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Milplex 2.0: Transcom Transforms Command Culture for Future

November 28, 2012
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By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Motivational speakers and book clubs focused on innovative thinking, emotional intelligence and other trendy topics. Regular sessions where senior leaders sit down with a random group of staffers to share a meal and talk about cultural virtues. Professional development emphasizing “people skills” as well as job-related ones. And in the planning stages, “speed dating” arrangements in which employees from different offices will come together to introduce themselves and explain how their jobs fit into the broader mission.

Sound like something out of Silicon Valley or an Internet startup run by twenty-somethings? Wrong. You’ll find it here at U.S. Transportation Command, where Air Force Gen. William M. Fraser III and his senior staff have embarked on an all-out effort to transform the organization.

Transcom’s recently released five-year strategy puts a premium on the workforce that drives the Defense Department’s global transportation and distribution network. The goal, explained Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel, Transcom’s chief change and learning strategist, is to develop “enterprise-focused professionals” who take pride in their individual contributions and recognize their collective role in propelling the command forward.

“One of the No. 1 goals is to decrease a sense of independence that has naturally occurred over time by virtue of people being focused on their great thing, to create a sense of greater interdependence and understanding about how we all fit in so we can move forward together,” Michel said.

To do so, leaders are emphasizing four key values: collaboration that breaks down organizational stovepipes and creates a unity of effort; trust across the enterprise that extends to operational partners and customers; empowerment that enables people to engage, make decisions and embrace smart risk-taking; and innovation that challenges ineffective, outdated practices and unleashes creativity.

“The question is, ‘How do we bring the headquarters together in a common sense of purpose, surrounded by these cultural values?” said Army Maj. Gen. Gregory E. Couch, Transcom’s chief of staff. “Our strategy is to build on these four cultural virtues as we go forward.”

Focusing on “soft skills” is common in the business world and academia, Michel recognized, but not necessarily in the military. “We get a little freaked out in the military talking about soft skills because we are warfighters,” he said. “But find a business out there that doesn’t tell you that this is where it all starts and ends. Even if we are warfighters, I think we also realize that we are inherently relational creatures.”
 

Such a level of introspection is unusual for Transcom, which traditionally has focused on its customers’ requirements, said Air Force Col. Shawna O’Brien, director of manpower and personnel.

But by shining the spotlight on itself, she said the command can see where it needs to redirect its energies to improve overall operations. “This will help us identify how we can enhance what we do and provide better support and service for our customers,” O’Brien said. “It is what will enable us to adapt to meet the requirements of the future joint force.”

Anyone who has worked in a big organization knows that change doesn’t come easily, Couch acknowledged. It’s particularly difficult in the military, where each service has its own way of doing things and commanders rotate regularly, along with their pet programs and areas of emphasis.

So Fraser has committed to making an indelible mark on the command culture, leading the effort himself and elevating cultural change to a pillar of the most sweeping strategy in Transcom’s 25-year history.

“The difference here is that this is tagged on with the strategy that is going to be a living document,” Couch said. “And our goal is that when the current leadership leaves, there is no reversing this. It’s non-reversible. A new commander may change the buzzwords, but these things will now be inculcated into what we are doing here as an organization.”

Fraser, his deputy commander, Army Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, and Couch personally lead many of the activities promoting that goal.

“There is no other place in the [Defense] Department, I bet, where you will find that the senior leadership is as engaged and invested in this from the top down,” Michel said. “They are not just writing it in a paper and saying ‘Go for it.’ They are saying ‘Follow me.’ They are living the virtues, taking time out of their calendar to lead leader-led lunches, driving the book club and looking for meaningful, active ways to promote the effort.”

These engagements are designed to open the command to new ways of thinking and to create opportunities for candid exchanges simply not possible within the traditional chain-of-command structure, said Diana Roach, Transcom’s chief of change management.

For example, Couch periodically invites about a dozen people at a time to his on-base quarters, where he prepares and serves lunch and opens the floor to whatever topics group members want to discuss. “No issues are off the table,” he said, whether it’s about a technicality in the strategic plan or a pay problem.

“That’s what it’s really all about,” Couch said. “It’s about opening communication.”

This communication -- through personal contact, a “third-deck blog” that enables members of the command to address the leadership directly or other initiatives -- has generated some surprising insights.

Contractors at the command, for example, expressed distaste for the color-coded lanyards bearing their identification tags that differentiated them from the federal and military workforce. “We heard through the blog that people didn’t like this. They felt that culturally we had built an institutional barrier,” Michel said.

So as Fraser unveiled the new strategy in late October, he distributed new lanyards, all identical and bearing the Transcom motto, ‘Together we deliver,” to everyone in the command. “This is just one small gesture that shows his willingness to take down barriers and promote a sense of unity across the command,” Michel said.

Open communication and unity will be vital to Transcom’s long-term success, he said, particularly entering a post-conflict era with diminishing requirements and resources. “We are fundamentally in the relationship business at Transcom,” Michel said. “At the end of the day, we are our best when we are successful in our relationships, inside [the command] and out. And if our relationships aren’t as strong as they could be, we can’t be nearly as effective as we need to be.”

By improving its effectiveness, Transcom will provide better services at a lower cost to its customers, Couch said. “So as we go through this process, the big question that underpins it is, ‘How do we do things that are efficient and effective for our government?’” he said. “Ultimately, that is what comes out of this.”

Every member of Transcom has a role to play in the effort, Couch said, shaping the culture that will define the command 10 or 15 years into the future.

“We all know that we aren’t going to change overnight,” he said. “But change never happens unless you start working at it. And that is what we are doing here at U.S. Transportation Command.”

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