Donna Davis, long regarded as a jack of all trades and tenacious leader, now joins the ranks as one of the Defense Logistics Agency’s 2018 Hall of Fame inductees.
She once aspired to teach English at the college level, but since retiring in 2014, Davis, as a friend of Fairfax County Libraries, volunteers regularly at book-fair fundraisers and as a “reading buddy” for elementary students after school. She also cares for her granddaughter full-time since 2016, which she’s found “very fulfilling,” as teaching and learning have always been her passion. But by her own admission, she had a lot to learn early in her career.
Davis was recruited by the Department of Labor at age 17 before she graduated high school. A two-year political appointment eventually followed, to the President’s Commission on Pension Policy, in Washington, D.C. She recalled it as a fast-paced environment with cutting-edge technology and high expectations.
By 1981, the Commission ended and Davis was looking for a new opportunity, so she came to work as a secretary at DLA. Davis described the move as a “big culture shift,” which included a downgrade and adjustment to a dynamically different work environment from her previous job. Despite the differences, Davis said the location and people made the change feel right.
“I liked the military hierarchy,” she said. “It was refreshing to work in a results-oriented environment; its hierarchy by design facilitates decision-making.”
Decision-making became one of Davis’s strengths as a leader, but it developed along with tackling challenges and overcoming obstacles in her career progression.
Major changes occurred at DLA as it continued to eliminate stock duplication, reduce overhead costs and consolidate distribution depots into a unified materiel distribution system. DLA Headquarters reorganized, and in the 1990s, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended realigning and closing military facilities, which significantly affected the way DLA organized its missions.
“DLA changed over time," Davis said. "We invested in ourselves, leveraged opportunities and changed the way we did business. I was fortunate to learn from and emulate leaders who championed and led the agency through significant change.”
In addition to improvements made through agencywide decisions, Davis said certain leaders in the workplace greatly influenced her professional growth and personal perspective.
As Davis advanced in her career, she recognized, “If you treat people well, they’ll do amazing things. I’m not being a cheerleader; I just find it to be true,” she said.
In 1990, Davis went to work with Gary Thurber and Jill Pettibone in the Defense Contract Management Command, which was still part of DLA Headquarters, followed by a stint in DLA’s Corporate Performance Office and Office of Plans and Policy.
She credits Thurber and Pettibone, along with Christine Gallo, for guiding her career.
“All [had a] unique ability to be visionaries as well as collaboratively execute and clearly define the way for others,” she said. “As you go on this path, when you are a willing worker and open to new experiences or challenges, opportunities and like-minded people find each other.”
Educational opportunities and new experiences in Davis’s career paralleled her learning on a more personal level, too. Early on, Davis realized the importance of education and was able to earn her associate degree in business on her own time, and at her own expense. Years later, while raising two children, she attained a bachelor’s degree in English, recognizing that an advanced degree would help her better provide as a single parent.
“My No. 1 priority was taking care of my family,” she said. While she recalled motherhood was all encompassing at times, it made her even more determined to succeed in her career while pursuing educational opportunities.
Even as a full-time mother and part-time student, Davis’s commitment to her career was evident. She was selected by then-DLA Director Navy Vice Adm. Edward Straw to work in the agency’s Corporate Performance Office, tracking and managing key initiatives and monitoring business area performance metrics. An end product was the design, build, test and implementation of DLA’s Executive Information System, the first enterprisewide use of statistical process controls and trend data.
“It was a rewarding experience, with a great deal of executive-level exposure,” she said. “We had a lot of latitude — the ability to effect change and stop things that didn’t make sense.”
Because of Davis’s competency and innovative thinking, she was quickly moved into a resource management position and soon learned the best lesson about being a leader — communicating with people.
“I worked on implementing a new time and attendance system for DLA; it had a lot of problems,” she said. “But I got to know everybody in the buildings and warehouses because as I was walking [around] … I would ask how they were doing with the system.”
Davis noted even years later, someone would remind her she helped them resolve a system problem.
“I get my energy from [people], though I’m not much of an extrovert,” she said. “People never forget the way you make them feel.”
“The default position is treat people how you want to be treated,” Davis said. “Admit when you’ve made a mistake, stick up for yourself when you need to, and try to be civil — because we spend more time together than we do with our families.”
Davis said when she learned to ask what motivated each employee, she was surprised by the variety of answers she received.
“It’s amazing when you have that discussion — if people will open up and talk about it,” Davis said. “And then you will know how to swim along with them.”
Davis’s communicative approach not only increased her visibility, but led to various jobs throughout the agency.
“It’s not just about your education level or multiple degrees, and it’s not simply about volunteering,” she said. “It’s about working hard, being a team player who gets their hands dirty, which will in turn establish credibility and earn a positive reputation for getting the job done.”
Davis never underestimates the need for flexibility and willingness to take risks.
“Sometimes we punish people for taking risks and sometimes we love it; there’s a mixed message for the workforce,” she said. “[My advice is] take risks, but always use common sense.”
Among her proudest accomplishments, Davis counts working DLA’s Enterprise Business System program from conception to full operational capability, and “surviving” her time as chief of DLA’s logistics research and development team, which she called “the best job on the planet,” but also the hardest and least respected.
“The R&D job is unique, requiring business acumen in finance, acquisition, program management, each supply chain and its support services, and maintaining strong relationships with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, congressional and military service stakeholders, DLA sponsors, industry and suppliers.” Davis said.
Davis also credits Steve St. John, former deputy director of the DLA Logistics Operations Support Office, who hired her into her final position, and Mike Scott, deputy director of DLA Logistics Operations, who nominated her to the DLA Hall of Fame and whom Davis worked with extensively.
“Steve told me the job would be fun — and it was,” she said. “[Working with him was] one of the very best collaborative partnerships.
“Acceptance into the Hall of Fame is a big deal,” Davis said. “It’s an honor to be recognized for my work contributions and be acknowledged among current inductees and past recipients. There is no greater satisfaction than having done a job well.”