Thursday, July 15, 2021
Interview Kate Kelley, Chief Human Capital Officer, Army Futures Command

Kate Kelley, Chief Human Capital Officer at the U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC) joined me on The Business of Government Hour to discuss the AFC human capital strategy, its efforts to attract, reskill, and retain the right talent, and ways it is working to transform organizational culture. Here is an edited excerpt of our discussion, highlighting some of the key insights shared.

The creation of the U.S. Army Futures Command (ACF) marks one of the most significant Army reorganization efforts since 1973. Unlike its peer commands, which focus on today’s readiness, AFC focuses specifically on forging future readiness. Its stated mission is to make sure soldiers have what they need, before they need it, to protect tomorrow… today. “AFC’s incredible workforce is the foundation of our success,” declares, its first Commanding General, Mike Murray. In its efforts to execute on the Army People Strategy. AFC has enhanced its use of Direct Hire Authority to get the right talent hired faster. It has implemented several first-of-their-kind technology talent initiatives, establishing the first-ever Soldier-led Software Factory in Austin, TX and an Artificial Intelligence degree program for Soldiers and Civil Servants at Carnegie Mellon University.

“AFC is charged with doing what some may consider impossible and that is predicting the future,” explains Kelley. There are no guarantees and likely many hits-and-misses when attempting to anticipate the future, but “the U.S. Army has a very honest assessment of itself and established [AFC] to do what it needs to do to be prepared for that future fight” admits, Kelley.

On Being Chief Human Capital Officer. First, my title is unusual in the Army context. It is very typical title and role within the private sector and in many federal government agencies. This was on purpose as part of AFC’s continuing effort to challenge legacy thinking. My responsibilities are broad, spanning traditional human capital functions such as hiring, compensation, managing, career-building to being charged with thinking about and integrating modern innovative human capital practices into the Army. I think of my role as really trying to challenge the enterprise to get away from arguably legacy human capital systems and move as far as we can legally move within the federal government towards practices that are more agile, modern, and more effective ways to attract, keep, and managing talent.

On Challenges and Surprises. One of the prevalent challenges we face is operating within the constraints of some very antiquated legacy systems that mark the current federal workforce hiring environment. The Army is doing a wonderful job of recognizing that its talent management must evolve for both its military and civilian staff. My challenge is how do you do that within the confines of say the general schedule for federal employees and limitations of competition and fair practice.

It has also been quite challenging and somewhat surprising standing up this command. AFC established this new command not on an Army installation but in an office building in downtown Austin, TX., which is a high-cost urban setting. While establishing headquarters, we also had to merge the existing scientific and research communities across the Army along with its analysis and data components, and concept writers…all merging to be part of this new entity called Army Futures Command. It was a complex, difficult, and quite frankly, lengthy process simultaneously merging and acquitting existing entities while at the same time creating a startup in Austin all at once.

On Discovering Untapped Talent. There is a prevalent narrative that the federal government must find ways to bring needed talent in information technology, network architecture, software, and data analytics, from the private sector. By canvassing our current workforce, we found that we had this talent in our ranks. When we brought them into the Army, we did not have data specific career models. We did not have software design and engineering career models. At the time, we made this talent something else. We assessed this talent into the existing legacy career models even though this talent can do things like DevSecOps or big data analytics. Today, we are pulling this talent from existing career models, creating an environment for those individuals with the skills and interest in coding or software development to apply them in the Army. The exciting challenge for us is building new career models for that talent that is being pulled from established career paths. In doing this, perhaps we have dispelled the narrative that all these skills are out there, and we need to go and get there. What we found is some of these skills are within our Army family.

On the Army Futures Command Software Factory. It is our incubator and accelerator to improve digital competency. We are creating teams of individuals –cohorts -- who have discreet roles on software development product teams that understand not only how to build, how to code, and how to develop viable applications that solve Army problems, but also have the requisite platform engineer and support structures to deploy these new tools onto networks. This is a very interesting model informed by a couple of learning campaigns we did. One of those campaigns focused on learning how the private sector does application and software development. We’ve leveraged the plethora of software companies that are in Austin, Texas to find out. We have also consulted existing DOD assets such as the U.S. Air Force’s Kessel Run Experimentation Lab, the Defense Innovation Unit, and a host of other entities across the DOD. We have visited and worked with them to build the model that we have here at AFC. We are asking and trying to solve crucial questions: How can we impact our generating force and solve problems at the garrison level? Can we put these software development teams in a future deployed environment where they are able to do agile software development, diagnose, and provide solutions on the spot that can help a commander on the ground make better and faster decisions? The experiment is not only to create the talent that is needed to build these teams, but also to employ these teams across the Army.

On Changing Culture. Fail early, fail often seems to describe innovation cultures in the private sector especially. It runs absolutely counter to our Army culture, which is: do not fail ever, and make sure you deliver. We are trying to create new ways of operating to anticipate the future needs of our soldiers. It is impossible to get this right 100% the first time, every time. AFC is working towards that culture shift where it is okay for one of our cohorts to come up with two or three ideas, only one of which turns out to be viable. but the point is the Army has gotten a viable solution even though maybe two of the three ideas failed. If we identify a viable idea that can be put into production and scaled accordingly to support the Army, that is a win.

When you are trying to change culture and thinking you need to know when and how far to push the envelope. As a command, we need to know when to challenge the status quo at what level and degree to do so. This balancing act keeps AFC from just becoming a thorn in the side of the larger Army. When you are trying to get people to do things differently, to think differently, to shift their mindset every small conversation becomes significant. Transforming how things are done never happens overnight.

On Striking a Balance. Regarding hybrid work models, the most important thing we can do is strike a balance that enables flexibility for the workforce but also gets the mission done. Prior to COVID-19, it is safe to say that we were less flexible about allowing distributed work environments. Telework has been available by permission. This last year plus has challenged us to test some assumptions and assess whether parts of our workforce and their jobs can effectively be done in a distributed way.

Right now, we are crafting for the Army Futures Command a return-to-work strategy that allows for telework and is flexible about when and to what degree. It also seeks to create work environments where teams can come together, collaborate, and then go back into those distributed work patterns to produce the next round of the product. It’s an exciting time, but we’re going to have to pilot this effort and continues to evolve it to make sure that we find that balance.

We recognize that being more flexible on work location improves our chances of getting a better pool of candidates interested in working the Army Futures Command.

On Making the U.S. Army an Employer of Choice. It is important for us to communicate how much the Army has to offer. When people think of the Army, they may envision the requisite infantry soldier. We are that and much more. At AFC, we hire scientists, engineers, information specialists., and data scientists, to name a handful of professions.

We want to be an employer of choice. We have existing partnerships with universities across the country. These partnerships provide us with student interns who work in our labs during the summer alongside our scientists and researchers, focusing on real problems. The experience exposes these interns to all the Army has to offer in terms of employment opportunities and builds a pipeline of relationships that make it easier to recruit and attract the right person with the right skill for the right job in a timelier manner. Using direct hire authority or our science and technology lab authorities, we can offer a job to that graduate with the engineering degree who may have also interned at our lab. Having these authorities enables us to compete for talent and shrinks the length of time for getting the right candidate on board.

On Leadership. Leaders must be authentic. You must present your real self to your teams, colleagues, and across your organizations. Authenticity is a crucial characteristic especially when you are engaged in difficult work. People you leader must believe in you the leader but also in your vision and mission.  Leaders must also cultivate credibility. This is garnered not simply from technical expertise, but more from a willingness to do the hard work and to put in the effort yourself. I think good, effective leaders can be both authentic and credible if they take the time to do that. Leaders must also need to avoid micromanaging. You want to empower your team, so they can achieve the vision you have set forth.

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