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An interview with Rick DeMello.

Most of us who know Rick DeMello think of the affable fellow with the luxuriant moustache, sparkling eyes, and pleasant manner who alternately chairs or assists with the Southwest Regional PDI each year--or as he calls it, "The Premier ASMC Training Event This Side of Memorial Day." His pleasant demeanor is only the tip of the iceberg of a man who has had a remarkably successful and complex career and can offer valuable advice to aspiring members of the financial management community.

Rick may have retired from federal service last June, but he hasn't retired from his active commitment to ASMC and his beloved Rio Grande Chapter. He plans to continue working with the annual Southwest Regional PDI for the indefinite future.

Although Rick now calls New Mexico home, his roots are in New England--he was born and raised in Dighton, Massachusetts. After receiving a bachelor of arts degree from Boston College, with a major in mathematics, he earned a master's degree in business administration from Northeastern University in Boston. During his lengthy career he earned a variety of professional certifications including Certified Defense Financial Manager, Certified Government Financial Manager, Certified Cost Estimator, and Level Three Certification from Defense Acquisition University in Business, Cost Estimating, and Financial Management and in Program Management.

It's clear that Rick is a true believer in the value of education and training.

A four-year tour of active duty in the United States Air Force was followed by Air Force Reserve/Guard status, during which he was recalled to active duty for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He retired as a major with 23 years of service. Rick entered a two-year training program at Hanscom Air Force Base (AFB), Massachusetts, with what is now the Electronic Systems Center (formerly the Electronic Systems Division (ESD)) of the Air Force Material Command. He held a series of increasingly responsible and permanent positions in several acquisition System Program Offices, culminating with an assignment as Chief of Program Control for a major Defense acquisition program, where he supervised budgeting, cost estimation, acquisition program reporting, and scheduling.

In 1993 he moved to Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas, and entered the world of education and training, allocating student quotas from Defense Acquisition University to acquisition financial management careerists throughout the Air Force. After two years he moved to Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, as the Director of Financial Management for what is now Detachment 12 of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command.

I asked Rick what he would tell a new entrant into the field of financial management in the Department of Defense (DoD). He said, "I'd tell them that this is a great job with lots of opportunity," and then he quoted a former commander of ESD: "If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong!"

Rick has always believed that and says that it is absolutely true at least, most days. He observed that you don't have to be stuffy and formal to get the job done. He is especially proud of the accomplishments of people he has helped along the way. "When I can help [a deserving] someone get ahead and be successful, it is the most gratifying feeling there is!" he said.

I asked him what role formal education and training play in a professional career. His answer was unique. He said that an undergraduate degree in liberal arts was the best basic educational underpinning for almost any professional career because it really broadens one s horizons, develops skills in critical thinking, and teaches how to analyze what's being taught. Then later, when a person becomes reasonably certain of his or her career interests, the time comes for training in specific skill sets (in his case an MBA), and one should pursue graduate study and training.

For government financial management careers, the MBA is ideal. (Nobody really teaches federal/DoD financial management, but MBA programs typically focus on the right skill sets.) However, an MPA (Master of Public Administration) is a close second, since there is a lot of overlap.

I then asked for recommended reading. He said, "I think you need to maintain 'situational awareness' both of the world at large and of your professional specialty. First, read your daily newspaper. Then keep up with your professional journals and newsletters; attend informational meetings (including those you're not invited to) as your schedule permits."

Rick is a real fan of training programs and encourages professionals to get as much training as possible. In addition to his initial formal two-year job-training program, he has attended the Professional Military Comptrollers School at Maxwell AFB and has taken courses at the Air Force Institute of Technology and the Defense Acquisition University (and its predecessors) and from the Army Management and Engineering Training Agency. "Don't overlook rotational assignments. Often cross-training is just as good as formal training in a new job, and you become a more valuable asset to your boss," he stated.

Rick warned against failing to confirm the boss's expectations. He did that once and ended up making great progress on the wrong priorities. His advice is to always take the time to "get square with the boss. It will pay great dividends!" He remembers his best boss as a man who gave him guidance, then let him move out and get the job done. He says the ideal supervisor "hires great people, trusts them, gets out of their way so they can excel, and then lets them know how well they really have succeeded."

Rick believes that most civilian employees receive a certain amount of their leadership training through trial and error. He suggested that one should never underestimate the power of cliches; many of them continue to be as applicable today as they ever were. "After all, they are really just a distillation of the experiences of those who have preceded you." He cited the following examples: "Take care of your people and they'll take care of the mission," "Praise in public; punish in private," and "Always make you boss look good.

Recalling ASMC Executive Director Robert F. Hale's observation (while serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management) that most of the time, the Congress eventually does the right thing, DeMello noted that in his experience that is also true of most DoD professionals most of the time. The point is this: Expect excellent job performance because that expectation is often a significant incentive for colleagues, superiors, and subordinates.

Rick's parting thoughts came from ESD's Program Control Handbook of 1982 and have proven true throughout his career: "There are two keys to success in financial management. The first is communication/information. Above all else, always keep on top of the situation. Talk to anybody and everybody who has information that you need or might ever need or might ever like to have. Make it a point to know everything there is to know about your program(s). Build and maintain a network of contacts at your own (and other) ... offices, on the staff at [your MAJCOM/MACOM] and the Pentagon. The basic idea is that when you have information, you have the first, most elemental tool of management. So get all the information you can and maintain an effective information-gathering network.

"The second key is doing your homework. There are times when being really thorough is absolutely the most tedious, boring, drive-you-up-the-wall thing in the whole world. But there is one saving grace. If you really do your homework, if you have the facts straight and can justify your opinions (and recognize the difference), then nobody's ever going to come up behind you and take a chunk out of your precious posterior. Develop the habit of doing your homework all the time, and life in the fast lane is a breeze."

Rick and his wife Claire are both busily retired in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They have three children, one in high school, one in college, and one who teaches special education. They have three cats (Alley, Bandit, and Niglet) and love to travel (next trip: Hawaii).
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Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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