-called red tape, and all of these additional duties and trainings which may not be adding full value.
Pam Harper: So there’s what to do, and then there’s what not to do.
Deborah James: Exactly.
Pam Harper: And we’re going to take another quick break. When we come back, Scott and I will speak more with Debbie Lee James, 23rd Secretary of the Air Force, an author of Aim High about immediately useful ideas for mentoring others. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated and we focus on enabling visionary leaders to dramatically increase momentum for game changing results. We’re on the web at businessadvance.com.
Now, Pam, we’ve been talking a lot about what it takes to succeed as a leader, especially under some of the more challenging circumstances you can face, and what Debbie has been talking about, one of the things that really strikes us is the ability to draw others into critical conversations about tough issues. Sometimes, however, this can be very difficult, challenging and it can lead to elephants in the room.
Pam Harper: These are the issues that everyone knows are there, but nobody wants to fix. But leaving these issues unaddressed not only contributes to the us and them divisions, it can also lead to real financial, ethical and legal risks for your company. So how can you begin to address this dilemma? Find out by downloading and reading our Harper Report, How to Take Control of the Elephants in the Room.
Scott Harper: So learn more now by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, select episode 162 and scroll down to the resources section. Click on the link to download How to Take Control of Elephants in the Room, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been speaking with Deborah Lee James, 23rd Secretary of the Air Force and author of Aim High about what it takes to navigate the journey of success as a leader, especially under some of the most challenging circumstances. Debbie, how can people find out more about you, your book Aim High and your speaking engagements?
Deborah James: The best way to do that, Pam, is my website, which is www.DeborahLeeJames.com. There’s a lot of information about me, the book and speaking engagements there. I’m also on LinkedIn. You can follow me on Twitter at @ HONDeborahJames; thath “HON” for honerable.
Pam Harper: Okay. And again, you can see Debbie’s bio and other resources for this conversation by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 162 and scrolling down to resources.
So, Debbie, this is the part of our podcast where we talk about the immediately useful next steps to take us forward. And in this case, it would be about what leaders can do to mentor others so that they can reach their highest potential.
Deborah James: Well, I would recommend as a first step, if you’re not already comfortable with your communication style, you need to look for ways to kick it up a notch and become comfortable and do more of it. So, it’s so important that a leader be able to bring everyone in their organization along on the change journey. And that requires that the leader be transparent, communicate the vision of where the company or the organization is going, and then be able to translate how each individual, or at least each individual section, sector within the company to include the functional teams, how they are contributing to the important change of the whole, and how they too are part of something big.
The second one that a leader can take, particularly if their company or their organization is going through a lot of change, is the lesson learned. I call learn, evolve, reinvent. And that is the importance of continual learning in all of our lives. So if the leader demonstrates that by taking on some new learning, herself or himself, that gives permission for others to do the same, and encouragement for others to do the same. If he or she also will invest more in a development of the people within the company. That’s another excellent way to demonstrate, learn, evolve, reinvent.
Pam Harper: So what you’re talking about is the more, again, that you can exemplify the very things that you’re saying other people should do by continuously learning, by helping people to understand why decisions are being made in a certain way and what you’re trying to accomplish. It sounds like that’s a big part of it.
Deborah James: Very much so.
Pam Harper: So, I want to go back to an immediately useful tip, maybe, for navigating what you called the zigzag as a leader of a company or organization. What could somebody do if they want to get more comfortable with that zigzag?
Deborah James: We talked some, Pam, earlier about the importance of a role modeling ethical behavior. Once again, I think that is so important that the leader exemplifies that she or he has those high ethics. You can’t expect others to have those high ethics if you don’t. An immediately useful tip here would be not only to state the importance of ethics, not only to have the ethical programs in place, but to show authenticity in yourself to share stories of your own ups and downs, maybe your own challenges that you’ve seen in your life regarding ethical behavior.
And then secondly is leadership by walking around. Make sure that you get out and you talk to people other than your immediate direct reports. So, this would be tantamount to me talking to not only the leaders but the young airmen at these bases, and do it in a way that gives permission for others to speak up and really speak truth to power if it comes to that.
Scott Harper: What you’re talking about also engages people emotionally, which creates greater commitment to your shared values.
Deborah James: Absolutely. And people very much need to feel that they are heard. That doesn’t mean that you will agree with them at all times, but they need to feel heard and they need to feel appreciated. Listening to a person and what they’re contributing to the company and providing some sort of a positive feedback or gratitude. This speaks volumes for people.
Pam Harper: Debbie, what happens if somebody is not comfortable walking around? Could they be a good leader?
Deborah James: I think you can be a good leader, but perhaps you need to find other ways to make sure that you’re hearing from some group other than your direct reports.
Scott Harper: So, this sounds like a third immediately useful tip for getting things done in an organization without micromanaging.
Deborah James: Right. Well, in addition to what we’ve already talked to, I would just say, just as a reminder, top leaders are supposed to be focused on strategy, picking the next generation of talent, the communications, selling whatever their organization or their company is doing. These are the types of things that you’re supposed to be engaged in. Where leaders invest their time really does reflect their priorities. So the tip I would offer here is it’s not micromanaging to simply focus your calendar on those areas that are most important. This is where your calendar ought to be focused. And to be sure there might be a deep dive here and there for something that’s troubled. But if you’re doing too many of those deep dives on your calendar, something is out of whack and you need to refocus your time.
Scott Harper: It can be challenging, but that makes a tremendous amount of sense.
Pam Harper: Any final thoughts on this topic of Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success as a Leader?
Deborah James: The final thought that I would leave you with, and I think this is sometimes hard for younger people who are just beginning, if they’re type A personalities, the way I always was at least. But the lesson I learned is it’s important to play to your strengths, but always do it within a team environment. And when you get to be a leader, same story, play to your strengths, but make sure that you select and surround and develop that leadership team around you.
So often, I think, particularly younger people, and as we’re coming up, myself included when I was younger, you’re so trying to be strong at everything that you may be weakening your own position. When in fact all of us are strong at certain things, but none of us is strong at everything.
Another tip is that women frequently, if they’re going for a job interview, will focus on maybe what their weaknesses are before they even get to what their strengths are, which that’s of course wrong as well. Everybody ought to recognize what their strengths are, play to those strengths, and then don’t fear the people around you. Don’t feel jealous of the people around you, but rather leverage the talented people around you who are probably going to be strong in ways that you are not. And that’s valuable for teamwork. So the lesson is play to your strengths. Yes, you should always look to build yourself up in ways that you’re not and to learn more, but focus on those strengths and double down in those areas. But recognize you’re not strong at everything and there’s where the team is so critical.
Pam Harper: Well Debbie, thanks so much for being our guest today.
Deborah James: Thank you Pam and Scott. I really enjoyed it.
Scott Harper: Yes, indeed. Thanks so much, Debbie. And thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To get show notes and resource links for this week’s episode, go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, select episode 162.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success and leaving you with this question to discuss with your top leadership team.
Scott Harper: As our company faces unprecedented opportunities as well as tough challenges, what conversations do we need to have, and with whom, so we can keep aiming high and accelerate momentum for new success?