Photo By Catherine Carroll | John Nebelsick, Director, Environmental & Munitions Center of Expertise, U.S. Army...
By John Nebelsick, Director, Environmental & Munitions Center of Expertise, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville
This past May marks 31 years with the Corps of Engineers. I started my career at the former Missouri River Division Laboratory as an inorganic chemist analyzing water quality samples at all the Missouri River dam sites.
I then went to work at Omaha District as a project chemist supporting Army and Air Force in environmental remediation and clean-up. Following that gig I came to the Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise (formerly the Hazardous, Toxic, and Radioactive Center of Expertise) where I did lab validations and wrote the policy and guidance for chemical data quality, some of which is still applicable today.
During that time I did an eight-year hiatus to HQ EPA serving as the Inorganic Program Manager and Quality Assurance Officer for the Contract Laboratory Program. I returned to the Corps of Engineers in 2011 to take over as the Military Munitions Division Chief in Huntsville. During this time I also did a rotation to HQ USACE as the Huntsville Senior Leadership Fellow.
This past August, I returned to Omaha, Nebraska, to take over as the director of the Environmental and Munitions Center of Expertise, or EMCX.
Early in life, my parents taught me to be kind and giving, and the one thing that reminded me of this was the “Baker’s Dozen.” My family ran a truck farm where we raised and sold produce. We would go to local farmers markets to sell on the weekends. The one thing we did differently at the time was sell our sweet corn by the Baker’s Dozen; 13 ears of corn instead of 12. I have carried this concept throughout my life and career. Here are the 13 traits (in no particular order) that I have learned from my parents, coaches and mentors throughout my life and career that have made me a better leader for Huntsville Center.
Building Relationships – Most of our environmental work is based on relationships, both externally and internally. Take advantage of those opportunities to meet new people and build your rolodex of contacts to support you and your goals in the future. Give credit where credit is due. There are many people behind the scenes that produce the products that Huntsville Center delivers. Get to know the entire team.
Communication Skills – Speaking with precision and clarity, using body language and tone, avoiding assumptions, and learn how to have difficult conversations. This past year the EM CX hosted a course that dealt with various types of critical conversations. I can see the benefits today for those who completed this course.
Listening Skills – Listening is one of the most important skills to learn. It is important to listen to understand the situation and not to judge. Sometimes you don’t even need to have a response. Make yourself available to co-workers and, if anything, focus on the positive.
Expand Individual Knowledge – Gen. Semonite [Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, 54th Chief of Engineers of the United States Army and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] has said the mission of the Corps of Engineers is to solve the Nation’s most difficult engineering problems. This statement involves all of the various business lines that Huntsville Center supports. That said, Huntsville Center is also a learning organization. Each employee should think more broadly about their roles and responsibilities and how they impact the mission. When you understand how all things are connected and related it gives you purpose and meaning for the work you perform.
Stay Positive – We all have the choice to lead our teams by being positive or negative. Supporting each other and continuing to move forward is critical for a successful organization. When you operate with positivity and encouragement you build resilience and long-term value to the organization.
Take Care of Yourself – This is one of the hardest if not most difficult for many of us to follow. There is always too much to do, not enough time, too many issues to resolve that we let our health suffer. Make a plan to incorporate eating healthy and exercising daily. This is not negotiable.
Honesty – If you make honesty and ethical behavior a key value, your team will follow suit.
Ability to Laugh – Morale is linked to productivity. It is our job to instill positive energy and sometimes when things go wrong, and they will, it is good that you can just laugh it off and move forward. We all need to encourage our teams to laugh at our mistakes as long as you learned something from them.
Confidence – Leading by example is needed at all levels, from project delivery teams, to managers, to supervisors. No one is too good to step in the trenches and help the team move forward. Being able to stay calm and confident during any type of turmoil will help keep the team feeling the same.
Creativity – Some decisions will not always be clear-cut. This is where creativity becomes vital. As long as it is legal, moral and ethical, creative thinking to solve a problem is encouraged.
Recognize Success – The minds of many are always better than the minds of a few. The majority of our Huntsville Center work is based on a team concept. From policy implementation, to project technical assistance, training, and independent technical review; information we provide as a team will build the success of the organization. Individual accomplishments are good, but team accomplishments are better.
Mentorship Program for New and Emerging Leaders – In order for us to be successful in the future, we must continue to build the bench and have a succession plan for all of our activities. Without one, you end up having insufficient back-up and you risk losing that expertise when someone leaves or retires.
Empathy During a Pandemic – As we have seen most recently, COVID-19 has created a time of uncertainty. The only other time I felt this way was during 9/11. In both cases, there was very little warning and no playbook on how to proceed. Having the capacity to empathize with someone else’s experience is key to help alleviate their anxiety.
There you have it, my Baker’s Dozen of traits that I have learned over my career that makes me who I am today and a better leader for Huntsville Center. I encourage you to implement a few of these ideas as you prepare your Baker’s Dozen of traits to enhance your current skill set or to become the future leaders for the best organization in the Corps of Engineers.