Are you ready for change?

  • Published
  • By Col. Renita Alexander
  • 28th Mission Support Group commander
Change has been the topic of conversation in the Department of Defense for a few years now, especially since former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mandated the transformation of the military when the Bush Administration took office. In the Air Force, that conversation has gotten increasingly louder as our leaders have redirected resources to focus on the recapitalization of our aging aircraft, forcing us to reassess how we operate.

There has been some argument as to whether the changes we've experienced have been truly transformational; personnel eliminations, skill consolidations and squadron reorganizations may look incremental from 15,000 feet, but for the young Airman learning a different skill or mid-level NCO forced to forge a new career field, or the civilian experiencing a reduction-in-force, the changes have been monumental.

Despite all the conversation, the Air Force media blitz, the programs and the emphasis on learning how to use the Air Force Smart Operations 21 "self-help" tools, I've had to ask myself, "Are we really prepared for the changes we are about to experience? Do we, individually, understand the inevitability of a 40,000 reduction in personnel and equally significant budget reduction, and how we, individually and/or collectively, might and/or will be affected? Is each of us ready to acquire a new skill, change to a new career, or learn a new way to conduct business?"

Like any member with 20 or more years of active duty service, I've experienced much change in the AF, but the most traumatic for me was in 2000 when I inactivated the supply squadron I had commanded for two years and turned the supply function over to a contractor. The inactivation had nothing to do with job performance; the squadron had been recognized as the Air Force's best supply squadron in our category during my second year of command. My squadron was a casualty of the incredible shrinking Department of Defense after the end of the Cold War.

I could categorize most people's reaction to the inactivation in one of three ways: positive reaction, delayed positive reaction, and complete and utter denial

The people that responded positively had seen this particular change coming and were prepared or preparing. Technological advances and reorganization (Air Mobility Command's Regional Supply Squadron was standing up at the same location) resulted in the loss of some responsibilities; frankly, we were overmanned. These individuals started taking additional training to learn new skills. They attended every town hall, and every planning session to ensure they had the latest information on the transition. They were excited about new life possibilities.

After some initial reluctance to accept the inevitable, the second group of individuals reassessed their goals and options, and also began to prepare. One individual in this group shared that the experience actually brought his family closer.

Then there were those individuals in absolute denial. They ranted about the unfairness of the decision, they balked at retraining opportunities, and they were reluctant to accept the jobs offered. They were very, VERY afraid; afraid they wouldn't be able to learn a new job, afraid they wouldn't like a new job, and (for some of the civilians who represented a significant percentage of the workforce) afraid they wouldn't find a new job. In other words, they had a very typical reaction to the disruption this particular change had created in their lives.

For my part, I communicated constantly and consistently with the workforce, encouraged involvement in the establishment of milestones, encouraged members to share their disagreements and disappointments overtly, and acknowledged the confusion and frustration many were experiencing. And I learned many lessons about change management that will help me navigate the challenges my unit will face during this command tour.

I learned it's important to understand this fundamental fact--social and technological change is happening at an increasingly accelerated pace. That's as true in the Air Force as in any other sector; we've harnessed technology to eliminate some jobs while merging career fields to create new ones. Despite your work ethic, you may find yourself with skills that are no longer required; a willingness to retrain or to learn a new discipline could be the difference between employment and unemployment. As my favorite futurist, Alvin Toffler puts it, "The illiterate of the 21stcentury will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." We must anticipate and prepare.

I learned that the basic concern for most people experiencing change is the issue of control, or lack there of. We are all most comfortable when we can influence what happens to us; the inability to exert influence over something that has an adverse affect on our lives can breed apprehension, apathy or even despair. Those of us in supervisory roles have a responsibility to understand and embrace the mandate given to us by our Air Force leaders, and share our knowledge with our subordinates to counteract negative emotions. But the ability to influence or control what happens to us individually largely depends on our personal belief that our capabilities exceed whatever challenges we face. That confidence comes from preparation.

Most of all, I learned it's important to view change in positive terms. To quote the Greek philosopher Epictetus, "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters." Attitude determines success in whatever challenge we face.

I believe those individuals most prepared for change, the ones who view change with a positive attitude, and are confident in their abilities to successfully meet the challenges they face, will adapt to the changes the Air Force is facing easiest. I encourage each of you to get ready and be that person.