Aim High For Success – Five Lessons from Author & Keynote Speaker Deborah Lee James

Posted by Project Nation Guest Author on June 20, 2019

Deborah Lee James Aim High

By Deborah Lee James, 23rd Secretary of the United States Air Force, Author and Keynote Speaker at Deltek’s Government Contracting Industry Benchmark Showcase.

Congratulations to Deltek for 10 years of timely and relevant reports on market trends and benchmarks in government contracting. I have been a big user of Deltek's Clarity Report, which surveys the industry identifying trends and key market issues, over time in my private and public sector leadership roles. First, as a Sector President at SAIC, responsible for about 8700 people and $2 billion in revenue, next, as the 23rd Secretary of the United States Air Force, with oversight of 660,000 personnel and a $139 billion budget; and today as a member of the board of directors of public and private companies in the GovCon space.

Although the 2019 Clarity report provides many flashing green lights for the industry — like revenue growth, expanding profits, small business creation and strong IT spend by the government—there is one major flashing yellow light on the horizon: people. With unemployment at record lows, the number of available tech jobs way up, and security clearance backlogs growing, it’s getting tougher to attract and retain the talent you need to realize the growth and innovation your companies expect. The war for talent is very real today and will likely get worse before it gets better.  

I recently wrote a book titled Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success. It shares my formula for leadership and problem-solving in changing, difficult and dysfunctional environments. Spoiler alert: much of the secret sauce relates to people and how we treat them.

Here are 5 Lessons from Aim High that can help you meet your challenges and win your company’s war for talent:

1.  Always have a Plan, but prepare to pivot quickly to Plan B.

By this I mean: clearly map out your personal and organizational goals, assemble the resources necessary to meet these goals and then start marching. As a leader, first, consult and obtain maximum buy-in from your team.  At the same time, you must assess the risks to your plan, inform your seniors about those risks and have a few contingency actions ready to roll out in case things don’t go according to plan. And for each professional, I strongly recommend that you lead lives of continual learning—for example, seek out mentoring programs, ask for a rotational assignment, take a short course in your field, learn about a new technology. The point is this: learn, evolve, and reinvent yourself. If your knowledge stagnates or becomes dated, so will you.

2.  Double down on people issues.

Your job as leaders first and foremost is to attract the best people and hopefully keep them for as long as possible.  In addition to working within your companies to advocate for competitive pay, benefits and flexible work schedules, here are some other actions you can take that can make a big difference with your people.

  • Invest or participate in front line manager training. There is a lot of data to suggest that people don’t quit companies; they quit bad managers. They quit the micromanagers, the screamers and the “know it all’s”.  You need to either get these managers trained or get them out. 
  • Focus on professional development. Everyone wants a challenge; everyone wants to grow. In my experience, good retention correlates very closely with whether or not an employee can see a path to advance in an organization. So giving frequent feedback, offering clear career path information and promoting some time off to focus on individual learning is important.
  • Finally, give recognition. Be generous with your thank yous, your shout outs during town halls, your gift cards for those who go above and beyond—whatever you can do to show your people that you appreciate them.

3. Speak up and listen deeply.

You can’t communicate with your people enough these days. They want to hear from you about what’s happening within the team and within the company; they want to know how their efforts are contributing in an important way to the mission of the organization. And they want to know that you hear them, that their views are being seriously considered. This is particularly important if your organization is going through a transformation of some sort, being acquired, reorganized or downsized. Your job as leaders is to bring the entirety of your team along on the journey of change within your organization.

4. Lead with a positive attitude.

If you cannot see the opportunities within a challenging, changing or confusing environment, your people will not see the opportunities either. Upbeat thinking is contagious—it breeds upbeat thinking in others. So you need to cut through the negativity that may be lying in the path of your team so that they can see their way clear to a future that’s full of potential. 

5. Get things done.

If you are selected for a promotion, this means that your boss sees stretch potential in you. But no one will see your future potential if you fail to accumulate a body of accomplishment in your current role. That means get things done. The “what” of getting things done is extremely important—like achieving revenue and profit targets—but increasingly in today’s business and public sector worlds, the “how” you get things done matters a great deal too.

More Management Tips

No matter the goal or the challenge, here is a repeatable 5-step process you can use:

  1. Investigate — Gather your data; understand and speak with your stakeholders; define the urgency of the challenge.
  2. Communicate — Make the case for action with your team and perhaps to a larger audience. Invest personal time in verbal communications. Keep communicating regularly throughout the process.
  3. Activate — Make decisions on what to do differently and launch! Start small and scale to obtain quick wins. Focus on what you control and double down on people issues.
  4. Iterate — Jettison initiatives if they do not produce results; add new approaches as they present; negotiate tweaks if needed.
  5. Follow-Up — Call meetings, ask for data, and measure everything possible. Follow-up must be relentless.

As I said earlier, the war for talent is in full swing.  Your job is to ensure that this flashing yellow light does not turn red. Your organizations will not succeed if it does.

Aim High Always!


About the Author

Deborah Lee James has a three-decade track record of leading, transforming, and driving lasting results in both the Legislative and Executive branches of government and private industry. She served as the 23rd Secretary of the United States Air Force with responsibility for 660,000 military and civilian personnel and a budget of nearly $140 billion.

Deborah currently serves on the Board of Directors of public, private and not-for-profit entities as well as an advisor and speaker on national security, business and leadership topics. In May 2019, Deborah, delivered the keynote address at Deltek’s Government Contracting Industry Benchmark Showcase.