Part of the Solution

By January 7, 2020Faces of the Force
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Donnah Laster

TITLE: Management analyst
COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Project Director for Main Battle Tank Systems, Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in business-financial management and in business-cost estimating; Level I in program management
EDUCATION: MBA, Wayne State University; B.A. in mathematics, Marygrove College


By Susan L. Follett

Like many members of the acquisition workforce, working for the Army was not part of Donnah Laster’s initial career plan. “My dream was to be a senior mathematician for a casino, developing and generating math models that represent win probabilities and mathematical returns of games,” said Laster, a Detroit native. A professor connected her with a vice president of the Detroit MGM Casino, and her college thesis examined the link between losing statistics of popular casino games and the declining wealth of Detroiters. “I questioned how much my moral compass would conflict with my career,” said Laster, who headed instead for the Detroit Arsenal, where she started as a cost analyst intern.

She has been there ever since, and is now a management analyst in the Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems (PEO GCS). “What has continuously appealed to me about working as an Army Acquisition Workforce professional is that I never question if I’m my community’s problem or solution. Every day, I am certain my contributions are for the betterment of myself, my team, the Army and the country,” she said.

Laster is Continuous Process Improvement lead for the Project Director for Main Battle Tank Systems, helping project leaders streamline products, services and processes to ensure that the organization is “doing business as safe, fast, logical and cost effectively as possible, without lessening quantity or jeopardizing quality,” she said. “My work directly contributes to saving taxpayer dollars, reassuring Army civilians that we are doing the right things in the right ways, and—more importantly—ensures that the warfighter is equipped with the most effective and user-friendly tools to complete the mission and come home.”

Her efforts have helped PEO GCS save $227 million in the past three years. Those savings came from implementing process improvement measures and through a campaign to work with leadership to incorporate process improvement “as a way of doing business, not as an obligation,” Laster said. “My leadership and I met with each project lead, with the goal of understanding each project, recommending changes and options for closing out projects where possible. We soon began to see more projects being closed out, and more people started coming to us with ideas for new process improvement efforts they wanted to implement—the workforce now sees that process improvement is important to senior leadership.”

Laster was one of two dozen acquisition professionals selected to participate in the first cohort of the Emerging Enterprise Leader (EEL) program. “I started EEL in October 2018 and graduated in August 2019, and was motivated to participate to increase my comfort level with diversifying my methods of communication,” she said. She expected that the program would expand her network and “add a tool or two to my professional tool belt.”

She gained a lot more than that. “My EEL experience did not simply add theoretical tools to my professional tool belt, but the program was so unboxed that it made me question whether or not using a tool belt was the most effective way to successfully complete the mission,” she said.

Laster outlined three takeaways from the course. “First, it’s imperative to continuously improve one’s self with intent and intention, especially while leading others. Second, people who look different but think the same do not represent true diversity. Our most significant differences do not reside in our gender or race. If we want true diversity, not only should we ensure the aforementioned, but we need different personality types, different lenses—the varying ways we interpret the same information—and different values.”

Lastly, she found that leading doesn’t necessarily come from the top. “A position of endorsed power is not a prerequisite for leadership. You can lead from your cube, from the back of the line, or amongst the crowd. All a person ever needs to be a leader is another person who’s paying close attention and has allowed themselves to be influenced.”

Over the course of the program, Laster found herself eager to incorporate what she had learned. “After every week of attending EEL sessions, I eagerly returned to my office suggesting new ways to manage our projects, feeling more confident about how to respond to team members who confide in me for personal and professional advice, and after the final session, I was newly motivated to serve in more public and impactful positions within the government,” she said.

One thing she noticed is that while people often work in teams, it’s not really teamwork. “Most of the time, it’s each person working separately on an individual task and coming back together when we’ve each completed our work,” she said. “Through EEL, I learned how a team should work, and began proposing more decisions to be made by the team: Should we be doing this? Is there another approach? Each time, that process has yielded options I hadn’t even considered. I’ve seen morale improve, and I’ve also seen better products, events and outcomes.”

EEL has also helped her carve out a new career goal. “Before I took the class, the leadership position that I was aiming for was operations director for a PM shop. During a break in the last EEL session, two of my classmates asked what my goals were, and I explained that to them. Both of them told me that my goal wasn’t big enough—that I had the mindset, the skills and the abilities to be in a position to make bigger decisions and affect more people. That they saw that in me—that they knew my vision wasn’t big enough—was very impactful,” Laster said.

EEL provides participants with an opportunity to take a developmental assignment, and Laster spent hers with a member of the Senior Executive Service at the Pentagon. “I really liked what I saw, and that position is now my new goal.”

For Laster, the graduation of the first EEL cohort represents “a declaration that Army acquisition leadership is continuously intentional about investing in not just the leadership of the workforce, but the workforce’s future,” she said. “Today, members of Cohort 1 are leaders all across the country, who understand a position of power is not a prerequisite for our ability to lead.”



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