TITLE: Director of current operations, security manager
COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support
ACQUISITION CAREER FIELD: Operations
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 31 years
MILITARY OR CIVILIAN: Civilian
YEARS OF MILITARY SERVICE: 21 years
EDUCATION: MBA, University of New Hampshire; B.S. in organizational management, Daniel Webster College; A.S. in criminal justice, Community College of the Air Force; Executive Certificate in Leadership and Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management
AWARDS: Army Civilian Service Commendation Award, Air Force Civilian Achievement Award, Civilian of the Year 2014, MIT Lincoln Laboratory Team Excellence Award 2010, MIT Team Excellence Award, 2009
HOMETOWN: Oxford, Michigan
James Ellis was just 17 when he enlisted in the Air Force. “I knew college was not an option for me at that point,” he explained. “I just wasn’t ready. I had to do some growing up first.” So, with his parents’ permission, he signed the papers and started his career in the security forces. “I remember my very first night working security on post at age 18,” he said. “I was out in the jungle in the middle of the Philippines and all I could see were huts on one side of me and goats and pigs on the other side.” He never could have imagined where his future would lead—today, he runs security and operations for the Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support (PEO CS&CSS). “When I think about all the little decisions I had to make along the way, I had to just let go of the fear of trying something new.”
Trying new things has become somewhat of a calling card for Ellis, and it’s opened the doors to many opportunities throughout his career. He retired from active duty after 21 years with the Air Force security forces and then branched out to managing security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory. “Coming from a security background, that was an easy transition,” he said. But after a couple of years, he realized the role offered little in the way of opportunities for growth. “I wanted to continue serving in a new and challenging capacity,” he said. So he entered the Air Force Acquisition Workforce as a chief of operations at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts.
As luck would have it, Ellis would need to make another career change just a few years later when the Air Force began eliminating positions in the operations field. “One again, I was faced with limited options,” he said. “Then, I saw this opening with the Army. It was the same job I was already doing with the Air Force, but at a higher level.” And it was located in the Detroit area, where his extended family still lived. “The stars aligned.” After 30 years away, it was time to return home.
Now, Ellis leads an operations team at PEO CS&CSS that is responsible for events, audits, policies, standard operating procedures, facilities management and the PEO protection program, supporting more than 250 programs and 1,200 employees in five geographical locations. Clearly, Ellis has a lot of irons in the fire, but he doesn’t mind. “I was drawn to operations because it’s challenging, always changing, and critical to successful mission accomplishment,” he said. It’s a good thing he enjoys a challenge. He and his team are responsible for no less than 100 unique tasks in 14 major functional areas, and he takes it all in stride.
And when it comes to his team members, he always believes in their potential to excel. “No one comes to work with the intention of being a poor performer,” he said. He believes performance issues are often rooted in other problems. “It’s usually their training, experience, environment or a combination of those three,” he said. To Ellis, it is a leader’s responsibility to identify which of those factors may be the issue and then work to improve it. He said his approach has worked many times in his career. When a team member seemed to be failing or uninterested, Ellis decided to start digging. “I was able to focus on that person, learn why they were having issues, and a lot of times I was able to turn them around. People naturally want to succeed.”
His other big piece of advice? “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he said. “Being able to adapt to constant change is crucial.” Ellis isn’t afraid to take on new projects and challenges, and he doesn’t mind learning on the job if necessary. “Very little in operations is routine,” he said. “I research, learn what I can and will take risks when needed.” And when it all comes together in the end, there’s nothing better. “My greatest satisfaction comes from solving complex problems that many feel can’t be solved,” he said. “There is always a solution, but you may have to be patient and wait for it to present itself.”
That is the advice he gives to others, as well. When presented with a new opportunity or challenge, don’t let your inexperience hold you back. “Apply anyway,” he said. “Even if you don’t technically meet all the specifications, make someone else tell you ‘No.’ ” It’s a lesson he learned through his many career changes, he said. “I changed jobs so often, and it’s not like I always stayed in law enforcement or security management. Each time I took a risk and changed paths.” Sometimes you may come to the end of a path unexpectedly, so stay flexible and try something new.
Speaking of trying new things, Ellis has joined the ranks of homeowners across the country who are making the most of their newfound free time during the coronavirus pandemic. “I’ve been doing a lot of home renovation projects recently.” In the last five months, in fact, he has finished his entire basement. “I started with just bare concrete walls down there, and now it’s coming together and I’m putting in a fridge,” he said. Ellis said he still has “no idea” what he’ll do with the space when it’s finished, but he’s plowing ahead anyway. That sounds about right for the man who likes to learn on his feet and doesn’t mind making decisions on the fly. From a hut in the Philippines to the buzz of Detroit—James Ellis doesn’t sweat the small stuff.
“Faces of the Force” is an online series highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce through the power of individual stories. Profiles are produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication and Support Branch, working closely with public affairs officers to feature Soldiers and civilians serving in various AL&T disciplines. For more information, or to nominate someone, please go to https://asc.army.mil/web/publications/army-alt-submissions/.
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