How the DEF Leadership Team Works

By Michael Madrid

We believe it’s important for the DEF Community to know how its Leadership Team of volunteers works!

DEF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit run purely by volunteers. There are many, many awesome volunteers contributing in myriad ways.

To coordinate and align these efforts, DEF has a Leadership Team (LT) with eight core positions. Each of these individuals coordinates the volunteers of their respective teams, and work closely with each other to support the mission and get stuff done.

The LT syncs by conference call every Monday evening at 9pm EST, and we use G Suite, Slack, Trello, and other tools to work together collaboratively, since we are geographically disparate and rarely in the same place at once. However we do also meet in person approximately once a quarter, for a workshop over the weekend. In fact, we just met earlier this month in Crystal City, VA, to review our progress in 2019 and start planning for 2020.

DEF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit run purely by volunteers. There are many, many awesome volunteers contributing in myriad ways. To coordinate and align these efforts, DEF has a Leadership Team (LT) with 8 core positions.

  • Executive Director, leads the team with strategic vision and oversight, interfaces with the Board of Directors: Michael Madrid
  • Operations Team Lead, executes internally-focused processes and makes sure other teams have the right tools and platforms to go fast: Brandon Poje
  • Communications Team Lead, tells the DEF story with social media, the DEF Dispatch, multimedia content, and more: Sarah Miller
  • Community Team Lead, promotes a culture of connecting across the community, from local Agora events to individual contributions and ideas: Jer McKoy
  • Programs Team Lead, manages our portfolio of National Programs including Hopper, Gutenberg, and the Firestarter Fellowship: Kathy Trimble
  • Engagement Team Lead, intensifies the impact of DEF by creating strategic partnerships to enable diversity and collaboration. Partnerships can include companies, academic institutions, government organizations, Congressional entities and other non-profits: Rob Zuppert
  • Giving Team Lead, facilitates donations and charitable financial contributions from both individuals and organizations: Mike Dodd
  • Finance Team Lead, plans and oversees the budget, ensuring accountability with respect to DEF’s financial resources: Steph Zhou

Each of these Team Leads has an amazing team of volunteers working on specific issues and processes. Look for updates on the volunteers and things happening inside each particular team in the near future!

Most of these positions periodically rotate every one to three years. In fact, we have some turnover coming up on the horizon. As for myself, I stepped into the role of Executive Director on 13 October 2019 and will hold the position for two years.

Each of these Team Leads has an amazing team of volunteers working on specific issues and processes. Look for updates on the volunteers and things happening inside each specific team in the near future!

Shortly after joining the team, I shared the below guidance document for how I want the LT specifically to work together. We thought it was important to share it with all of you, too!

Guidance for the LT from Michael Madrid.

A few specific notes on parts of the document:

I know, I know… agile and scrum are super buzzword-y, and I would typically stay away from them. However, I do genuinely believe in the real definitions and ideas behind these concepts, and I think they are powerful when applied correctly. When I use the word agile, I am adapting the values straight from the Agile Manifesto. When I use the word scrum, I am referencing the elements and principles of scrum methodology that help a team go fast (without attempting to force each particular detail on the LT, since every team is unique and must work in its own way).

I know… agile and scrum are super buzzword-y, and I would normally stay away from them. However, I do truly believe in the real definitions and ideas behind these concepts, and I think they are powerful when applied correctly.

I got the framework for Individual Traits from The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins, a book that Morgan Plummer recommended I read when preparing to transition into this role, and which I highly recommend to everyone. I define them in this context as follows:

  • Competence: Are you good at your job?
  • Judgment: Can you make wise, thoughtful calls on your own, and can you judiciously defer a decision when necessary?
  • Energy: Do you bring motivation, passion, and excitement to the team?
  • Focus: Do you have the availability and the bandwidth to follow through on your commitment to show up for the team?
  • Relationships: Do you work well with your teammates?
  • Trust: Can you be relied upon, and do you keep your word?

A threshold trait, also a concept I got from the book, refers to one which is a critical gating factor: If you can’t meet the mark on this trait, then it won’t matter how great you are at the other traits. Which trait is the threshold trait depends on the situation and the leader, and often depends on what the leader assumes he can train or inspire in people versus what they must have intrinsically when they show up to work.

I chose to make Focus (availability, bandwidth) the threshold trait, which is a tough one for an all-volunteer organization like DEF.

I chose to make Focus (availability, bandwidth) the threshold trait, which is a tough one for an all-volunteer organization like DEF. I believe experience has proven that no matter the skills and good intentions of an individual, there’s nothing that can quite compensate for showing up and doing work. To be clear, a threshold trait does not make up for all others; for example, an individual cannot succeed on the team if they have no Judgment and no Trustworthiness, simply because they have a lot of Focus.

The DEF community is built on the premise that transparency helps everyone and there are no secrets to how we operate.

The rest should hopefully be fairly self-explanatory, but I welcome any questions you may have!

The DEF community is built on the premise that transparency helps everyone and there are no secrets to how we operate. While this framework was created specifically for the Leadership Team, it of course has applicability in other areas and is something we wanted to share with the entire network. It will be a living document, updated as the team continues to find even better ways to operate.

Thanks for reading, and keep onward!


The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that inspires, connects and empowers people by convening events, forging partnerships and delivering tangible solutions. Our mission is to promote a culture of innovation in the U.S. national security community.

If you are a military member or veteran, government employee, entrepreneur focused on national security, or just find the idea of helping solve tough problems enticing, we’d love to have you join the DEF Community!

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We inspire, connect and empower people in order to promote a culture of innovation in the national security community. More at www.DefenseEntrepreneurs.org

Disruptive Thinkers

We share ideas, questions, successes, failures and experiments in order to promote a culture of innovation in the U.S. national security community. Learn more about us at DEF.org.

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