Senior executive sees opportunities for aspiring civilians
August 6, 2013
By KARI HAWKINS
Despite ongoing Department of Defense furloughs, despite the negative publicity stemming from recent federal employee scandals, despite the worry of more federal cutbacks due to tightening budgets, Redstone Arsenal's senior Army civilian said there are still plenty of opportunities to pursue a promising civilian career in support of the nation's military.
And he's hoping current DoD civilians as well as promising young candidates in the job market see the federal government as an employer that values integrity, leadership, commitment and adaptability.
"This is not the easiest time to be a public servant," John Nerger, the executive deputy to the commanding general of the Army Materiel Command, said.
"We expect more out of DoD civilians today than ever before -- problems are more complex, conditions are more difficult, there is greater uncertainty. The work of civilians is more necessary than ever before and highly valued. They are expected to acquire the professional depth and breadth that will benefit DoD. There really aren't any limits to anything a young Army civilian can do if they seek out the hard jobs. As long as there is an Army there will be a need for Department of the Army civilians."
These days, Nerger said it is "troubling" to see the institution of public service under siege.
"The misdeeds of a few should not affect the good of the many," he said. "We should be celebrating, encouraging and thanking civilians who are called to serve their country, government and fellow citizens.
"If you are looking for public adulation and praise, you are in the wrong business. The well-publicized issues with GSA (General Services Administration) and IRS (Internal Revenue Service) remind us that public servants carry an enormous responsibility. One can see the widespread damage when a few betray the public trust. We need to learn from this and work harder, redouble our efforts to maintain unimpeachable integrity, and regain the trust of the country and the taxpayer."
With 34 years of public service in support of the nation's military, Nerger has seen many changes in leadership, policies, missions and capabilities. But one thing has always stayed constant -- the mentors and opportunities available to a DoD civilian dedicated to working hard and making a difference for the Soldier.
"Over three decades and a dozen or so positions, I've had great opportunities along the way," he said.
"I've worked with and observed many great Army leaders. It's been an amazing journey to learn what it takes to be a leader in the Army today, and to grow professionally and personally through assignments and opportunities. I am one who benefitted from many opportunities. My supervisors encouraged me, whether deliberately or indirectly, and helped to stretch my comfort zone."
Now, at the zenith of his career, Nerger looks back and is amazed by a professional journey that has taken him to the senior most echelons of civilian service within the Department of the Army. As AMC's executive deputy to commander Gen. Dennis Via, he is responsible for materiel life cycle management, acquisition support, personnel and resource management, industrial base operations, enterprise integration and provision of research and development, and science and technology for a globally reaching command with more than 70,000 personnel working worldwide at 155 locations globally and all 50 states. About 98 percent of those 70,000 employees are DA civilians.
In his work, Nerger hopes he is having an impact on the future.
"We all have to react to the present and respond to the issues of the day. But the lasting impact is in how we shape or fail to shape the way ahead," he said. "My priority is to help Gen. Via and the command chart a course towards the future, prepare the work force and help lead this organization through a time of uncertainty and limited resources so that we don't break the contract AMC has in providing readiness for the Army."
A stint as an AmericaCorps Vista volunteer following graduation from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., led Nerger to realize he had an interest in public service. An internship with the Navy and then the Army led Nerger down a career path that spoke to him both professionally and personally.
"Once I was working around and with Soldiers, I just sort of naturally wanted to stay part of the Army team," he said. "The world's best Army needs the world's best support -- what we civilians do daily. And somewhere along the way my profession became more of a vocation, more of a calling. That's what kept me with the Army."
Nerger began his career in government service in 1980 as a management assistant for the Office Chief of Naval Operations, Department of the Navy, in Arlington, Va. He then transferred to the Army, where he first served as an analyst for the assistant chief of engineers at the Pentagon. He went on to serve in several leadership positions, including as the deputy chief of Base Realignment and Closure and staff positions with the assistant chief of staff for Installation Management, Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He served as director of Facilities, Housing and Environment on the Army staff, where he was responsible for a $3 billion global capital investment plan; as deputy chief of staff for personnel and logistics for the Training and Doctrine Command; and as the executive director for the Installation Management Command, where he directed the multi-disciplinary management of facilities, program, services and infrastructure for 110 Army installations.
In May 2011, he joined the AMC staff, making a move that demanded not only the depth of experience of a senior executive service employee but also the breadth of knowledge of the Army's capabilities and missions. Along with that, came a move outside of the Washington, D.C., area to Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal.
"Depth is about learning your craft, learning your trade. Every civilian is expected to acquire depth," he said. "But increasingly civilians, especially emerging leaders, also need breadth, and they acquire that by maneuvering around the Army or by taking an assignment outside of their career program area, and taking on duties and projects that will benefit them in ways they may not realize right now. Pushing themselves outside their comfort zone will lead to personal growth and professional development."
For Nerger, that "push" came with the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. On that day, he was to attend a meeting in a conference room that was later at the heart of the attack. But, at the last minute, the meeting got moved to a conferencing center outside the Pentagon because more meeting space was needed. That decision saved the lives of Nerger and several of his co-workers.
"We all have periods in our careers when we do soul searching, when we ask ourselves 'Does it really matter? Am I making a difference?' 9/11 happened and I haven't had any doubt since," Nerger said. "That was a wake-up call for me. Civilians are on the front line and they do make sacrifices every day, and some even make the ultimate sacrifice.
"Our service is necessary, valued. We all have a purpose in what we do. 9/11 reminded me that there is a sense of urgency in what we do. No one has any idea of how much time they are given, so they should use the time they have to make a difference."
From that day forward, Nerger was among thousands of DA civilians who, every day, see up close the sacrifices of the nation's military. That sacrifice reminds him of the value of his role as a civilian working in support of the military.
Throughout his career, Nerger has discovered mentors who have taught him the positive elements of leadership. He's learned the power of leadership and trust in subordinates, the power of establishing and nurturing relationships, the power of teamwork, the power of a strong positive command climate and the power of knowing the business.
"Most importantly, charismatic, positive and dynamic leaders create an environment where people feel valued and encouraged, where they are given opportunities to succeed and where they will grow professionally," Nerger said.
He continues to benefit from good mentors at AMC in the likes of commander Gen. Dennis Via, previous commander retired Gen. Ann Dunwoody, and an entire staff of leaders who are dedicated, caring and inspiring.
"I am surrounded by great leaders," Nerger said.
Leaders and the employees they lead are interdependent, with one only being as good as the other, he said. Nerger bases his leadership philosophy on the words of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who said, "Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy."
For Nerger, character starts with integrity.
"Without integrity, you can't have trust and credibility in a relationship," Nerger said. "Leadership is not about the position. It's about the ability to influence. Anybody in an organization who influences one or more people is a leader."
A successful leader -- and employee -- also has perseverance, a positive style and optimism about the future, and good communication skills. They focus on mastering their tasks, are prepared to make sacrifices, are persistent in achieving the goal, and realize that work can often be difficult and challenging.
"There is no perfect job," he said. "What you put into it determines what you get out of it. Take a job, and make it your profession, and then make it your calling or your passion."
For young DA professionals, Nerger advises them to seek out difficult assignments, observe and learn from the leaders around them, gain a diversity of experience, learn from mistakes and successes, and take advantage of opportunity. For mid-career DA professionals, Nerger said they need to know what they do matters and does connect to the larger good.
"We need civilians at all levels of depth and breadth," he said. "For scientists and engineers, maybe the best thing they can do for the Army is to continue to master their proficiency and deliver it back to the Army. What they and others do does make a difference."
Making a difference often involves helping others, he said, and that is the key to success in any profession.
"If you focus on helping others succeed then you don't have to worry about your own success. If you help others, your own success will take care of itself," Nerger said.
A successful Army civilian is confident in their abilities even when there are imperfect conditions, uncertainty and failures, he said. He referred to the Union Army's Col. Joshua Chamberlain who, after his unit ran out of ammunition, ordered his troops to charge with their bayonets into the onslaught of Confederate forces, becoming the turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg.
"Even if you don't have enough people or money, you have to still find a way to be successful," Nerger said.
"Nothing can replace a mission that matters. If you know you are making a difference, that becomes a powerful motivating force that can overcome all sorts of things."
To Nerger, every Army civilian works to accomplish one of the most essential government tasks -- providing for national security.
"We get to support those who are sacrificing for all of us," he said.
"In the work that I do, I want to share my passion for serving Soldiers and I hope others will follow me. I hope they see me as an able representative and that I have a positive impact. Army service is respected, admired and honored, and the work that civilians do to support our Soldiers is much appreciated by all Department of the Army leaders."