In this episode, Darren and Betsy Freeman, CEO of Radius Advisory Group, discuss her success as an information-driven leader.
Although Betsy is the CEO of Radius Advisory Group and technically retired from the federal space, she still keeps one foot in the public sector through her company which focuses on cybersecurity and cyberspace issues of national importance. Working in both the private and public sectors at the same time has been the most exciting part of her professional journey.
Betty started out as an active duty service member in the Air Force, switching to the industry while juggling kids and a spouse who was also on active duty. She’s worked in several industries, most recently utilities and energy, and spent a great deal of time at PricewaterhouseCoopers. She returned to the Department of Defense (DOD) when she was selected to work with Secretary Gates as a member of the Defense Efficiencies Task Force. She stayed under Secretary Pancetta and had an exciting journey, ultimately being appointed Deputy CIO for Business Process and Systems Review. There, she created a data analytics function to provide more transparency on Information Technology costs and potential efficiencies across the DoD.
Betsy's biggest challenge in the role of Deputy CIO, which she thinks is true across the public and private sector, is how to bring new thinking, processes, technologies, and methods of working into the organization. In large organizations, the scope is enormous, and there are many silos, each with its own culture, agendas, budgets, and P&Ls. Situations such as the COVID pandemic, where changes need to happen quickly, are incredibly challenging.
Betsy says that COVID changed the culture in some ways, but in other ways, it caused people to hunker down even more, which is not good. There were many process and technology challenges that everyone learned from and continues to do so. One worry Betsy has is that there is now a new environment and ecosystem, and the return to the office can’t be stuffed back into the old bag as many leaders are trying to do. Although this is very difficult to navigate, and whether leaders consider the new environment good or bad, it can’t be treated the same as before.
Once leaders make a shift, however, Betsy’s strategy is to sprint everything. She learned this lesson when she was Deputy CIO and was given various projects on top of the underlying mission. She noticed that other teams were repeatedly given 30 days for projects, but her team was given only 10 days. When she inquired, the leadership said they knew her team could accomplish it in 10 days and that they had to make complex decisions that required the information her team could provide as part of the decision-making process, so the faster they could get it, the better. So she told her team that they just had to figure it out. They did, and they got good at it.
A sense of urgency helps people focus and perform, but leaders, Betsy points out, must ensure that they are equipped with the people, resources, and authority to execute something on a short timeline. This leadership support is key to success.
Betsy believes listening to people is essential, but decisions get made at the top, which should generally mean a few people. A matrix organization, which gained popularity in the 90s and 2000s, added layers of complexity, but most situations are already complex, so it still comes down to leadership. Leaders must be inclusive enough to listen to as many people as possible, but it can’t take five months and 150 meetings. They must develop systems and groups that can do ideation, suggest models, and work with each other. Leaders have to have the ability to turn and burn; sometimes, they must act quickly. Often, the answer is fewer people but the right people, less technology, and the right technology to get what you need.
Betsy used a practical model when she received urgent projects from the Deputy Secretary of Defense to create small teams of five to seven people with diverse cognitive skills from among her 50 analysts. This was successful because she knew her analysts’ personalities and skills well and could cherry-pick teams rather than taking a problem to a huge group and trying to get everyone’s input. The small teams repeatedly surprised her by accomplishing complex tasks and solving problems.
By setting up processes and templates to solve problems, Betsy’s team often provided input to the Deputy Secretary of Defense or the CIO within hours if necessary. Ultimately, they had processes in place that enabled them to do the ideation to come up with neutral, data-based options based on many considerations. This allowed the leaders to look at the facts and evidence and make decisions.
Betsy had faith in her teams and never told them how to do the work or assumed she knew the best way to approach things. She had good people and just trusted them to do it, This motivated her people, and they would be constantly anxious for new assignments. Employees want to know that leaders listen to them and consider and use their ideas. This approach allowed people to tell her their best analysis and options. It was often a combination of those analyses that made it back to the leadership. Credit goes to the leadership in the DOD and the CIO’s office, which trusted Betsy’s process.
Every time there was a new problem, Betsy assigned a new team. That way, different people could work on different types of projects and not get pigeonholed into one area, and people could work across the generational divide. Sometimes people were initially resistant to working with age groups outside their own, but in the end, they learned to see things through different, beneficial lenses.
Since Betsy and her deputy got to know their people well, she could work quickly to put effective teams together. One hallmark of her success is that whenever she asked a team to work on two things, no one ever said no. They just did it.
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