News | Sept. 21, 2017

Wilson, who reformed systems by empowering people, joins Hall of Fame

By John R. Bell

With the right attributes and helpful mentors, a person can lead others to great things even without being an expert in the technical aspects of their work. 

Larry Wilson is proof of that.

After starting in the government as an intern, Wilson rose through the ranks of the newly formed Defense Logistics Agency Information Operations to become its executive director of enterprise solutions. He managed this despite having worked up to then as an editor of a policy magazine and public affairs officer, with no background in information technology.

Wilson drove the division to make long-needed reforms and to develop systems the entire DLA enterprise and DLA customers still rely on. Wilson will be inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame Sept. 21.

Out of Many, One

Wilson joined DLA Information Operations in 1996, after finishing a Senior Executive Service development program and a Brookings Institution fellowship on Capitol Hill. He saw that a few systemic problems had long stymied the agency’s IT operations.

In the 1990s, every major DLA field activity had its own IT budget and bought whatever it wanted.

“We joked that if somebody built a technology, someone somewhere in DLA bought it,” Wilson recalled.

This meant one division produced documents in WordPerfect while another used Microsoft Word, and another still used WordStar — so that one division often couldn’t read a document created by another.

Wilson remembered discovering a closet piled with 8,000 copies of a software program — only to be told the work unit that bought it had decided not to use it. 

No one had the authority to change that, Wilson said — until then-DLA Chief Information Officer (and eventual Vice Director) Mae DeVincentis created his SES position, tasked with unifying — or “operationalizing” in technology parlance — DLA IT processes, policies and hardware.

“We wanted consistency, policy conformance and technological compatibility,” Wilson explained. “And we wanted it to be measurable. In short, we wanted IT — in all of its variations — to be much more of an enterprise-wide solution” he said.

So he asked for his site directors to submit ideas that were working in their units and submit them to be considered as DLA-wide IT policies or practices. 

Once those were in place, Wilson began having regular reviews to track performance in each field activity.

The Beginning of Better

One of his first tasks was to consolidate the agency’s menagerie of service contracts, software and hardware. No longer could divisions buy different brands of computers.

In addition, “we had a shop in the headquarters where they would repair the computers,” Wilson said. “In fact, the people in one PLFA were actually building their own computers!” He put a stop to that.

Wilson also tasked his deputies to develop a single, simple contract for computer purchases. The contract had to include contractor repair or replacement within two days, with all the software installed and the employee’s files recovered.

This one change saved DLA $18 million over only four years. And it led to the creation of a single division responsible for enterprise licensing.

Wilson’s reforms also included a policy for workplace use of the internet, suddenly commonplace in the mid-1990s thanks to the new World Wide Web. Developing and coordinating a DLA-wide policy took over a year but was so on target, it became the basis for the Defense Department’s internet policy, Wilson said. 

Wilson was a pioneer for modernization efforts, successfully implementing many groundbreaking programs, including the Enterprise Telecommunications Network, Demilitarized Zone for business-critical websites, numerous Information Assurance partnerships, and a major production and sustainment center for DLA's ERP implementation, the Business System Modernization. BSM, now known as the Enterprise Business System, replaced numerous DLA legacy systems, some dating nearly to the punch-card era.

He even created the EAGLE timesheet system, still used by the entire agency.

All this standardization improved what even then he realized was the primary IT criterion, Wilson noted: security.

Finally, Wilson led the DLA IT workforce to consistently measure, record and analyze its work. Work units had been measuring outcomes using different metrics — or not at all — and there was no broader analysis from the enterprise level.

Fixing this led to consolidating funding and unifying staffing under the new organization. “I went from having a headquarters staff of dozens to a staff of more than 3,100,” Wilson said.

Leading by Listening

But bringing all those workers under one organization didn’t solve the longstanding morale problem, Wilson said. But first he needed to get candid answers from the workforce.

Wilson leveraged the highly critical results of a DLA climate-culture survey. “We got obliterated,” he said. The comments had a common theme: a lack of trust in management, with allegations of unfair hiring and promotion practices hiring and, conversely, an “Everyone gets a trophy” approach to performance awards. 

“We called it peanut-butter management,” Wilson said. “Everybody got a little piece of the peanut butter spread across the bread,” even if they didn’t deserve it. 

This was meant to keep the peace, “but it had exactly the opposite effect,” Wilson recalled, since those putting in extra effort saw no more recognition than the person doing the minimum.

Wilson began visiting the field sites regularly, some as often as four times per year. He led town-hall events but realized many employees were reticent to ask candid questions in front of peers and supervisors.

So Wilson added non-attribution small-group discussions — some with just supervisors and some with only the employees.

“It worked,” he said. Both groups were more candid and gave Wilson a sense of the common complaints. He then brought those to the management team, to develop action plans. 

Wilson also started what he called “Food for Thought. “I picked one person a month to have lunch with me,” he explained. “In exchange for me buying them lunch, they told me what they were thinking. There were no rules; you could talk about whatever you wanted.”

Although the first employee chosen “immediately thought I was going to fire him,” the lunches became a great way to get the views of those doing the hands-on work, Wilson said.

He next addressed the discontent with performance awards by requiring that managers write a brief justification for each award, to ensure fairness. “I looked for internal consistencies and logic about why someone was getting an award,” he said.

Support From Above

Wilson noted he was only able to achieve these things thanks to the encouragement and guidance of his mentors. DeVincentis and current Vice Director Ted Case — who both served as chief information officers in Information Operations — were “extraordinarily generous” with their time and insights, he said. 

Case noted Wilson’s personal touch as a leader. Despite ending up with more than 3,000 employees, “Larry made each one feel appreciated,” he recalled. 

That Wilson did so without a background in technology further impressed Case. “Larry could always make the very difficult understandable and always with a touch of humor.”

And that humor served him well in leading people, Case noted. “Larry had a natural talent to attract the best and most talented folks, and they loved to work with and for him.”

DeVincentis called Wilson “a truly indispensable senior leader” through his 20 years at the agency, the force behind “significant improvements in IT employee leadership and training practices that continue to pay great dividends for DLA.” And yet he managed to meet each employee personally to discuss individual development plans, she noted.

“It is impossible for me to over-represent Mr. Wilson's contribution to DLA's mission,” DeVincentis said.