ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — DEVCOM’s senior civilian leader brought a 36-year career of building teams and creating opportunities to a close today with a ceremony complete with hallmarks of his personal style, including a rendition of the Army song on bagpipes.
John S. Willison has served as the Deputy to the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command for five years. The current Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Miles Brown, hosted the tightly packed ceremony, which was also live-streamed to hundreds of those who had served with Willison before.
“We thank you for your contributions to Army science and technology over the past 36 years. You leave behind a legacy of putting people first, taking risks and settling for nothing short of excellence,” Brown, said.
Willison’s prior assignments include a range of positions at Program Executive Office Communications, Command and Control Tactical Project Manager Battle Command; Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center; and Communications-Electronics Command Software Engineering Center.
During his tenure at Project Manager Battle Command, Willison was part of a small team that deployed to Iraq to assess the Army Battle Command system and provide technical support to Soldiers and commanders who were using the system. The Army Battle Command System allows commanders to see multiple systems on one screen, while providing up-to-date information on a map-based display.
“John was responsible for the overall system-of-systems, while I was focused on my specific product. I learned a great deal from John, and quickly realized that he was ensuring the overall Battle Command System worked and was greater than the sum of its parts. He was always focused on and dedicated to the Warfighter,” said Ken Rodgers, who was the product manager for Tactical Battle Command from 2005-2008.
Willison was appointed to the Senior Executive Service in 2011. His first assignment was director, Command, Power & Integration Directorate, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center located at Aberdeen Proving Ground. At the Command Power and Integration Directorate, Willison initiated Bowtie Wednesday, wearing bowties instead of traditional ties each Wednesday. Bowties became his trademark and built a sense of camaraderie across the workforce.
“In addition to being very stylish, the bowties were a visual indication that change is ok. Wearing bowties helped connect people and teach them to look at different situations in new ways,” said Dr. Rob Pitsko, who worked with Willison at the Command Power and Integration Directorate.
Throughout his career, Willison pursued educational opportunities including his training as a senior executive fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in 2006. In 2017, he completed the Executive Coaching for Organization Well Being program at George Mason University and became a certified professional coach.
“As John moved through positions of increasing responsibility, his leadership style adapted to meet the needs of each organization’s vision. Pursuing educational opportunities such as the George Mason coaching cohort gave John a new perspective and language to continue to grow his leadership style from directive to facilitative based on what the organization needed to achieve in the future,” said David Moore, who began working with Willison in 2002. “I remember John saying, ‘Technical problems we can solve. Social problems are harder.’”
Willison assumed the role of deputy to the commanding general at the Research, Development and Engineering Command in 2017, and continued in this position when the command was renamed the Combat Capabilities Development Command, or DEVCOM, and transitioned to the Army Futures Command on February 2, 2019. As the deputy to the commanding general, he provided strategic direction for DEVCOM and served as a catalyst for research, development and engineering initiatives across the command.
“John’s positions have evolved as the Army asked him to lead teams with greater impact. DEVCOM is a big organization, and he focused on helping others achieve their potential, including how they approached the mission, bringing their best selves to the game and creating teams with impressive outcomes for the Warfighter,” Pitsko said.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, DEVCOM shifted to an increased remote/hybrid posture to keep its workforce safe and healthy. Willison spearheaded the Future of Work concept and the command adopted a ‘work where and when you are most productive’ construct. Willison participated in numerous podcasts, videos and interviews on the Future of Work, stressing the importance of communicating with the workforce.
“The idea of remote work met significant resistance from leaders who sought to ‘return to normal’ as soon as practical. John recognized the opportunity for a new normal and sought to set conditions for DEVCOM leaders to implement workforce policies that attracted and retained good employees,” Moore said.
DEVCOM is the Army’s largest technology developer, with more than 25,000 employees who work in a variety of research, development and engineering roles at more than 100 locations around the world. The command is leading the Future of Work effort for AFC and the Army.
In a recent interview, Willison said, “We talk a lot about technology and engineering, but it really is a people business.”
During the retirement ceremony, Willison shared ten lessons he learned during his tenure as an Army civilian. A few of the lessons include: contribute to a purpose bigger than yourself; focus on your strengths and the strengths of others; and there’s no work/life balance, only choices.
He also shared his affinity for European soccer, particularly the Liverpool Football Club. The team’s flag was displayed at the ceremony, and he noted that their anthem, "You'll Never Walk Alone," is a reminder that “what we do is a team sport.”
In closing, Willison said, “I’m honored to have served as deputy these last five years for this impressive command. The Army is the best because of what you do. Thank you to those who have walked beside me the last 36 years. While I will no longer be in your front office, I will always be in your corner. You will never walk alone.”
The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command — DEVCOM — is home to the Army’s largest pool of civilian scientists, engineers, analysts and technicians who are the bedrock for discovering and developing the capabilities Soldiers need to deter, and when necessary, defeat current and future adversaries.
DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of Army Futures Command, and together the Team of Teams provides the scientific and engineering expertise necessary to better integrate modernization priorities and give the Army, as part of the Joint Force, the ability to act faster and more effectively than the adversary.