LOS ANGELES – If there is any advice Col. Kirk Gibbs can give to his successor, it is this: Lead with honor and humility.
As Gibbs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District’s 61st commander, prepares to relinquish command of the LA District July 19 to Col. Aaron Barta, he offered up some advice and reflected on the past three years as the leader of one of the largest Corps districts in the country.
There are many things Gibbs said he is proud of when it comes to the LA District, but three things stand out: the District being recognized two years in a row as a "Best Place to Work" in the Corps; completing Weed Army Hospital at Fort Irwin, California – the Department of Defense’s only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-Platinum, carbon-neutral, net-zero certifiable hospital – on time and within budget; and the one-on-one time he was able to spend with employees in the District.
It is the people Gibbs said he will miss the most – the employees and the District’s close partners across the four-state area.
“I have never focused on relationships like I have here in this District, and I sincerely believe it is part of the District's culture,” he said. “When projects are tough, the close relationships get us through those challenges and ultimately deliver the program.”
During his time with the LA District, Gibbs has overseen a multimillion-dollar program that provides engineering, construction, planning, contracting, real estate, emergency operations, environmental and regulatory services to military, federal, state and local governments across a 226,000-square-mile area of Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. That also includes leading about 750 military and civilian personnel with a wide array of expertise.
But leading people is nothing new to Gibbs, who has served for more than 24 years as an active-duty Soldier, leading both military and civilian personnel.
“Each person is different, and I have learned that good leaders get to know each person individually and then lead them in a way that brings out the best in that employee,” he said.
Providing priorities and a solid intent on the District’s missions, particularly disaster response operations, helps employees stay focused on what’s really important, he said.
Gibbs will now serve as the chief of staff at the Corps’ headquarters in Washington, D.C. There, he said, he hopes to be an advocate for all of the Corps’ districts nationwide.
“I feel that this District and the great people are responsible for giving me the incredible opportunity of being the Corps’ chief of staff,” he said. “The people have taught me so much, and I will take that with me to make a positive impact on the Corps’ enterprise and help our Districts deliver our programs in civil works, military, Interagency and International Services, real estate and regulatory.”
Gibbs knows how the importance of mentors and having a good support system have played in shaping his career, and he credits his parents with instilling in him respect for others; his wife, Kim, who taught him to endure all challenges, no matter how great, with grace and dignity; and his former chief of staff – Col. Steve Hill – for giving him tough jobs to prepare him for success.
“(Hill) gave me tough jobs that I thought he could have done at the time, but as I look back, the toughest assignments he gave me in that civilian organization at the Corps headquarters prepared me for District command and enabled me to achieve the goal of commanding at the battalion, brigade and District levels,” he said. “I also remember he told me I would be a chief of staff for the Corps one day. He was preparing me for that. I didn't believe him, but that is my next job.”
And, as for additional advice he can share with Barta, Gibbs provided these words of wisdom:
Be prepared to change leadership style when leading a District of professional civilians. Don't lead them in the same way as Soldiers;
Engage with people and get around to see them across the District's entire area of operation. Don't sit behind a desk;
Study hard initially and learn the policies, processes and programs. “You will never be the expert, but you must prepare yourself to make effective decisions as quickly as possible”;
Always provide a commander's intent and an end state. The civilian workforce appreciates that; and, lastly,
Lead with honor and humility. “It isn't about you. It is about the District's people and our vital mission.”
As for the future of the LA District, Gibbs said he hopes future leaders continue to change the culture to an organization that is more risk tolerant in streamlining processes and moving projects forward; deliver the Department of Veterans Affairs and Customs and Border Protection programs phenomenally – on time, within budget and to the highest quality; and to remain a "Best Place to Work" in order to retain and recruit talent to the high-cost living area of Southern California.
“I want the District to do what it always does and ‘knock those programs out of the park,’” he said.