April 27, 2021
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), lead Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), today questioned witnesses at a SASC hearing on management challenges and opportunities at the Department of Defense.
Witnesses included: the Honorable Peter Levine, former Deputy Chief Management Officer, Department of Defense, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Defense Analyses; Dr. Adam Grant, Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania; and Ms. Elizabeth Field, Director, Defense Capabilities and Management, Government Accountability Office.
Inhofe: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. A lot of reviews of the Pentagon management practices tell us that many officials — we’re talking about civilian and military — have little experience with the private sector and not aware of even basic modern management tools. I experienced this — I had my own career long before I got into this thing, and it was always obvious to me that we didn't have, you know, a lot of the private sector experiences. So I'd like to have each of you comment: How far behind the private sector do you think the Pentagon is in terms of management practices, and what's your number-one recommendation to fix this? Let's start with Peter.
Levine: So first of all, I would say the department is light years behind the private sector in terms of management practices. I don't know that bringing in people from the private sector is an answer to that, by itself. I think it's good for the department to have in leadership a mix of people with private sector experience and government experience. Because there are so many unique factors about the way the department works, we sometimes see people come in from the private sector, who are unfamiliar with the way the department works and are fish out of water, and are unable and are frustrated immediately by the department and find it difficult to get anything done. I liked some of the ideas that Mr. Grant is talking about in terms of innovation. I think, though, that there is no substitute for engaged leadership — to find leaders who will actually dig in and try to solve problems rather than sitting in their offices by themselves. It's great to have ideas bubble up, but somebody has somebody has to be willing to grab them and implement them. And I think that asking the leaders who come before you for confirmation specifically about management challenges and challenging them to engage and to follow these issues through is perhaps the most important thing this committee could do.
Inhofe: Ms. Field?
Field: Well, I agree with Mr. Levine about the importance of sustained leadership at the top, the real focus on management, and I would also agree with his assessment of the department compared to the private sector. I'm going to come back to the full financial audit. It's not a silver bullet but if any major company CEO were sitting here before you and had not been able to pass a financial audit, ever, I think you would have a lot of questions about how well that that company was run. So again I think for the department to continue to work toward obtaining a clean opinion on the full financial audit is a really important part, not the only part but a really important part of strengthening management at the department.
Inhofe: Yeah, we're actually doing that. It's taking a few years, but we are.
Field: It will.
Inhofe: Dr. Grant?
Grant: As a social scientist, I don't have the data to quantify how far behind we are, but it’s far, and it's deeply distressing. I think the place that I would probably start is to build a leadership and management training program. This is obviously self-serving since I live in a university, but we run these programs all the time for both public sector and private sector leaders, and I think that there's a lot more that could be done to bring both DOD and private-sector leaders together in these programs to compare notes and share effective practices. I think doing that, though, requires accountability. I think it requires accountability for leaders inside to implement the ideas that they learned from the outside. One of the ways that I've watched private sector organizations do this is through coaching. I've been struck that an increasing number of CEOs in the private sector actually have an executive coach. Sometimes entire leadership teams have executive coaches, and we expect this of our elite athletes and musicians. We know they can't achieve excellence on their own. For some reason, when people get into leadership roles in organizations, we assume that they're all good independently. So I would love to see a little bit more feedback for senior leaders to find out are they implementing the practices that we ultimately teach them.
Inhofe: I noticed in one of your articles — let me just read the quote here, it said, “Many managers fear that when their employees come up with new ideas, they will be less focused and efficient.” Explain to me what you’re talking about there.
Grant: I think there's a false dichotomy that gets created in too many leaders’ minds between creativity and execution. And the thought is that if we distract people by letting them generate ideas, that they're going to fail to implement them. The reality is we all have ideas all the time, right? Some of you have even had ideas for how to structure this meeting more efficiently. And I think what we need to do is give people an outlet for those ideas and give them a chance to test them and express them and figure out if they're any good.
Inhofe: Good. Thank you. Mr. Chairman.