Note: This is the third of five features on the five former DLA team members being inducted into the agency’s Hall of Fame in a July 31 ceremony.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Saunders clearly remembers when she first started learning what leadership meant to her.
About halfway through her 34-year military career, Saunders found herself as a squadron commander in Japan, overseeing a unit that was “good, but should have been great,” she said. Drawing on her 14 years of military service and lessons learned from her own leaders, Saunders began assessing what could make her unit great and what, in essence, defined a true leader, one who could create lasting change instead of just obedience. Her conclusion: a true leader is one who understands the unit’s mission, ensures every person at every level understands their jobs and their contributions to the mission, gives them the resources they need to perform those jobs, and holds people accountable for their actions, both positive and negative.
“Sometimes in the military, everybody just has to do what you say, so how much leading are you really doing?” she said. “A true leader goes beyond that.”
Saunders continued to hone that leadership philosophy throughout her military career, and brought it with her to what was then Defense Supply Center Columbus, Ohio, in 1998 as commander. For her contributions during her time at DSCC and as vice director of the Defense Logistics Agency from 2002 to 2005, Saunders is being inducted into the 2013 DLA Hall of Fame.
Saunders is remembered as a “passionate, visionary leader” who built trust among employees, managers, customers and suppliers, according to her nomination. For her part, Saunders said she feels her greatest legacy is how she helped employees understand the importance of the service they were providing and gave them a sense of ownership that influenced the quality of their work.
Upon arriving at DSCC, Saunders said, she felt a sense of disconnection between the employees, most of whom had no military experience, and the military customers. Through a number of steps, Saunders was able to help employees understand the customers they were supporting and the importance of their work. Some of those steps were rather simple, like framing and displaying photos of the weapons systems each section supported or showing employees readiness reports from the respective services.
Others were more involved, like sending seven key leaders to the Harvard Business School to study organizational culture and, as a result, establishing a three-day training course. That course included speakers from all levels of military service and a trip to a military installation to see DLA’s support in action. More than 1,500 employees went through that course, Saunders said, and their reactions were always the same: shock at the large number of opportunities that were being missed due to shortfalls in communication. To fix that lack of communication, Saunders assigned full-time weapons system support managers to each of the services’ critical weapons systems to work regularly with service program managers and other DLA activities. She also held separate customer support conferences for DSCC to improve communication with customers.
“When they did that, people began to take ownership,” Saunders said. “We stopped talking about things in terms of widgets and started talking about things in terms of readiness.”
While improving customer service at DSCC, Saunders also worked at mentoring and training leaders and developing an organizational culture of excellence, which is recognized as one of her most lasting contributions at what is now DLA Land and Maritime. As Saunders became familiar with her workforce, she said, she recognized that many junior and mid-level employees did not have the right qualifications to take on more senior roles. To remedy that, she worked with her personnel office to create a formal, three-tiered mentoring program that took employees from various levels and put them through leadership training. That program was very successful at breaking employees out of their comfort zones and helping them acquire new skills, she said. The program has continued to be successful and is still used at DLA Land and Maritime, a fact that makes Saunders proud.
“Even as recently as last year when I was at [DLA Land and Maritime], people have come up to me to say they’ve gotten promoted and provided the leadership that the organization needs, and they know how important it is to bring others up,” she said. “We created more people who were leaders who understood the role they’re doing, taking the initiative rather than waiting for the services to come to them.”
During Saunders’ time at DSCC, the organization had the best weapons system support statistics, highest supply availability, highest number of weapons systems above goal, and lowest number of back orders in DLA, according to her nomination. Under her leadership, the organization won the Commander-in-Chief’s Award for Installation Excellence and was seen as an example of excellent organizational culture.
Saunders had a chance to influence DLA’s overall culture when she came to DLA Headquarters as the agency’s vice director in 2002. Arriving at a busy time for the agency, Saunders jumped right in to helping support warfighters in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while implementing the Enterprise Resource Planning initiative, which dramatically changed the way DLA did business. Implementing this system required Saunders to draw on her experience at DSCC and find opportunities to train employees in new skills while keeping them in touch with their true purpose, which was to support customers, she said.
“When people really accept what it is that they’re doing and then realize who their customer is, then they provide the service that the customers need in order to be successful,” she said. “We were in a service organization, and the better DLA got, the more they did for the services, that freed up the services to do some of these other things they needed.”
Saunders was also instrumental in instituting agencywide Denison culture surveys, which DLA still uses as a way to identify issues and improve operations. Saunders looked at the culture surveys as another way to make people accountable for their work, because the program allowed them a chance to have their opinions heard and identify areas for improvement, she said.
One area Saunders saw improve drastically was DLA’s small-business contracting, she said. When she arrived as vice director, the agency was getting low marks in the small-business area, and through the culture surveys, Saunders learned employees weren’t happy and felt like there was a lack of coordination. Using their input, Saunders set up meetings between herself, procurement specialists, representatives from the field activities, and small business personnel at DLA Headquarters to identify problems and work on solutions. As a result, DLA got top marks in small-business support for the next three years, she said.
“If you look at all the money that’s spent, small business only spends a portion of that,” she said. “So if you don’t shine a little light on it, then people say, ‘Well I work here and it’s my job,’ but you don’t get people’s best if they don’t think they’re part of the process.”
Saunders was both the first female commander of DSCC and the first female vice director of DLA, but these distinctions don’t matter much to her, she said, because she always saw the military as an even playing field, where merit and skill helped her advance. That was one of the biggest reasons she joined the Air Force in 1971 after earning her undergraduate degree from Texas Woman’s University, she said, adding that the fast-paced lifestyle and the military’s emphasis on results also appealed to her.
After 34 years of military life, Saunders ended up back at her alma mater after her retirement in 2005. Since 2006, she has headed the leadership program at Texas Woman’s University, which puts students through internships, leadership classes and intensive programs to teach them about vision and strategic thinking, she said. As part of her job, she gives about 25 speeches or presentations per year to various corporate, academic and military groups. While at first she wasn’t too excited about the requirement for public speaking, which she thought she left behind in the military, she has appreciated the opportunity to connect with so many different people and share her experiences, she said.
“One thing we learn about the military is you’re never over it; it still sticks with you,” she said. “I meet other people in the military, and it doesn’t matter whether they spent a tour in or they were in for over 30 years like I was, they always rise to the challenge, they feel a connection to you.”
Being inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame is a “fabulous” honor, Saunders said, but one she could not have achieved on her own. She credits her success at DLA to the many people she worked with, who believed in her vision and helped her achieve results.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Saunders, a former DLA vice director and former commander of DLA Land and Maritime, will be inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame July 31.