…Along the same lines, I think it’s crucial that you shouldn’t ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. I’ve found tremendous value in this adage, particularly while in my present position. When resources are constrained, and we have “all hands on deck” requirements to move product, I know that’s not the time to stand back and watch the action. Put another way, leaders inspire through their actions!
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rosemary Johnston, SVP of Operations for Savi Technology, a leading provider of sensor-based analytic solutions. Johnston’s understanding of the military supply chain and logistics market comes from a distinguished career in both commercial enterprises and her 23-year service in the United States Air Force. While in the Air Force, Johnston was responsible for the development of key wartime logistics planning concepts, establishment of supply policies that impacted the depth and breadth of retail and wholesale supply, and the conduct of a number of planning and forecasting analyses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was born and raised in southern California, in a small community outside Los Angeles. My father, brother, and brother-in-law served in the military (WWII and Vietnam respectively), but we weren’t a military family. After graduating from high school, I went to Cal Poly Pomona for one semester but decided I wanted to do something different with my life. I visited the recruiting station on a whim, and the first recruiter I was able to meet with was the Air Force recruiter. After a very short period of contemplation, I decided to join the Air Force under their delayed entry program and six months later, I was on my way to basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
While on active duty at the Air Staff, we were testing the value and benefit of AIT — automated identification technology — and now I’m the program manager for Savi Technology, the sole provider of active Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, for the Department of Defense federal agencies, and NATO. More specifically, I’m the SVP of Operations for Savi Technology, a leader in real-time, in-transit visibility.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
After completing my basic training, I was trained in Inventory Management and graduated with honors. The Air Force offers exceptional training, which was compounded by the great leaders and managers I had. My career culminated in my assignment as the first female career field manager for my specialty. I visited numerous bases, mentored the Supply Blue Two airmen, and helped develop enlisted and civilian leaders in the supply and logistics space. Working with the Supply Blue Two was especially rewarding, as they continuously strove to improve supply processes, which led to numerous cost-saving initiatives.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
In the mid ’80s I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin and tour what was then East Germany. Berlin was colorful and lively — people crowding the sidewalks, eating at outdoor cafes, shopping, hurrying to work. We made the crossing into East Germany through Checkpoint Charlie and immediately felt a stark comparison between the two Germanys. The streets were quiet. Stores held nothing but empty shelves. The fear was palpable and marked such a contrast to areas in West Germany that we’d visited. Soldiers goose-stepped through the changing of the guard at one of the government buildings.
I still have vivid memories of the wall — miles and miles of barbed wire-topped structure, with armed soldiers in their posts watching for anyone who dared to cross. We heard stories of families separated by the wall and unable to see one another, as well as stories of those who tried to make the crossing and were killed. On the west side of the wall, in Berlin, there was all manner of graffiti, but nothing was written on the wall in East Germany.
My takeaway from the visit was that freedom is valuable and worth fighting for. I learned that I never wanted to live in a place where I was constantly watched, where the government would decide what was going to be available in the food or clothing stores, and where I would be unable to freely express myself or my creativity.
How would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
The military presents a number of definitions of the word “hero.” A hero could be as simple as an individual who wears the uniform and goes on an assignment, never knowing whether they’re going to return home that night. Oftentimes, these individuals re called for deployment without any advanced notice.
There are also people that run into firefights and save others. I don’t think it has to be as extreme as that. The fact that people serve their country knowing they may not return home is my definition of a hero. It’s a profound choice to make and one that exemplifies duty, honor, and country. Our military personnel don’t get paid a lot, they and their families are subject to frequent changes of station and deployments, and separation from their support systems…they are my example of heroes.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”?
One thing I learned was to treat everyone with dignity and respect. I worked for one individual who believed that, because he was a senior NCO, he could belittle and embarrass others. At the same time, he couldn’t ‘t understand why his teams were underperforming! It was because he didn’t respect his airmen, so they didn’t respect him as a person. That experience always stayed with me.
I also learned that rank has its privileges, but it also carries responsibility and accountability. Regrettably, I’ve seen individuals who carried high-level ranks or titles in both military and corporate roles who refused to take responsibility for their actions or be accountable for those within their units. As a result, they were wholly ineffective as leaders, let alone managers.
Along the same lines, I think it’s crucial that you shouldn’t ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. I’ve found tremendous value in this adage, particularly while in my present position. When resources are constrained, and we have “all hands on deck” requirements to move product, I know that’s not the time to stand back and watch the action. Put another way, leaders inspire through their actions!
Continuous learning is also extremely important. I didn’t come to any job I had, in the military or corporate world, knowing every aspect of my position. I also rarely had the luxury of having enough resources to just be the team lead. I had to learn from my subordinates, from my peers, from professional training and leadership courses, and from my mistakes. This has served me very well through my life, both personally and professionally.
Finally, I believe that honesty and integrity will allow you to make the toughest decisions and ensure that you can look people in the eye when you announce those decisions. For example, I remember when we had to make a number of unpleasant changes to the supply career field to deal with mandated personnel reductions. Dealing with them honestly and having a reputation for integrity made communicating those changes much easier and allowed us to have meaningful discussions about moving forward.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Definitely. My military experience showed me that I had endless opportunities so long as I was willing to learn, persevere, and take advantage of them. Oftentimes, those opportunities were in the form of challenges that my military experience gave me the discipline necessary to face head on.
I was blessed to have been raised with strong moral values and the discipline necessary to move forward in life. The military reinforced those teachings and equipped me to succeed in business.
The military also taught me the importance of teamwork. No one succeeds in the military without the support of their team, and this is especially true in business. Understanding how to lead and manage teams and encourage participation and professional growth are all imperative to succeeding in business.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The work we’re doing for the Department of Defense is very exciting. Our aim is to provide reasonably priced solutions for real-time asset tracking and in-transit visibility — a gap that has existed in the DoD for some time. People were comfortable just knowing the last known locations of their assets; it was as good as they got for the price they paid. But the ability to know the precise location and condition of critical or expensive assets is tremendous — and helps the DoD respond to the needs of warfighters faster. Plus, as environments get more constrained and budgets become more subject to scrutiny, knowing where your assets are, and in what condition they are in, is especially important.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Listen and encourage feedback and open dialogue. Also, learn your team members’ strengths and weaknesses and learn how to use those to the advantage of both your team and your business.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I’ve learned a great deal of things over the course of my military and business careers. First, embrace team members’ diversity and depth and breadth of experience and understand what motivates them to succeed.
But don’t just leave it all up to the team. A true leader gets involved and leads by example — not by mandate or dictate. True leaders also demonstrate patience and recognize not just that mistakes will happen, but that they are teaching moments. They should praise team members publicly but criticize them privately.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Several people helped me get to where I am, but there’s one person that truly stands out. A retired chief named Glenn Milled did the most for me in my career. I never worked directly for him, but we worked in the same squadron and then had the great fortune to be stationed at the same base several years later.
Glenn had all of the qualities I look for in a leader. He knew his business in spades and knew how to represent his team in senior leadership. He managed the computer side of the business, which was tough, since we used very old computers that were prone to failure but were also the lifeblood of the system. Glenn stood up to senior leadership and told them what was needed and what needed to be fixed.
He went on to become a command chief, where he was responsible for the welfare of all the enlisted individuals on a base. He was phenomenal. He cared about every single one of them airmen — knew them by their names, knew about their families, and was very approachable. His values and how comfortable people felt talking to him were things I try to emulate.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite mantra is “don’t dwell on your successes.” One of the Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force told me this right after I was selected as one of the Twelve Outstanding Airmen of the Year. It was sage advice for a group of individuals who were fete’d with plaques, dinners, and recognition. But when that week of festivities ended, we went back to our units and slotted right back into our day to day jobs. While the awards may have set us up for future successes, we were still responsible for studying for the promotion tests, working hard to achieve high performance ratings, and completing the professional training and education consistent with our grade. The award and recognition of success weren’t going to get us promoted; we had to continue working hard to achieve our goals.
I’ve taken this advice with me through life, both personally and professionally. I have enjoyed success, but I’ve also failed greatly. The knowledge that I could succeed enabled me to get back up after each failure and just try that much harder.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Colin Powell. I respect the way in which he has dealt with the challenges presented to him. As an African-American, he overcame challenges in his formative years in the military. But also, in the military and as Secretary of State, he always presented himself in a calm, unflappable manner. He was able to speak his mind, but in a way that was respectful. That’s why people listened. He exudes competence and I respect that tremendously.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.