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Dr. Harvey Davis, NSA Director for Installations & Logistics, on Leadership, Management and Success

12 mins read


Editor’s Note: ExecutiveGov recently spoke with Dr. Harvey Davis, director for installations and logistics at the National Security Agency.

Dr. Davis has held a variety of roles over his 30 years of service to the agency, where his responsibilities have included leading recruitment and overseeing billions of dollars in infrastructure construction.

Outside of the office, Dr. Davis has earned a master’s degree in business administration, a doctorate in law from the University of Maryland, a doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of Sarasota, and teaches business and management courses at Anne Arundel Community College.

This is the first of three series of excerpts from the conversation. The second and third installments can be read here and here, respectively.


ExecutiveGov: When one thinks of an MBA background, one doesn’t necessarily associate that with a career in public service, let alone a 30‑year career with the NSA. What have you taken away from that business management background?

Dr. Harvey Davis: It’s kind of interesting how all of the pieces of my career have melded together. My background was in business and I actually ran retail stores before I came to the government 30 years ago. I also teach business and leadership management in the evening at the local college. So I have a foot in the academic, a foot in the commercial, and a foot in the government.

When I came to the government 30 years ago, one of the things that this agency was known for was that it was a really important and really intense, high‑tech organization. And its high‑tech organization basically was ‑ ‑ and it still is – – with people who understand computers, people who understand networks, people that are analysts, things like that. But, the business profession was really not something that was very highly thought of or needed. It was thought that technology would drive the day.

I was one of the first few business people who came in with my MBA background. I also picked up my law degree while I was here and really stressed the thought of the importance of sound, repeatable, measurable processes. And the point is government people really don’t think that differently than private sector people in their basic need to manage resources, to build teams and to work in process‑driven environments.

Their motive, at the end of the day, is profit. Our motive at the government is the success of our individual projects and activities. That is our profit at the end of the day.


ExecutiveGov:  What experience have you gained leading different operations within the same overall mission of the agency?

Dr. Harvey Davis: I’ve really never found anybody that wants to do a bad job. A lot of people do a great job, but they don’t usually sync up with other diverse people. The management challenge is to create the synergy by moving all that stuff and going in the right direction. Every project manager ‑‑ and this translates into when we did cuts and when we did sequestration ‑‑ every manager feels what they’re working on is critical and important; otherwise, we couldn’t get them motivated.

In terms of optimizing them and aligning our organizations, we need to make some hard choices that allow people to look at the big picture, rather than the individual picture. One of the things I found in my years is that you cannot teach, create or motivate people into enthusiasm. If they come with enthusiasm, you can get them to do most anything. It’s how you focus that enthusiasm. But, it’s very difficult if somebody doesn’t come with the enthusiasm to start them from scratch.


ExecutiveGov: How do you navigate a situation where the competencies and enthusiasm aren’t necessarily aligned in the best direction and you don’t have an opportunity to bring in new individuals?

Dr. Harvey Davis: The real answer is the alignment. In here, we don’t just bring in new people, we bring in new ideas. Over the past three months, I’ve been working on how we bring in different technologies and different perspectives – – to include, for example, the artistic perspective – – into some of the work that we do. How we visualize things and how we understand where we are.

To that end, I go out to the schools. I look in different disciplines that I wouldn’t normally look at. I look at people with some artistic backgrounds. I’ve looked at people from visual video backgrounds. And I take these people who are going in different directions and I put them in a room, and we spend some time really hashing out a common problem statement. And we spend months doing that.

Once we get the common problem statement, every one of them looks at it from a different perspective. And then we knit that together to get what I call a powerful solution.


ExecutiveGov: What are some other qualities that help drive organizational and personal results?

Dr. Harvey Davis: One of the things that I have found is that certain people are great at certain aspects and good or less than great at other aspects. One of the standard things we’ve tried to do is to train people to get up to a certain level with their speed and be a generalist across the board. This may not be the best solution.

My personal opinion is, if somebody has a predisposition and they are good in a certain area, and if you focus them and you train them, they can become superstars in that area. You’ve got to really find the area that they excel in, nurture them in that area and combine them with other people that excel in the areas where they are relatively weak.

For example, I have great technical people and great engineers that can design things. I couple them with business people who can figure out how to contract forward and how to do the acquisition documents. At the same time, those business people, left to their own devices, usually don’t come up with the creative ideas that the engineers do, nor can the engineers come up with creative business approaches. They just implement it. So, as I knit them together, I think the synergy and the power of those diverse skill sets really drive us to success.


ExecutiveGov: When you were rising through the ranks of the NSA, how did you find working underneath different types of leadership affected you personally?

Dr. Harvey Davis: The best leadership that I worked with is a leadership that I felt trusted me. How I got into my current job is I was asked to take it. And my overall direction was, ‘Harv, there’s a problem, go fix it.’ And that was the extent of it. And so I had to find out what the problem was. I had to articulate it. I had to work with the Congress on how to do that.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career that the leaders that I have worked for have respected my abilities to deliver, my ability to engage them when I believe it’s necessary and when it’s not necessary, to not burden them and deliver the stuff independently. One of the problems that a lot of people I have worked with have is that they don’t know how to differentiate between the things they need to elevate and the things that they really do have the authority and the ability to solve on their own.

And once you can come up with that differentiation and understand where we are, I think that really helps in terms of moving forward. The other thing, and I tie my teaching in with this, is I try and push people as hard as I can to deliver their message very succinctly: Two, three sentences. These page‑long e‑mails are meaningless. Nobody reads them. They’re lost in the busy day. My opinion is, if you can’t get my interest in two or three sentences, you’re probably not going to.


ExecutiveGov: How significant is communication and how central is it to your management style?

Dr. Harvey Davis: I think it’s number one. I actually believe that there’s no such thing as an organization, even though organizations have culture. I believe there are only people that make up organizations. And every transaction that is done is done on a one‑to‑one basis.

I think communication is an overused term. People talk about sending out blast e‑mails, stuff like that. But one‑to‑one person communication, articulating what you do, the context of what you do, to get people to understand and to buy into where you’re at, to listen to peoples’ perspectives, to roll them in, to understand the diversity of views that might give you a different perspective than you had before, is essential to the success of any business.


Click here to continue reading the interview.

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