After a year embedded in the private sector, the 2023-2024 Secretary of Defense Executive Fellows returned to the Pentagon to brief senior leaders on key organizational and operational insights from some of the nation’s top companies. 

For nearly three decades, the highly selective program has served as a springboard for post-command, field-grade officers to expand their skill sets and leverage best practices to drive innovation within the Defense Department.  

Caroline Baxter, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force education and training, whose office oversees the fellowship, made clear its value to participants and DOD. “The Secretary of Defense Executive Fellows Program offers our most talented military officers with a unique opportunity to fully immerse themselves in industry, broadening their understanding of mission-critical challenges, cultivating relationships outside of government, exposing them to private sector approaches and lessons learned and equipping them to drive change in the department.” 

Space Force Lt. Col. Dex Landreth, who served as a fellow with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, underscored this point, sharing, “SDEF gave me a year of C-suite access. There’s simply no other fellowship in the DOD that allows you to observe, learn and understand industry challenges.” 

This year, 18 fellows from across the services completed 11-month rotations at companies throughout the U.S. The private sector sponsors included technology, energy, financial services and consumer goods companies, in addition to large defense contractors and top-tier consulting firms.  

The fellows also participated in congressional visits and think-tank engagements and completed executive-level business coursework through the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. 

The program culminated with end-of-year briefings to two dozen senior DOD executives, including several service secretaries, defense undersecretaries and other senior military and civilian leaders throughout the services.  

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., highlighted the lasting impact the fellowship will have on the officers’ careers and on DOD as a whole when he met with the fellows this week. 

“You’ve seen things that will pay dividends moving forward, especially in our warfighting contexts,” Brown said. “The relationships you’ve built and the insights you’ve gained from different company cultures are invaluable to the department.” 

The presentations, which spanned five days, provided an opportunity for the fellows to brief senior leaders on organizational, operational and technological best practices from the private sector that can be applied within DOD.  

Air Force Col. Jason Hansberger, who completed his fellowship with Autodesk, a San Francisco-based software company, said the briefings offered a “very unique opportunity to spend an hour with our senior most leaders in thinking sessions.” 

“It’s a testament to the value of the SDEF program that our leadership makes time in their calendars to host an unstructured back-and-forth with the fellows where both sides benefit from each other’s experiences and insights,” he said. 

Fellow participant and Army Lt. Col. Matthew Jamison, who spent the past year at technology company CACI International, Inc., echoed these sentiments noting, “Concluding the SDEF Program with Pentagon outbriefs enabled us to provide lessons learned directly to senior leaders who are in a position to leverage our time spent with industry to affect change within the department.” 

The group focused on three key areas — talent management and culture; innovation and acquisition; and artificial intelligence transformation — in identifying best practices that may be transferable to military and civilian organizations within the federal government. 

Ashish S. Vazirani, performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, honed in on talent management during his briefing June 7, emphasizing the importance of permeability and cross-sector learning, and facilitating a robust dialogue with the group around topics ranging from leadership development to boomerang employees. 

It was clear from the discussion that the briefings were designed to foster change and innovation throughout the department. 

On Monday, the group briefed Margaret Palmieri, DOD’s chief digital artificial intelligence officer. Palmieri dug deep into the cohorts’ recommendations, engaging in thorough discussions about the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office’s efforts to modernize talent management practices as DOD undergoes what she said is a departmentwide shift toward digitization.  

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Matthew Baumann, who served as a fellow with SpaceX, offered a compelling takeaway from his experience to support this shift, “A culture of innovation permeating every facet of an organization is what enables the ability to adapt and rapidly develop new technologies in an ever-changing environment. I’ve witnessed firsthand how a culture of ‘failing fast’ and learning from those failures is crucial for driving technological advancement.” 

The Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office has been on the cusp of DOD’s efforts to drive innovation and deliver key capabilities to the warfighter. 

In the less than two years since being formed, the office has notched several victories, including taking a lead role in the delivery of an initial iteration of the Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2, capability announced in February. 

Palmieri said DOD’s ability to harness emerging technology rests in the ability to attract talent, develop key skill sets throughout the uniformed and civilian workforce, and leaders’ abilities to foster that talent at the unit level.  

The fellows provided specific recommendations on how to develop a multidisciplinary, agile and capable workforce that aligns with the department’s needs, as well as the changing goals and expectations among new career entrants.  

Palmieri also sought input from the group on how insights and ideas from the private sector can be leveraged to improve DOD’s acquisition life cycle — a key area of focus as the department aims to seize on rapid advances in technology.  

During their conversation, fellows offered key insights into how companies manage their acquisition and product development processes, and they highlighted the need to deepen partnerships to increase industry participation and improve the speed of acquisition within DOD.  

Navy Cmdr. Mark Summerlin, who completed his fellowship at Microsoft Corporation, said, “As an acquisition professional in the DOD, it’s easy to get tunnel vision as we keep our heads down and focus on executing our programs. My time as a [fellow] has taught me that it’s important — as a leader — to lift my eyes up to the horizon and learn more about what others, in industry and within the DOD, are doing and saying. When we’re more aware of the environment and how others might be navigating it, we can more effectively chart a course for our own programs.” 

The group also discussed how artificial intelligence tools are being used in the private sector and CDAO’s road map toward responsible and ethical AI adoption. 

Hansberger said seeing the AI transformation from the private sector was a “transformative” experience that will continue to shape his military career going forward. 

“Integrating with teams at the leading edge of artificial intelligence research and application proved to me just how dramatically an expert armed with the right AI tool can accelerate productivity in the digital domain,” he said. “I am continuing to work with these researchers in my next position …  to address the common problems and solution needs inherent in our own missions.” 

He added that the fellowship also revealed surprising commonality between the private sector and DOD in how leaders drive organizational success. 

“Success in the DOD or at Autodesk isn’t guaranteed, and there is a constant need to provide a vision, balance risk and seize opportunity,” he said. “Civilian leaders and military commanders are at the center of organizing human activity into something of value.” 

Since the program was created in 1995, fellows have left a positive mark on the department.  

More than 290 service members have participated in the fellowship. Among the program’s alumni are 35 flag and general officers, including a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of U.S. Transportation Command.  

Coast Guard Cmdr. Jarod Toczko, who spent the past year at FedEx Express, looked to his own experience to illuminate why SDEF alumni have been so successful, saying, “The Secretary of Defense Executive Fellows Program was truly a transformative experience that significantly expanded my breadth of professional knowledge. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to think differently and approach problems from a new perspective with fresh insights and a more innovative and comprehensive mindset.” 

During his briefing last Friday, performing the duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness, Peter I. Belk, led a wide-ranging discussion with the fellows around their rotations in industry — recounting the value of his own experiences in the private sector — and challenged the group to consider how they will translate these new perspectives and fresh insights into action.  

“The takeaways and approaches that you’re bringing back to your organizations are going to bolster the foundation for innovation and improvement, laid — in part — by your fellow SDEF alumni, required to modernize and accelerate our efforts in support of the mission. But only if you share and act on them. We’re looking to you — our next generation of military leaders — to lead the charge in judiciously applying the very best of industry to the department.” 

Brown likewise encouraged all of the fellows to use their experiences to shape DOD as they come back to the department and continue their careers.  

“As you return, think about how we can incorporate these perspectives to build stronger relationships, innovate and enhance our capabilities with our allies and industry partners,” he said. “I encourage you to leverage your experience over the past year and the knowledge you’ve gained to best prepare ourselves for future challenges.” 

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