There were a couple of things that really inspired me in those high school years. My older sister worked for American Airlines, and she got once-a-year free passes that the family could use. So she opened up the world to me, with different cultures and languages.
And I went to Argentina for a summer as an exchange student and lived with a family and became quite fluent in Spanish. I had the unbelievable opportunity not long ago to go to Argentina as secretary of the Air Force, and I was able to reconnect with this family 40 years later.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do after college?
I had a dream and a passion that I wanted to be a diplomat, and got a master’s degree in international affairs and public policy. Then I went to Washington, D.C., and applied to the Foreign Service. I got turned down and crashed. I went to bed for several days and cried. I was 23 years old, and I had just spent seven or eight years focused on a dream that blew up.
I finally got out of bed and said to myself, well, I have to have a job. So I started applying to other federal agencies. I did want to be in government service. That was in 1981, and the Defense Department was hiring.
So I landed my first real job out of school in the Department of the Army, which was not my heart’s desire. But I threw myself into it, and after a few months remarkable things started happening for me.
This whole area of defense and national security, which I never knew or cared about, was really interesting and important work. And I had a great boss who took an interest in me, became a mentor and opened some doors.
From that first job, every single job I’ve had has been in defense — sometimes in government, sometimes in the private sector. And now I’m secretary of the Air Force. How cool is that? What a privilege. And it all started with a great big failure and a dream that was never realized.
What’s your advice on how to get a mentor?
Even if your company or agency doesn’t have a formal mentorship program, don’t let that stop you. A mentor can be anybody in your environment, but it tends to be somebody older than you and somebody who’s done things that you aspire to do.
What I tell people, and I’ve done this myself, is that if you see somebody like this, just introduce yourself and ask them if they would be willing at some point to sit down and have a cup of coffee with you and tell their story of what worked for them, what didn’t work, and how their story unfolded in life and how they got to be where they are today.
I find that 95 percent of people will give you a half-hour and a cup of coffee. And don’t we all love talking about ourselves and sharing our insights in life? You never know how broadening your network and hearing some of those failures and successes that other people have lived through might impact your life.
What have been some leadership lessons?
I have learned about the importance of communication, in what you say and what you write. But the most important part of all when you get to a leadership position is to be a good listener. People forget sometimes that an important part of communication is listening, so that you understand where somebody else is coming from. Then you can adjust your leadership style a bit to them.
Another is the power of positive leadership and an upbeat outlook. Years ago, my mother used to always say, “Nobody likes a Debbie Downer. Pick up the mood a little bit here.” That’s really important in leadership, because if everything is crashing and burning around you, you have to see the opportunities in all of these problems.
How do you hire?
I look for people who have competence, with a track record in a certain field. I look for people who have collaboration in their background, and who communicate well. I also check references — trust but verify.
I’ll ask about the greatest challenge they’ve faced, their favorite and least favorite parts of their previous job. I’ll frequently ask if they’ve ever had to fire somebody. That’s the hardest thing that many of us have to do as a manager and a leader.
What career and life advice do you give to new college graduates?
Be prepared to zigzag, because life does not always turn out like you think it’s going to turn out, and that’s true on the personal side, too. When life throws you a curveball, it’s O.K. to grieve. But don’t take too long, because you’ve got to get back up on your feet and then maybe focus on Plan B.
Maybe you want to persist and still go for Plan A, but it’s good to have a Plan B, as well. Because Plan B could turn out to be fantastic, just like it did for me.