Executing the Leadership Mindset

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“We have to remember that it’s people who do the work. Leaders have to deal with the human element,” said Holly Gregg, acquisition manager for JPEO A&A. What matters is that leadership show they care through actions. (Getty Images)


by Stefanie Pidgeon


You see the warning message in the bottom right-hand corner of your computer screen: “SYSTEM UPDATE REQUIRED.” You can reboot now or later, but your computer will eventually reboot. You stop what you’re doing and wait while your computer restarts. Your boss stops by and asks what you’re working on, and you say the computer is updating and you’ll be back online soon. Your boss says, “Roger,” and moves on.

This is an example Johnny Figueroa gives when describing the need to support growth and change; that people are systems, too, and need down time to improve or be creative. “This requires a deliberate effort from management, one that is important in our community of practice. Engineers and scientists … need time to sit down and spark new ideas.”

This kind of creative pause is highlighted in Dr. Bonnie Berdej’s recent Army AL&T article, “Embracing Creative Destruction,” in which she shares her vision for how Army leaders can demonstrate emotional intelligence and communicate change better, and the effect that leadership style can have on organizational effectiveness. Berdej has found through her work that effectively implementing this vision requires leaders who are honest, empathetic, easy to form relationships with, control their emotions, and promote an environment of trust.

Army AL&T spoke with three of Berdej’s colleagues at the Joint Program Executive Office for Armaments and Ammunition (JPEO A&A) who share her philosophy on leadership, and to find out how they are executing and reinforcing that mindset and behavior at the team level.


People are the top priority for Gen. James C. McConville, Army chief of staff. “Our Army’s people are our greatest strength and our most important weapon system … It is our people who will deliver on our readiness, modernization and reform efforts,” he said. That people-first philosophy is no more apparent than in the Army acquisition workforce, which includes engineers and scientists, among other career fields.

Figueroa, who serves as product director for demilitarization at JPEO A&A, feels empowered by the JPEO A&A leadership and is responsible to grow and shape his team as he sees fit, which is the first step in talent management. “I have incredible flexibility that I did not have 10 years ago,” he said. “I have the ability to figure out the skillset I need to effectively and efficiently run my office.” Figueroa recognized that most of his colleagues came from the same academic background and school of thought and, therefore, have the same skills, hindering their ability to think outside the box. Once he had the opportunity to serve in a management role, Figueroa changed that.

Figueroa, who is a graduate of the Armaments Center Senior and Strategic Leadership Course and is an Army Master Resilience Trainer, recognizes that diversity in education and experience bring forward a variety of ideas and best practices. He hired a team that represents 12 academic disciplines across eight acquisition fields. “I’ve hired people from agricultural and biomedical engineering and industrial systems. The intellectual portfolio that now comprises my team provides for a completely different approach for problem-solving and critical thinking because it’s vibrant with innovation and not tethered to … the guidelines of how things used to be. All these different areas of engineering lead to creative thinking,” he said. The result of Figueroa’s deliberate hiring and retention effort, according to Figueroa, is that his team wants to come into the office and do better work.

Given the diverse nature of his team, Figueroa is constantly checking the pulse of his organization and seeking feedback and alternatives from those who come from a different community of practice. “I want our employees to contribute to the organization and have a sense of ownership,” he said. “I want to have a total understanding of the state of mind of my people. I want them to know I’m open to new ideas and support trial by error.”


Do what you say you’re going to do. That’s what people respect and appreciate, and what builds trust within an organization, said Holly Gregg, acquisition manager for JPEO A&A.

“We have to remember that it’s people who do the work. Leaders have to deal with the human element,” she said. Gregg added that what matters is truly showing you care in your actions, in your follow-up with employees, and in your recognition to their contributions to the organization.

“I spend the time to understand what someone cares about, and what motivates and inspires them. I try to build a trusting environment so that everyone on the team feels empowered to speak truth, and feels they are listened to and recognized in a way that is meaningful to them.”

Gregg said she is empowered by JPEO A&A’s top leadership, Brig. Gen. Alfred F. Abramson III. “Building trust within the organization starts with him. Abramson is very clear and consistent in all of his engagements with employees, from office briefings to town halls, and that he is here to support us and our teams down to the lowest level. He’s powering down and putting trust in the leaders below him to know and care for their teams.”


Historically, the Army has released procedures, policies and directives requiring paperwork and processes that could be counterproductive to efficiency, agility and innovation. “People want a template or a standard way of doing things because it may seem easier, but we need to break that mentality,” said Gregg. “Everything we do is for the warfighter but the paperwork piece slows us down.”

Michael Burke, acting deputy for the Product Manager for Terrain Shaping Obstacles in the Project Manager for Close Combat Systems, said paperwork, like weekly and monthly reports, gets done, but emphasized that above all, their mission is to provide capabilities to the warfighter.

“What might be the right answer today may evolve and change over time, leading us somewhere we didn’t expect to go,” said Burke. “We have great thinkers from within the Army and in our industry partners supporting our programs. We need to enable them to identify the process of how you go from issue to solution.”

Burke believes everyone has the capacity of adding value to the organization. He also said one question or concern raised early in development may be the one thing that prevents a materiel release from being accomplished years later.

“I say let’s spend a few extra hours to get it right the first time,” he said. “The time you save not talking with your experts and colleagues, and working through possible concerns when initially presented will cost you a thousand times that in reacting to an issue. We need to think through how we make decisions. After all, it’s not our money. We have a service to the men and women in uniform, to the Army and to the taxpayers, so we can’t afford to say, ‘We are too busy to listen.’ ”


Figueroa, Gregg and Burke have all participated in leadership development courses and said they continue to prioritize self-development and encourage the same for their colleagues.

For Figueroa, trial by error is something that should be embraced. “The reality is that errors will be made in the process,” he noted. “We’re used to being guarded with our decisions because of fear of retribution or consequences. We need to have more tolerance for error to be successful. We need to consider new methods and new techniques.”

Gregg’s tip is increase your self-awareness. “Not everyone understands who they are, nor are they comfortable holding up that mirror. Understanding who you are and how you relate to the world and other people will help you inspire and connect with others.”

Burke encourages others to embrace technology and allow for flexibility in the work environment. “I’ve worked for the Army for 31 years. Folks used to show up, do their work, and go home, or leave for travel and report back when completed,” he said. “Now, with technology, we’re able to ask and respond to questions in real time, even if we’re not in the same room together. Technology encourages connection and teamwork. Our organization supports use of technologies, flexible work schedules and teleworking. I trust that my team are present and active participants in the work we do.”

“A leader is a person you will follow to a place you wouldn’t go by yourself.” That’s the quote found in a fortune cookie by John Curran, Gregg’s deputy at JPEO A&A, who shared the quote with her and it has stuck with her. It is those leadership skills, which Berdej lays out in her article, that can build a strong team and foster creativity, which, according to Burke “is immeasurable.”


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