Clinton Swett - DFAS: Adapt and improvise

Clinton Swett - DFAS: Adapt and improvise<@VM>Online Extra Q&A: Clinton Swett

Career highlights

1980: Enlists in the Marine Corps.

1995: Arrives at DFAS.

2000: Joins DFAS as a Civil Service employee, after retiring from the Marine Corps with the rank of major and spending a year as a contract employee.

2001: Is named CIO and director of Technology Services at DFAS.

'It's a little tricky to manage three diverse groups and keep them all working homogeneously.' -- Clint Swett

Susan McSpadden

At DFAS, Swett combines Corps values with open lines of communication

In the Marines Corps, leadership style has few nuances. You issue an order. You expect it to be obeyed.

But as CIO and director of the Technology Services Organization at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Kansas City, Mo., Clinton Swett has had to modify that one-way-street style of leadership.

At TSO, he leads six divisions and about 380 software engineers. Staff includes government-service employees, active-duty Marines and industry contractors.

'A pure Marine Corps leadership style has to be adapted to work in this environment,' Swett said. 'It's a little tricky to try to manage three diverse groups and keep them all working homogeneously.'

One reason is that his employees don't always just accept a directive without question. They ask why.

As a result, a free and unrestricted flow of information is central to his approach to leadership.
Swett said he has had to adopt more of a coaching and communications style. 'I'm a firm believer in a lot of communications both ways.'

To facilitate communication, generate team spirit and foster a unified commitment to achieving common goals, Swett devised a comprehensive communication plan directed at all his employees.

Every week, for example, he sends out a Director's Corner e-mail to employees'he calls it a mini-state-of-the-organization address.

'I'll admit that it's a chore, but I won't miss a week for anything,' he said. 'I'll even do it remotely if I'm on vacation.'

Frequent meetings also are a staple, including strategic planning sessions with division heads and top staff members, monthly meetings for middle managers, Marine officers and GS-13s and above, and monthly Director's Chats with employees randomly chosen from all levels.

Swett also holds All-Hands Meetings at least quarterly. 'I'll usually pick a topic and try to pass on the organizational strategy and direction to everyone so they can see how they fit into the bigger picture,' he said.

To encourage feedback, he caps All-Hands Meetings with a question-and-answer session he calls Stump the Chump. 'Everyone is allowed to submit anonymous questions,' he said. 'Everything's a fair question. They'll try to ask me questions that are tough and hard to answer'which is what I want.'

Swett has even taken Stump the Chump online. Employees can submit queries via a box on the organization's internal Web site. Swett tries to post answers within a week.

While altering his leadership style to cultivate communications and dialogue with his employees, Swett retains a core element learned during his 20-year career in the Marines: He instills a refuse-to-fail attitude in his managers and employees.

'We will accomplish the mission. We refuse to fail at anything we do,' he said. 'My style is still very Marine Corps.'

Swett, 42, enlisted in the Marines out of high school and became a computer technician and programmer on command and control systems.

Along the road in his Marine career, he earned a bachelor's degree in electronics system management from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a master's in IT management from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Swett arrived at DFAS in 1995 when he was still in the Marines. After four years, he retired as a major, then spent a year as a contractor before becoming a government-service employee. He was named CIO and TSO director in the summer of 2001.

TSO's chief mission is to develop and maintain applications for major customers including the Marine Corps, the Navy and internal DFAS business lines.

Thus he has to provide leadership on the technology front.

'We need to be out there always looking for the next business opportunity'to be automating something and making it more efficient,' he said. 'We can't just sit here and assume that when we finish what we're working on, we're done. You're never done.'

Keeping a sharp eye open for new technologies is crucial. 'It's an ongoing challenge to stay abreast of the latest technologies'to keep everybody looking forward to the next big thing and not be worried about last big thing,' he said.

'It's like being a shark,' he added. 'If you're not moving forward, you're going to suffocate.'

But leading his troops through challenging technological seas is no problem for Swett.

'His depth of experience and technological expertise are uncommon in upper-level management,' a DFAS colleague said.Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to move up to the manager level?

My advice is to always seek training, consider any education as an investment in your future, seek out higher responsibility, and volunteer to learn and do the hard stuff that others avoid.

You also should be a problem solver, not a problem identifier. Be the best at whatever you are assigned to do, communicate openly, honestly and often, and make sure your boss knows what you are doing.

Also, watch successful people and learn to emulate their best traits. Finally, you should work hard on working well with others. Many experts have said that the single, limiting factor in how far people progress within organizations is their ability to deal with others.

Q: What's the best advice you received, and from whom?

Probably the best advice I've ever received was from Jerry Head, the chief technology officer of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. He advised me to work hard on being a good judge of character and "know who knows what."

You really need to know your people. Getting good input and information from them is a critical skill. Knowing each person's strengths and challenges is important. This applies equally to getting good advice; you need to be able to quickly distinguish whether the advice that you continually receive is really good advice.

Q: Why government service?

I've been in government service since I joined the Marine Corps when I was 17 years old. As a Marine, I have continually felt that I am serving the noble goal of protecting our great nation.

In my current civilian position, I support the Marine Corps and other military services in continuing that goal. I've been offered a lot of other positions, but I need a real purpose for the reason why I work'and no one has been able to come up with one that is more important than this.

Q: How important is mentoring in developing a good manager?

Mentoring is critical. I personally mentor all of my immediate staff on the trials and tribulations of being a good manager. A lot of this is developing skills on getting the most out of their employees.

Personally, I prefer to build a manager out of someone who has a good technical background rather than to try to teach technology to a manager. I've found that if new managers don't have good technical skills, they will never have time to learn them. Management is demanding on time. Just keeping up with changing technology is challenging for a good manager. You can't be successful when you are trying to play catch-up.

Some mentoring can sound pretty basic but it can make a big difference: for example, proofing e-mails that a manager is sending to our customers, participating in meetings alongside managers and helping managers prepare briefing charts. Getting the right tone, having a full appreciation for the customers' needs and wants, and understanding the underlying politics are areas in which a new manager needs mentoring in order to become proficient.

Q: What part does fun play in your work?

First, I think that everyone needs to love what they are doing. I love my job and don't consider it work. I'm particularly excited about the change in America's views of the military and civil workers (firemen, police, government, military, etc.) in the post 9-11 era. I believe that everyone has a greater appreciation for the services that these people provide than they have ever had during my lifetime. It's easier now than ever before to enjoy what you are doing, and being appreciated for what you do certainly helps.

Q: How do you balance work and home life?

Having an understanding wife who supports your career is critically important. But being able to delegate to others is the key to having time left for the home front. Choosing the right people to delegate certain tasks is key.

I'm surrounded by excellent people who are fully capable of performing their tasks without my overmanaging them. This allows me the opportunity to make time for home. Having said this, I'm still looking for that 25-hour day: I could accomplish a lot more in that extra hour.


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