Retired Secretary of the Air Force speaks about how to lead with purpose

Thrive always provides the opportunity for female professionals to gain knowledge about topics that impact their personal and professional lives, and our third luncheon was no exception. We were joined by Deborah Lee James, retired Secretary of the Air Force and former senior executive at SAIC, and learned about her take on surviving, thriving and leading.

Secretary James has a three-decade track record of leading, transforming and driving lasting change. At the luncheon, she shared her formula for finding success and fulfillment in your professional and personal life, demonstrating, through her own personal stories as a business leader at SAIC and from the halls of the Pentagon, how she lives out these guidelines.

Her formula is made up of three pillars:

  1. Chart and navigate your course
  2. Lead and inspire teams
  3. Get things done

The first step to pillar one, charting and navigating your course, is coming up with Plan A – being willing to seize the momentum and determine what you want to do, as well as the steps that will be needed in order to make it happen. However, equally important is being prepared to pivot to Plan B. James shared how she, recently out of graduate school and an aspiring civil servant with dreams of working in the State Department, one day found herself, after years of preparation, rejected from her dream career. For a moment she thought her career aspirations were dead, but when she pivoted to Plan B, she found that this path would lead her to an even better opportunity.

Her Plan B turned out to be a position at the Department of the Army, where she quickly learned the importance of having a solid, standout team. She also learned the value of networking, making connections, having mentors and building confidence. As one job led to the next, she continued to build her network. One important takeaway from her presentation: never underestimate the power of your network – develop relationships whenever you can.

After 17 years of government service, James decided to move to the private sector. She had her Plan A set and ready to go, but quickly found transitioning to the private sector was not as easy as she expected. After struggling to find the right position and colleagues (and after a little pivoting and re-charting), she was able to settle in with a position at SAIC. There, she felt her work had purpose and she was happy with her plan to finish out her career with SAIC.

However, she was met with another option – and she chose to seize the momentum.

James was contacted and asked if she was interested in being nominated for appointment as Secretary of the Air Force. After a lengthy (if chaotic) process filled with flights, interviews, cancelled interviews and impromptu meetings, she received the nomination and began her three-year stint.

Accepting this position meant she was in charge of a 666,000-person workforce, equivalent to being the CEO of a $140 billion enterprise. Although she had a history of leadership, this jump in responsibility required Secretary James to fully embrace her second pillar: lead and inspire teams. She also had to live her third pillar on a daily basis: get things done. There were problems that needed to be solved, and she had to figure out how to do it.

In figuring out her own process, she devised a five-step system that can be used in any situation where a problem has to be solved:

  1. Investigate: Get the facts; see what the data tell us. More importantly, talk to the people who are affected to get the full story and determine the urgency of the situation.
  2. Communicate: Once you have the parameters of the situation, you now have to communicate, building a case for action. This step will require a great deal of personal time; communication has to be constantly worked on.
  3. Activate: Answer the question: What will we do that is different than what’s been done all along?
  4. Iterate: Be prepared to accept that this plan may not work; be open to iterating through these steps until an appropriate solution is found.
  5. Follow Up: Relentless follow up is crucial. You can’t expect to create a new plan or make a change and then never check back in to monitor it and make sure it’s being executed. Measure everything you possibly can.

Secretary James’s personal stories that she shared with the group perfectly illustrated the principles she discussed: the importance of connections, the value of mentors, the stability of having a plan, the power of flexibility and the ultimate key to true leadership: finding purpose and leading with it. You can read her book, Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success to learn more about the strategies she has developed for becoming successful and finding fulfillment.

Thank you to our sponsors Benefitfocus, Haysnworth Sinkler Boyd PA, Charleston Southern University, South Carolina Federal Credit Union and Thomas & Hutton, whose support ensures that Thrive can continue to serve as a place where women encourage and motivate one another to continue making positive impacts in our region and the world.


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