NSA shares leadership secrets to mission success

Wednesday - 6/27/2012, 6:14am EDT

June 27, 2012 - Agency of the Month

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Walk into the National Security Agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., and you might notice something different. The average age of employees there is less than it is at other federal agencies. That's because half of NSA's workforce has been hired since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Deputy Director Chris Inglis said he sees this younger workforce as both an opportunity and a challenge for the agency.

"The challenge is appealing to the younger people who come in, in terms of the quickness of the pace and the availability of technology. The collaboration skills that they practice demand a certain set of technologies and practices that challenge us in all the right ways," Inglis said on Federal News Radio's Agency of the Month program. "The opportunity is that they push us in the right direction and they continue to be just like the people we've hired for the last 60 years — they come because they want to matter. They want to do something that is important enough to commit their skills, their hard-won skills, to something that is greater than themselves."

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And that, Inglis said, helps keep them at the agency. Inglis and Kathy Hutson, the agency's director of human resources, both emphasized the agency's high retention rate during interviews with Federal News Radio.

"We have a slogan in HR, which is, if you can keep an employee for five years, you can keep them for a career," Hutson said. "So we find once we cross that five-year threshold, our employees do tend to stay for quite a long time."

Inglis is the perfect example of that homegrown talent — rising through the ranks at the agency over the past 26 years. He began his career at NSA in 1986 as a computer scientist within the National Computer Security Center. His subsequent roles have covered everything from information assurance to policy, time-sensitive operations and signals intelligence. He became a member of NSA's Senior Executive Service in 1997 and served in multiple leadership positions before being named deputy director in 2006.

"One thing that I fundamentally believe is that anyone can lead so long as they have the aspiration to do so and they get some meaningful support and, perhaps, a little bit of training along the way," Inglis said.

But, he said, management and leadership aren't for everybody.

"There is a distinction between doing well at a skill like mathematics or engineering or a language analyst, and then aspiring to and becoming a good manager or a good leader," Inglis said. "The first key to finding a good manager or good leader is finding someone who has the skills to do that. Not simply the demonstrated skills at what they were doing, but the skills to actually take on a different character of work as a manager or a leader, and that they aspire to do that. Assign somebody to be a manager or a leader who really doesn't want to do that, who won't thrive in doing that, and they'll prove you right. They will not thrive in doing that."

Inglis also draws a distinction between managers and leaders, and said agencies need both to succeed.

"A manager takes hard problems, allocates the pieces of those hard problems across a group of people and, ultimately, manages the result by combining their separate efforts into a solution. But nobody is surprised that was a problem the manager took on and not particularly surprised with how the problem was decomposed," Inglis said. "A leader comes into the same room and says, 'There's something that we're not doing today that is appropriate or possible in ways that you might not have thought about.' They essentially take influence from the environment or from their people and they form an idea, form an initiative, that nobody would have thought about or nobody would have committed to and, therefore, reframes what is seen to be the appropriate and possible thing to do."

Inglis said the most important thing for new managers to "get right" is the culture of their organization.

"The most powerful force on the planet is culture. That's true in an organization, that's true in a nation state. Concentrate not so much on the mechanics of what you do but on the culture, the ethos," Inglis said. "That's particularly true in an organization where you expect the individuals to make choices on behalf of the organization on a daily basis. ... You have to empower them. And to get that right in an organization like NSA, you have to get the culture right."

Inglis also said it's important for new managers to accept input from their employees when it comes to problem solving.

"You need to take influence as a leader as much as you might wield it to give everybody's voice a chance to make a difference," Inglis said. "At NSA, one of our great secrets, one of our core principles, is to array a diverse brain trust around a common problem and to give everybody a chance to speak to what they see and what, perhaps, they might see as the solution associated with whatever challenge we might have. Sure enough, somebody in the room is going to see something that nobody else can see. If they give voice to that then everybody benefits."

What comes next for Inglis?

After 26 years at the agency, Inglis said he has reached the top of his career at NSA.

"At the National Security Agency, which essentially is comprised of career civil servants, this job for me is the end of a long career where I've looked for greater responsibility, greater opportunity at various places," Inglis said. "Inside the National Security Agency, this is probably that job I would have sought out many years ago as the best opportunity to make a full and fair contribution. What lies beyond this at the National Security Agency is, therefore, uncharted territory."

As for what comes next, Inglis said he's not worried about it.

"Gen. [Keith] Alexander, my boss and I, are hopefully a matched pair. We will serve for some while longer and then what comes after that will be another matched pair. The future, in that regard, will play out naturally, as it does, over the next year, two, or three. I have no concerns, no worries," Inglis said.

"One of the rules of thumb I give people when they think about their next opportunity is, don't worry so much about the specifics but rather about the attributes. Is the job fulfilling, fun, interesting such that you get up in the morning and go do it? Is there an after? Is there something that lies beyond that? And, do you get to work with, around, and for interesting people? That's been true throughout my career at NSA. I'm sure it will be true about the next job that I get."