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Learning to lead: my journey in the AF Civilian Strategic Leadership Program.

I was taught not to look down on humble beginnings--work hard and you can do anything! That has been true in my career; I started out as a GS-3 clerk stenographer and worked hard to reach GS-14 in the Air Force (AF) Financial Management (FM) career field. My mentors along the way encouraged me to set goals and consider a mobility assignment to gain new (and greater) perspective. I had my sights set on becoming a Corporate Executive, but my plan to get there didn't align with reality. So, I had to do some serious soul searching.

Realistically, what would it take to become a well-respected leader in the Department of Defense (DoD)? More importantly, what was I willing to do to achieve that result? I knew it was about servant leadership. It wasn't just about making me a great leader; it was more about what I could do to contribute to the Department and a great country!

With a collective family heritage of over 150 years with the AF (mostly at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio) and more than 30 years myself, you can understand my initial trepidation when I was selected for the Air Force's Civilian Strategic Leader Program (CSLP). There I was, pulling out of my Ohio driveway in a moving truck after more than a 30-year career in the same place to start a brand-new adventure at US Southern Command (SOUTFICOM) in Miami, Florida. It's now been 1-1/2 years since I began my CSLP assignment. In this short time, I have learned many leadership "nuggets" I believe may encourage others to consider this excellent opportunity. This article shares some of them with you.

Panning for Gold

First, you may need to sift through a little mire and muck to find golden nuggets--so don't let the minutia distract you! The CSLP is a 2-to-3 year career-broadening opportunity to gain experience outside of one's primary career field. The focus is on the "big rocks" by making every ounce of learning and experience count, and "not sweating the small stuff." Achieving great goals takes hard work-but anything great is worth working through and for it!

Currently, I serve as the Fleadquarters Portfolio Manager (343 series) at SOUTFICOM, a geographical Combatant Command (COCOM). The Army is this COCOM's Executive Agent. In a nutshell, this assignment couldn't be more different for this AF career FMer! Stationed at an Army location, I've had to work through administrative and logistical challenges on a case-by-case basis, which gave me new opportunities to stretch my ingenuity in the areas of communication, training (both Joint and annual), and personnel-related processes.

As I soon learned, many processes, forms and computer systems differ across the Military Services. One example I learned personally relates to civilian permanent-change-of station, including settlement voucher processing at the closest AF base 4 hours away. While challenging to work through, the process was not insurmountable. I also sought out a senior AF FM mentor for regular coaching and support, and worked with the FM career-field team (CFT) lead to stay connected to my functional roots and ensure I was current on anything involving career/force development This is important as a career broadener outside my functional career field.

The AF investment in your leadership development comes in the form of the 2 to 3 years you will serve in your CSLP assignment, which takes priority over other development opportunities. This stands to reason, as this is a relatively short time to absorb, learn and contribute. Suffice to say, don't get distracted by the minutia; the benefits and learning you reap from the CSLP assignment far exceed the challenges.

Embrace the Differences

CSLP assignments are designed to expose selectees to broad, senior-level leadership experiences that develop and hone their leadership skills. When I arrived at SOUTHCOM, I initially was overwhelmed with the magnitude of change in many areas and on multiple levels. It was a job in a new career-field, in a Joint organization and a different Service as Executive Agent, in what felt like a foreign country.

I set out on this adventure without the comfort of my spouse and family, so the adjustment to a geographical bachelorette was my first transition. I had an excellent mentor who was away from her family as well and encouraged me to make good use of "Skype" (which has been invaluable). The Latin and Hispanic cultures of South Florida have also brought a rich diversity to my experience. SOUTHCOM offers courses in several languages; where I live, the primary language is Spanish. I found both the internal and external cultures were an unexpected opportunity to stretch my leadership aperture.

The most significant difference in my CSLP assignment has been working in a Joint organization heavily influenced by the Army culture. The Joint environment has given me the opportunity to work with personnel of all Military Services and learn Joint organizational leadership, programs, processes and products. Working at a four-star Army COCOM, I'm privileged to work with subordinate commands, participate in some regional activities in SOUTHCOM's area of responsibility, develop process improvements that have global and command-wide effects, and coordinate input to products like the Comprehensive Joint Assessment used by the Joint Staff to justify SOUTHCOM operational requirements supporting our US National Security Strategy. While learning to navigate the systems and processes of another Service can be time-consuming, I've found it is time well spent; the investment to learn new tools will equip me to help resolve the Department's diverse challenges. My supervisor is also a master at translating confusion to understanding and I've found embracing these differences is stimulating and has given me far-reaching, invaluable perspectives I will take with me to every new assignment.

Be Teachable

My CSLP experience has taught me that leadership is a two-way street--being willing to lead, but also being led. This takes open and honest communication with your mentors to garner feedback on the good, the bad, and the ugly. Listen to your leaders--they want you to be successful and can help you navigate the obstacle course. Being teachable means learning to capitalize on your strengths while seeking out weak areas. Progress results from learning to overcome failures and shortcomings--it is moving in the right direction.

Do everything you're asked, and then some. Seek out volunteer opportunities that will challenge you. By leaning forward, you help yourself, your organization, and the DoD. New York Times bestselling author and speaker Lysa Terkeurst teaches the concept of "Ingest vs. Digest." Basically, we should be asking ourselves, "What do we do with what we're given?" This may sound like motherhood and apple pie, but I've found it to be true--be an inspiration! Pay it forward without regard for whether you get the credit! You will come away the biggest beneficiary. I've felt as if I've received far more than I've contributed--a humbling position to be in.


How do we "win friends and influence people" in a new job, with new people, a new organization and a different culture? I can tell you one way not to do it is acting like the proverbial bull in a china shop! As leaders, we've all been in positions where we take charge --it is second nature. In my CSLP assignment, however, my posture has been more a repetitive cycle of learning and assessing where 1 can contribute effectively. How can I use my skills to contribute and support, versus takeover and change?

Communicating a supportive posture in lieu of a directive one embraces the thought that "different" doesn't necessarily mean "wrong"--and it takes you a much longer way in the right direction. I was taught as a child that "a gentle answer diffuses anger" and I would substitute anger with "frustration" as well. While I've not broken the mold completely in my CSLP position, I'm reminded daily that my perspective on something may carry with it biases that, if left unchecked, can create dysfunction rather than unity of purpose.

Another concept from author Lysa Terkeurst is "our reactions determine our reach." I've found my ability to influence is directly tied to how I react in a situation. I can truncate my span of influence just by opening my mouth. I've learned that I have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Discerning the proper time to open the one versus use the two--takes a lot of practice. The more I listen, the more I learn. This is an art and can be the determining factor in your ability to lead.

Battlefield Tactics, Broken Down Tanks, Youth Hockey & Girls Volleyball

I bet you're asking what in the world do these things have to do with leadership? I've had many teachable moments with my wonderfully patient supervisor, a retired Army officer who has a way of telling stories that help me understand a bit more about the Army perspective. I've found these are life and leadership lessons that have changed my viewpoint with regard to the mission and people.

Tactics (our approach) matter--both on the field and off the field--so, become a student and learn what works. You find out what you're really made of when you are in the heat of battle or adversity. Be steadfast and have unwavering commitment--these are at the heart of the mission. If your tank breaks down, you get out of it and keep moving toward the goal; giving up is not an option. As in managing a youth hockey team, sometimes learning how to play the game is found in valuing creativity and a little less in micromanaging. Becoming an A-player takes practice, win or lose, everyone has a position to play! Lastly, in order to build successful teams with unified purpose, like young girls on a volleyball team, you need to be a good coach and build relationships. Getting to know your people will help you capitalize on what everyone brings to the table and ultimately will minimize their weaknesses and yours!


For those fortunate to have the opportunity, CSLP is an investment in your professional development. Depending on what you've learned up to this point, it may or may not propel you to meet your future goals. Your mentors and the CFT (including the Development Team) can help facilitate your success. Even so, you must decide your career goals and what you are willing to do (or not do) to reach them.

To apply for CSLP, your completed package must be submitted during the Civilian Developmental Education (CDE) call by the deadline, usually 1 May of each year. Pay careful attention to the requirements, as they are different for each program.

Like the sign on my office wall says, "Life is a journey ... and you hold the map." It takes ownership in your career, a transparent evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses, and a willingness to embrace learning how to diffuse your biases and see new perspectives. Your success in these challenges will enable you to value diverse views and learn new ways to solve the Department's toughest challenges. While new perspectives may be different, don't discount the value they contribute to your tool box--one of those perspectives may be the very thing that allows you to have a voice at the table.

Chantele Dow, CDFM-A

Chantele Dow is the HO Portfolio Manager at US Southern Command in the Resources and Assessments Directorate. She has 32 years of combined Air Force civil service and contractor support experience. She is a CDFM-A, DFMCP3 certified, DAWIA Level III certified in Business Financial Management and Cost Estimating, and Level I in Program Management and also Level III certified in International Affairs. She earned a BS degree in Business Management from Park College and a MBA from the University of Dayton. She also completed Air War College by distance learning and is a member of ASMC's New Biscayne Chapter.
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Author:Dow, Chantele
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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