…The tightest OODA loop wins. I learned the concept of the OODA loop from my husband, a former Marine Corps aviator. It’s an idea from fighter pilots; it’s how you fly and win a dogfight. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. In a plane, you have to first observe and see what’s around you: sky, horizon, trees, mountains, other planes, ocean… Then you have to orient yourself in the environment you’ve observed. Are you up or down? Where are you in relationship to the other elements in the environment? Once you’ve oriented, you need to evaluate and decide on a course of action. Having decided, you need to act. As soon as you’ve acted, you have to start the whole process again, because acting has changed the environment; again, you need to observe, orient, decide, and act. In a dogfight between two fighter planes, whoever has the tighter OODA loop wins. I love it as a metaphor for a growth organization because it reminds us that every action we take changes the environment, so we have to continue to observe, orient, decide, and act. BSF has iterated many times and has continued to learn and grow and change as an organization. That has allowed us to experience the strong growth that we have.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathy Roth-Douquet. Kathy is an advocate for the role of the military in civil society; she is an author, nonprofit leader, attorney, and former government official. Kathy is the CEO of Blue Star Families, the largest Chapter-based nonprofit organization serving active duty of all branches, Guard and Reserve, wounded, and transitioning veterans and their families. Blue Star Families mission is to strengthen military families and our nation by connecting communities and fostering leadership to millions of people. Kathy Roth-Douquet received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College, her MPA in International Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University where she held a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and a JD from the University of San Diego School of Law, Magna Cum Laude and the Order of the Coif. While serving at the Pentagon as Principal Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Acting) she received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service for her work on defense reform. She is also a recipient of President George H. W. Bush’s Daily Point of Light Award, and the Chief of Staff of the Army Outstanding Civilian Service Award. Kathy is a commentator on patriotism, civil-military affairs, the value of service, and the experience of military families. She has appeared on the Today Show, Fox and Friends, CNN, NPR, has been a frequent contributor to USA Today, and is a frequent public speaker. She is an author, most notably of “AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service and How it Hurts Our Country” (Collins, 2006). She is a practicing attorney, a member of the Small Business Association Advisory Board, and is Co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center Defense Reform Task Force. She is a military spouse of 18 years, four deployments, and 9 moves. She lives with her husband and two children in Northern Virginia.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The military lifestyle was very foreign to me: I had worked in politics and government, and in the foundation world — specifically the Revlon Foundation and a large Jewish family foundation. Then, while I was an White House aide to President Clinton, I met and fell in love with my husband — a Marine officer and a pilot for the president’s helicopter, Marine One. A few years after we married, after I went to law school, we experienced the 9/11 attacks, and soon I found myself living in a community doing a very heavy lift for the country. We needed support, and with my background, I thought I had an idea about how we could mobilize our community — the military family community — to better support ourselves so we could continue to do this job for the country.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
At the onset of Blue Star Families, I was speaking to some people I knew in the new Obama Administration about how they could help military families. This was before the First Lady and Dr. Biden created the Joining Forces Initiative. I suggested that they convene a number of the people working in the military space — people from government, the nonprofits, and perhaps some philanthropies — and compare where there were overlaps and gaps to get sense of how sectors could better work together and to see how the White House and/or First Lady could best make a difference. The people I knew were interested in the idea, and they asked me to flesh out what it would look like and how it could be organized. I put a few months’ work into it, talking to different offices and organizations and getting advice, input and perspectives. Nearly half a year in, I got a letter from the White House counsel’s office saying to stop working on it: I wasn’t authorized to organize anything on behalf of the White House. It was very discouraging, especially because I — along with many others — could see the great benefit in doing something like this. Before I completely pulled the plug, I spoke to a number of folks. The executive director of a foundation that ran a retreat center volunteered to provide the center pro bono. The executive director of another foundation offered to cover incidental costs for me and my team for organizing it. We decided to persevere and convene the groups ourselves. We issued invitations to members of the Pentagon, the White House, Congress, major nonprofits serving military and military families and veterans, anda few foundations…and we held our breaths. In the end, everyone we had hoped would attend, did. A lot of government policy flowed from the insights and relationships fostered at the retreat. It proved so useful that we have held the retreat seven times since then.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Probably the funniest mistake I made was thinking that I was starting a small organization. I thought Blue Star Families would be a modest nonprofit with perhaps one paid staff member, and that I would be on the board; that it would be an after-hours project for me. Within three years we had over one million military family members using our programs and resources; we had to figure out how to grow and scale up quickly to meet the demand there was out there for our work. I volunteered for the first three years, then came on part-time for the next three years until starting full-time in 2015. The lesson I learned is to pay attention to what the world needs from you — sometimes you don’t make plans, but you respond to requirements!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We bring a contemporary sensibility to addressing the challenges facing our troops and their families, and we believe that engaging our civilian neighbors is part of the solution. We use current technology (we grew initially in 2009 through Facebook) and techniques from human-centered design, data analytics,and data management to understand our constituency and craft programs and solutions that match what people want and how they live.
We aren’t afraid to use lessons and techniques from the private sector to engage our members and prospective members. For instance, one of our most popular programs was a PCS Starter Kit we launched with Whole Foods. “PCS” stands for “permanent change of station.” It’s the military acronym for “move”… and moves are a major pain point for military families. Military families leave everyone and everything they know, on average, every two to three years. Because of moving restrictions, many military families end up throwing away pantry staples and cleaning supplies. To alleviate some of that stress, we developed the PCS Starter Kit with Whole Foods. Members sent us the zip code of their new home, and we sent them the address of the nearest Whole Foods and a coupon. They went into that Whole Foods and there was a table set up with bags full of pantry staples. The Whole Foods employees would say, “Welcome! We are glad you are here!” Right away there’s a human connection and a sense that others know and understand what military families are experiencing. The PCS Starter Kit also included a coupon for $20 off a future purchase of $100 or more, which garnered a 41% redemption rate — a great success from Whole Foods’ point of view. With that one program, we gave people something they wanted and needed, addressed the issue of isolation — which is a top concern for military families — and created a positive connection to the civilian community in a very efficient way, since Whole Foods donated the pantry items. We have many programs that work similarly, and they help us attract members so we can expose them to our other programs and resources.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are super excited about our new sponsored chapter model. Here’s what we found at Blue Star Families: many military families really feel isolated in the communities where they live. Our annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey has found that about three-quarters of respondents have lived less than two years at their current home. We also know military families endure stress from the current high operations temp and that they are often separated from their families — nearly half have experienced more than six months of separation in the last eighteen months. Military families often don’t know their neighbors and do not feel that they belong… but they want to. We have been experiencing greater demand from our membership to have more engagement at the local level. We are responding to that by growing beyond our old, volunteer-based chapter model. In 2019, we are rolling out a new, exciting professionally based chapter model. We will be investing in 10 communities with paid staff and organized community as well as military advisory councils. We believe this will bring a higher level of popular, consistent support to military families and more effectively engage local community members — the supportive civilians we call Blue Star Neighbors. These 10 chapters will be in New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Jacksonville (FL), Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Hawaii.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Most of my staff are women who are military spouses and have children. We have a flexible work schedule which expects people to perform at a high level but does not micromanage how and when they get their work done; if people need flexibility to accommodate school pick-up or children’s activities, we expect people to work that into their schedule on their own. We give time off when a family receives government orders to move and otherwise promote work-life balance. As a result, we are able to access talent that otherwise might simply leave the workforce. We also have maintained a fellowship program that has particularly attracted female veterans who are also military spouses. We also have a fellowship program that identifies and trains talented individuals who may have an untraditional career path because of the disruption of military life, and we have found very talented team members that way. I would encourage female leaders to foster talent and loyalty by embracing forward-looking models of work-life integration.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
For me, the best way to manage a large team is with a team. I am part of what we consider to be a management team with my COO, Noeleen Tillman, who has helped me grow the organization since it was a year or two old. I consult with her on all my decisions and rely on her for day-to-day operations. I perform much better as part of a team than as a lone actor. In addition to Noeleen, we have a executive team of department heads. While I set the vision and the major priorities of the organization, I seek validation and input from the executive team and, of course, from my excellent board.
The executive team collaborates on specific plans and learns together as an organization. Each department manages down, but we constantly work cross-departmentally as well. We are a remote organization, but the D.C.-based staff meets every other week to check in, and we get a strong pulse of the organization from that. As a remote organization, we are continually exploring how best to establish and maintain a strong workplace culture.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I mentioned my management team partner, COO Noeleen Tillman, already. My board chair. Sheila Casey, is an incredible leader as well. Sheila Casey is the COO of The Hill Newspaper, one of the premier Washington, D.C. political publications. When we started, she was wife of the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Casey. My close friend and co-founder Laura Schmiegel (then Laura Dempsey, the wife of an Army captain) cold-called Sheila and asked her for lunch, telling her about the idea of Blue Star Families. Sheila was a pioneer in senior military spouses holding significant careers in the workplace, and she was sympathetic to our goals. She joined the advisory board and the board and has been absolutely instrumental to our growth. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention former First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the former Vice President. Michelle Obama’s early interest in military families emboldened us to start the organization in the first place; she referenced our research data in launching Joining Forces, and supported many of our programs — including Blue Star Museums and Blue Star Books — taking part in many of our initiatives, and included our members at many White House functions. Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s work encouraged many important partners to extend themselves to help military families, and that lead to and enhanced powerful partnerships with museums, organizations such as Disney, and many more.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Blue Star Families’ mission is to tell the story of currently serving military and their families and to create solutions with partners in the communities where people live. We believe this brings goodness to the world because supporting military families allows us to have a stronger, more resilient military. Moreover, when military families and their civilian neighbors spend time together, stronger communities, a stronger sense of neighborliness, and a stronger understanding of the sacrifice of military families are created. In addition, Blue Star Families has helped drive over 20 million dollars of income to working-class and middle-class military family members through Blue Star Careers.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Your flaws are not excuses. It can be a conundrum for people who are ambitious to achieve a certain outcome to also be aware of their own shortcomings as a leader. How can we lead when we have so many ways we can fall short? I saw this first when I worked for President Bill Clinton. Every person has flaws, and on the campaign President Clinton got beaten up for some of his. He had a set of ideas and policies he was fighting for, and he didn’t get out of the fight. I realized that staying in the fight and engaging in solutions was more important. I find it useful to reflect on the idea that we should consider our flaws but not allow them to prevent action. In my case, I recognize that I am, in some ways, a poor leader. Sometimes I can be too results-oriented and not patient enough with the process, that can lead to blind spots, or make people uncomfortable bringing objections to me. But I don’t believe that excuses me from trying to make a difference where I see a need. There is a famous quote from medieval sage Rabbi Akiva about taking action: “If not me, who? If not now, when?” That is a great motivator for action, but one’s courage can fail if one considers one’s shortcomings. I think it is healthy and honest to recognize flaws, but they can’t stop us from action.
- Everyone loves their own child best. Anyone who has children knows this: most people will be pretty tolerant of hearing about your kids but really get animated when it comes to considering their own little ones. It’s the same with ideas. The best way to get people behind an idea, to get folks to stay committed and invest, is to engage them in the development of the idea and make them feel it is their own. This is true for folks who work for you, for partners, and for funders. I worked hard to get a consortium of foundations to work together to drive more funding to the veteran sector. The way that worked best was for many individuals and organizations to get recognition and public credit. We ended up getting over $300 million pledged for a wide range of outcomes. That was an idea many people owned and lived under many logos and banners. It is unlikely it would have happened otherwise.
- Change happens at the speed of trust. I saw this when I was an aide for President Clinton: where there was a strong and positive relationship between President Clinton and a foreign leader or domestic partner, all kinds of policy flowed. When the relationship was strained, very little productive happened. I learned it is important to foster trust and to be trustworthy.The White Oak Retreats I mentioned above have, in many ways, been a trust-building exercise between a wide variety of institutions and sectors. We have an extensive report we’ve put out about the collaborations that have ensued simply because we invested in trust.
- Vision is contagious… but only if you share it. To create change, you have to have a vision of that change, and you have to share it. Many people are really eager and hungry for a vision. In the first several years of the organization, I tried to be relatively anonymous with it, but I learned over time and from observing some of the most high-performing organizations, that you have to be willing to get in front of people, tell your story, share emotion, and share passion. It wasn’t until the last year or two that I’ve begun to tell my personal stories and use them as a gateway to explain Blue Star Families’ vision. Most recently, I got very personal with my TEDxBeaconStreet talk this past November, telling stories of our moves, my daughter’s heart surgery, my husband’s deployments, my career losses — all in the context of BSF’s mission.
- The tightest OODA loop wins. I learned the concept of the OODA loop from my husband, a former Marine Corps aviator. It’s an idea from fighter pilots; it’s how you fly and win a dogfight. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. In a plane, you have to first observe and see what’s around you: sky, horizon, trees, mountains, other planes, ocean… Then you have to orient yourself in the environment you’ve observed. Are you up or down? Where are you in relationship to the other elements in the environment? Once you’ve oriented, you need to evaluate and decide on a course of action. Having decided, you need to act. As soon as you’ve acted, you have to start the whole process again, because acting has changed the environment; again, you need to observe, orient, decide, and act. In a dogfight between two fighter planes, whoever has the tighter OODA loop wins. I love it as a metaphor for a growth organization because it reminds us that every action we take changes the environment, so we have to continue to observe, orient, decide, and act. BSF has iterated many times and has continued to learn and grow and change as an organization. That has allowed us to experience the strong growth that we have.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would be “All Give Some” where each person in America assesses and finds a way they can regularly contribute to our society — to the greater good of the country or the world. That’s part of our vision with Blue Star Nation, our name for linked communities that are created when Blue Star Families and Blue Star Neighbors support each other in chapters across the country. Perhaps there could be an “All Give Some” app, where you keep track of all the things you do to contribute, self-govern, support — from simple things like voting, paying taxes, and doing jury duty, to planting trees, supporting a nonprofit, and raising money. I would like to reinvigorate the active sense of self-government Americans used to feel that was described by de Tocqueville in his treatise Democracy in America and have us become once again a country of joiners and doers, not just watchers and consumers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Since college, I’ve had a motto to help me shape my life and decisions: Live bravely. What is the life you want to live? These are the choices you make at crossroads and those choices create the story you are writing. To me, “bravely” means to make choices for many reasons… but not out of fear. One should imagine big, hope big, dream big, and pursue your course. I have had many, many “live bravely” moments. I had an opportunity to take a semester off of college and work on a presidential campaign. That wasn’t the safe path, but it opened up an exciting career. I traveled and wrote in South America solo for seven months to learn the language and culture as a 24-year-old. Doing so created a strong sense of self-sufficiency. I wrote a book, despite having a lot of flaws as a writer. I married my husband — a Marine — whose life took me far away from what I had known or planned as an Ivy League-educated young woman. All of these things were risks, and were not “safe” but they gave me the life I wanted to live, for the reasons that mattered.