10 (or more) Questions: Amanda Simpson
10 (or more) Questions: Amanda Simpson
Amanda Simpson is the Executive Director of the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives, the central management office for partnering with U.S. Army installations to implement cost-effective, large-scale renewable energy projects. She is a physicist and engineer who has worked in aviation and defense technology for more than 30 years. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Simpson to the position of Senior Technical Advisor to the U.S. Department of Commerce, making her the first openly transgender female Presidential appointee in U.S. history. She spoke with Joe Solmonese about leadership in an increasingly diverse workplace, and how she sees her role in shaping national conversations around human rights and LGBT issues.
Today’s workplace leaders face one of the most complicated diverse workforces in history when it comes to age, race, education, culture and gender. You’ve undoubtedly thrived under some great workplace leadership yourself. Which style has inspired you?
A corporate vice-president I worked with once shared how she led people – it was about planting ideas and concepts that others made their own, and then supporting them to success. That’s the type of leader I aspire to become – one who freely gives away the best ideas and promotes and celebrates the success of those I lead.
How do you describe your leadership style?
I can’t be an expert at everything my organization is responsible for. To make informed decisions I must rely upon the experts on my staff who know a lot more about the technical, political, economic and multitude of specialty issues. My job is often to integrate those opinions, suggestions and courses of action into a decision. So, I would say my leadership style is a cooperative one with a mix of delegation. But I understand that once I make the decision, I am responsible. My staff knows that too, so I am insulating them from direct pushback from upper leadership. That permits them to be open with their opinions when we discuss options, but they also understand and respect what I am putting on the line.
Has that always been your leadership style, or has it evolved over time?
I can certainly say that my leadership style has evolved as I have evolved. Over my decades of leading different teams and organizations, I have learned so much that not to adapt that knowledge into my style would be indefensible.
How do you define the term inclusive work culture?
I don’t think an organization can prove it’s inclusive – it’s the people who work there that determine if they are included or not.
How does an organization provide a culture where its employees feel included?
What an organization can do is watch how their employees vote, as they often vote with their feet. A respectful organization that is interested in bettering itself should be conducting candid exit interviews to determine what works and what doesn’t within their organization. This can also be done with current employees utilizing third-party services with anonymous contributions.
And what about leadership’s role in establishing and maintaining that culture?
A successful and meaningful corporate culture needs leadership to clearly demonstrate they are open to understanding and improving the workplace climate. It can’t just be lip service to make employees feel better. There needs to be recognizable action.
Workplace diversity programs are often called well-intentioned but stagnant. What’s your take on that?
In my observation, when this happens it is clear that not all leadership understands the value of diversity. A program run by one person or an office isn’t well-intentioned, it is off the mark. Diversity has to become part of how an organization runs.
So how does a diversity program become hardwired into a company?
All employees, but especially leadership, need to understand the business case for diversity. Is it about employee retention? Is it about the open and unhindered contribution of ideas? Is it about the equivocation of consideration given to suggestions? Is it about personnel development? Some, or all, of these? For a diversity program to be effective, everyone in the company needs to understand why.
Bringing together a diverse mix of professionals has been key to the success of the Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI), hasn’t it?
The OEI was set up to find new ways to bring energy resiliency to our Army installations. We knew that the current way couldn’t and wouldn’t work. So it was very important from the onset that the organization would be open to new ideas, new concepts, and policy, which at times contradicted current Army processes. To get new ideas and a diversity of opinions meant bringing together a diverse mix of colleagues that could indeed work together. Also crucial was that all levels of leadership understood and supported the method of working through issues, and were willing to stand up and support it both up and down the chain of command. I made it clear to my staff that my primary job was to make them successful, and I have done everything that I reasonably could do to accomplish that.
Which of the OEI’s practices has been most effective in helping this diverse mix of colleagues work well together?
I believe that continued and reiterated support is one of the main reasons we have made the progress that we have. Now we have one of, if not the, largest pipeline of renewable energy projects in the federal government. And we’re doing that with other people’s money – no congressional appropriations and nothing from the military budget – to build and operate these assets. That’s revolutionary success.
You play a large role in shaping national conversations around human rights and LGBT issues. What are you most proud of in this area?
I knew when I started down this path that there were few public role models for the transgender community that had progressed in the business world. I felt if I were successful that I would be proud to share that success and provide hope for others that would follow. I am also very proud to have been part of a presidential administration that has provided open opportunities through the elimination of artificial barriers in the federal workspace.