SEAL BEACH, Calif. – Senior leaders and emerging leaders with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District met for a three-day planning meeting Nov. 7 - 9 to highlight District commander Col. Mark Toy’s vision of “Building Strong and Taking Care of People!” and discuss plans to continue that District imperative along with implementing directives from senior commands over the course of the next year.
“This Strategic Planning Meeting is the culmination of more than two years of … current strategic direction and vision,” Toy wrote in a memorandum to attendees. “The goal of the training is to recognize the accomplishments of the past and inspire all SPL team members to be great leaders.”
Toy pointed out the goal was not just to bring in the District’s current senior leadership. Instead, he ensured the meeting was open to Department of the Army interns, graduates of the Leadership Development Program and military service members within the District. In this way, he felt the messages discussed and the way forward decided on by attendees would be better carried forward and disseminated at all levels within the District.
The majority of the first day was dedicated to discussing accomplishments and learning about plans for the upcoming year from leaders within the LA District. In the afternoon, retired Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, currently the chief of Infrastructure and Executive Development for the Flippen Group, took the podium to discuss his views on leadership. Van Antwerp is a former LA District commander in the mid 1990s and was the Chief of Engineers from 2007 to 2011. He said leaders need to ensure their team members understand how they can be a full participant in the team’s success.
“Every single person in your team is a vital puzzle piece,” said Van Antwerp in his analogy. He likened the goals and participants of a team to a puzzle and the leader’s vision to the most important piece – the box top. “Everyone should know where they fit into the puzzle and you, as the leader, should know where you want that team to be. You need to know what success looks like.”
Van Antwerp also discussed how leaders need to ensure their team members are empowered to ensure the mission is accomplished and encouraged the attendees to take risks. He said leaders need to be accountable to their subordinates and to the community they serve.
The second and third days focused on how the District team members fit in to the overall USACE campaign plan. During day two, Nelson Cheng, the chief of the Business Management Division at South Pacific Division, talked about the plan at his level and how it affects District members. He said the District team should focus their efforts on meeting specific goals throughout the year.
“Actions [in the plan] are what you want to accomplish,” he said. “Measures are your metrics and outcomes are your deliverables.”
Following Cheng’s discussion, Rep. Grace Napolitano gave her views of leadership. Napolitano represents California's 38th congressional district and has served since 2003. She talked about her time in Congress and her dealing with the Corps of Engineers
“Working with Col. Toy has been great. He’s like my son now. He’s been so open and so helpful to the people in my district,” Napolitano said. “I thank you so much for the work you [in the Corps] do for the people of the United States. You’re like a combination of the Red Cross with engineers.”
Napolitano discussed her career and urged attendees to follow their goals. She said her education reached high school level, but she took it upon herself to learn about whatever topics she was interested in or needed to ensure she was doing the best job she could. She also encouraged attendees to continue doing the best job possible in service to the nation and to communities around the district and across the country.
“If I had to choose just one person to speak to you about inspired leadership, this is that one person” said Toy when he introduced Napolitano. “She’s not just a person who represents her district. She represents everyone.”
The rest of the day was dedicated to break out sessions in which the attendees broke into groups to discuss how to best implement the aspect of the South Pacific Implementation Plan throughout the LA District. Groups then re-assembled and presented their plans with short question-and-answer sessions following each presentation.
The final day was a series of discussions on the art and implementation of leadership. Thomas Sy, PhD, with the department of Psychology at the University of California-Riverside, was the first speaker. He discussed how attendees could make the most of their leadership potential.
“Leadership is very much an art. And if you think about great artists, they don’t photocopy,” he said. “The same is true of great leaders. Think about what you think are aspects of great leaders and paint your own masterpiece. You have to be original and sincere. No one follows a copycat.”
Sy also discussed how preconceived notions can color leaders. He said there has long been a “romance” with leaders, but only recently has any real study been given to followers. If leaders want to maintain good followers, they must first believe that their team members are good team members, he said. Otherwise, the notion that they have “bad” followers will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Higher expectations lead to higher results,” Sy said. “Small positive effects accumulate over time to huge effects.”
Following Sy’s discussion, retired Maj. Gen. Randal Castro, AECOM senior vice president for federal services, talked with attendees about his vision of leadership. Castro is a former USACE Division commander and was later the commandant of the U.S. Army Engineer School.
“One thing I want to you to remember is the acronym TIPS,” he said. “T is talk with your people. I is inform your people. P is for predictability. People should know what to expect from their leaders. S is for sensitive. This is most important. You need to be sensitive to your people's needs.”
Castro encouraged the members of the LA District to look inside themselves and see what kind of a person they are so they could figure out the best kind of leader they could be for both members of their team and for the overall District. He said each member of the team should be encouraged by their leader’s example of striving to make a positive difference each day.
“Great leaders develop teams,” Castro said. “In order for your team to do well, it is imperative that you have great teams within each of your teams that know how to work well with each other. If you bring in your team to everything you do, there is nothing you can’t do.”
After Castro talked with the current and future leaders, retired Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, senior vice president for federal programs directorate for Arcadis, took the podium as the final speaker. Flowers was the 50th Chief of Engineers from 1996 to 2000. Before assuming command of the LA District, Toy served with Flowers as his aide when Toy was a Major.
“I would not be here as your District commander without General Bob Flowers,” Toy said when he was introducing the general.
Flowers reminded the assembled leaders that the potential for leadership was in each member of their team.
“Anyone can be a leader,” he said. “Good leaders all have common characteristics. Good leaders recognize and appreciate the people who work well within the team. Good leaders step up when they see a need that needs to be filled. Good leaders let their people know where they stand. Leadership can come from anywhere in a command.”
Flowers recalled the “Do it” card he unveiled and distributed during his tenure as Chief of Engineers. The card asked three questions:
1) Is it good for the customer?
2) Is it legal and ethical?
3) Am I willing to be held accountable for my actions?
Team members who could answer all three questions positively were encouraged to go forward with the actions needed to accomplish the mission. Flowers said the idea was met with some resistance; but, he feels subordinates need to feel a sense of ownership in any mission in order for it to succeed.
Throughout the three-day meeting, attendees asked questions of each of the speakers and had the opportunity to engage each other in discussions sometimes limited by distance throughout the wide-ranging district. From the newest intern to the District commander, attendees felt the time spent learning about leadership and forging even stronger bonds was worth the time spent.
"We assembled a group of great leaders whose mission was to inspire our current and future leaders of the District,” Toy said. “Our attendees were extremely engaged throughout the three day event and definitely benefited from the coaching, teaching, and mentoring by our dynamic and charismatic speakers. Without question, "mission accomplished!"
Toy said the initiatives discussed during the breakout sessions and the lessons learned will continue to build within the team and will allow each member of the District to continue “Building Strong and Taking Care of People!”