Ms. Jacqueline Leeker, the USFK Public Affairs Deputy Director, and winner of the 2021 USFK's Civilian Employee of the Year Award for Manager of the Year, talks about leadership and the best advice she has received over the years about management. Below are Ms. Leeker's thoughts and opinions and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of USFK.
The USFK Public Affairs team has been highlighting the amazing accomplishments of our civilian workforce in honor of Civilian Employee Recognition Week. I’ve been inspired by them and want to take the opportunity to share some of their best practices and advice they have shared with me as mentors.
I am inspired every time I walk through the doors of U.S. Forces Korea headquarters, around the installations in South Korea, or anywhere our Department of Defense personnel are. I am surrounded by brilliant people, who each hold the same core values, and bring so much heart to what they do.
Working for the DoD, one of the biggest employers in the world, can often feel bureaucratic. It’s complex, and we certainly don’t always get it right. Two things set us apart, our determination to always do better and the diversity of our team. I think about the mix of people – our military, our civilians, our Korean Nationals, our contractors, and our international teammates. If you added all our years of experience together, just in our building, it would be at least 5,000 years. Those experiences are incredibly varied, but at the core you’ll find a deep devotion to democracy, selfless service and sacrifice.
Like the military, civilians deploy, travel around the world away from their families; they sign agreements to stay and support the military if things don’t well and provide continuity to a lot of teams. Along the journey, we learn what to do from the best leaders, and learn what not to do from the ones who aren’t as great. With some luck and hard work, some of us get the honor of earning supervisory positions. Simon Sinek’s voice is always in the back of my mind with the quote, “Leadership is not a license to do less. Leadership is a responsibility to do more.”
I’m Jacqueline Leeker, I’m the USFK Public Affairs deputy, a GS-14, who with a whole lot of luck, humility, help along the way, and hard work, earned the honor and responsibility to supervise and support an incredible team. The public affairs team have communicated to more than a million people, stay up to date on more than 30 topics at any given time, are planners for best- and worst-case scenarios, and represent the command publicly on our social media platforms with the level of professionalism, empathy, and humor it demands. They are on-call for nights, weekends and holidays. They are intelligent, passionate and competent, but they are also human. Some are far away from families, other balance family and work obligations. We are all at different stages, have different worries, different hopes, and carry different types of grief, but always come together to celebrate life’s joys.
I have been in public affairs for more than 10 years. The mission IS incredibly important. It is THE reason we are here, but there are days when the mission isn’t in an emergency. We can take a couple of hours to celebrate, have fun, and add a little extra meaning to our lives. Weeks quickly turn into months, which turn into years -- it is my personal lifelong mission to make the time worthwhile, memorable and fun.
I am in awe of our team every day in all the things they accomplish. I also realize no one can succeed alone, so I rely on other amazing leaders and colleagues. I lean on them and reach out for guidance often. I learn just as much from our young soldiers, new GS civilians, and anyone passionate about what they do as I do from the more seasoned leaders.
Some great things I’ve learned from our civilian leadership:
Team Training: Do you have weekly staff meetings? Great! Then you have time for training. If you already have time built in when the team is together, why not add 20-30 minutes dedicated to training at the end? Soft skills, hard skills, different teammates can present on things they are passionate about. Doesn’t have to cost a cent.
Free Training: Have you heard of EDx.com? An organization dedicated to making education available without the barriers of cost or location. You can get online and get free certificates on any topic you could possibly imagine – we’re talking Harvard, Berkeley, you name it. I learned this from Mr. Bruch at T&R; he’s truly passionate about civilian development. He’s got a wealth of knowledge!
DoD Training: Encourage your teams to take advantage of them! I would not have been the supervisor I am today without the Executive Leadership Development Program. I received nine months of feedback from my cohort and coaches. I wouldn’t have the skillset to realize if the team isn’t reaching goals and expectations, it’s time to turn the mirror on myself to ask, “If we aren’t getting results, I am probably the reason. How can I communicate expectations with more clarity?”
Annual Appraisals: One document demonstrates an entire year’s worth of work. I used to dread them, now I ask the team nine questions about how work is going, what’s challenging, what’s fun, what are their goals, and have fun getting to know them. I ask the team to keep monthly bullet points of their work, not to micromanage what they do, but because I know they are doing so much more than what I am aware of. I want to be able to write narratives for awards and their annual evals and appropriately reflect on their accomplishments.
Fun! Our KATUSAs are so intelligent, to help learn how to use the cameras and teleprompters, we asked them to give three-minute presentations on things they’re passionate about. I learned about blockchain, cooking, and what the process is to becomes a KATUSA. One KATUSA would present while the others worked the equipment. We will break out Catch Phrase or fun word games to work on English and have discussions on culture. The best part? So much laughter!
Mission: I also learned from the KATUSAs it’s important for every person to understand how they support the mission. It is not fun to be the first person in the office every single morning before the sun is up to put together the media report, the responsibility is always there. When we talked about how media information gets presented to the 4-star commander every day, and why it matters … it is no longer just a monotonous task, their dedication changes because they understand their impact to mission. What they do matters.
Develop Others: I am not successful until I have helped my team develop the skills to replace me. You can be demanding while showing respect for your team, you can give negative and constructive feedback with love, you can deliver tough messages with kindness. Be direct and be kind. You are there to help them grow and succeed. Gratitude felt does NOT equal gratitude expressed. Incorporate it every day. Give intent, not step by step instructions. Empower your team with responsibility and authority. I know 22 people can do a lot more with information when I share it, than if I hoard information.
I have learned these lessons usually the hard way. Some of the recommendations may sound silly, or not your style, but when you take the time to build trust, provide empathy, and create an environment for collaboration and understanding, the team will come up with creative processes saving the organization time and money in ways you never imagined possible. When you create an environment for them to try things, fail a little bit, but be resilient to come up with an even better plan, that’s where the magic happens. In moments of crisis when time is not a luxury, the team with established trust is able to execute and amplify an organization’s strategy and mission with success.
Lean on your partners, on the other directorates who are subject matter experts, on the military, on the civilians, on the team. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we need to be dedicated to getting to the answer together. Maya Angelou’s words are often with me, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
My sincerest congratulations to the civilians being recognized for their incredible work. I count myself incredibly lucky and grateful to be among you. No one needs a title to be a leader, just continue to provide your experience and influence outcomes to the best of your ability. Every civilian in the Department of Defense has my sincerest gratitude. For the civilians, both U.S. and Korean National on the peninsula, you have a special place in my heart. The missions here are complex and demanding, in ways only those who have experienced it know.
This week is about celebration, recognition and learning. My door is always open, and if our paths cross, please tell me your story, I’d love to know more.