FORT BELVOIR, Virginia –
The Marine Corps hymn sounds off as the clock strikes each hour in Karyn Runstrom’s parents’ home. Her dad, uncles and grandfather all served in the Corps, but the new deputy director of Defense Logistics Agency Information Operations has proved you don’t have to wear a military uniform to serve.
True to her bloodline, Runstrom has had troops’ lives and welfare in mind since she joined the agency in 2001 as a traffic management specialist with DLA Troop Support. Her first “high” from meeting warfighters' needs came on a Friday before the Super Bowl.
“I was getting ready to leave work when we found out there was a mis-shipment of blue cheese dressing for the wings. I was like, uh-uh, we can’t send them chicken wings without blue cheese, so I stayed late to get a new shipment out, and I felt really good about doing that,” she said.
The stakes are higher now, as Runstrom helps manage the 190-plus information technology systems employees and warfighters use to provide everything from spare parts to medical supplies. Those systems also track DLA’s financial data, stock levels and even employee training records.
Driven by the desire to make a difference, Runstrom soared from her internship at DLA Troop Support to the agency’s upper ranks. She became a GS-15 by age 29 while working for DLA Logistics Operations and was inducted in December into the Senior Executive Service at age 40. Of DLA’s 27,000-employees, only 25 are SESes.
Many employees wonder how the Pennsylvania State University graduate shot up so fast. Hard work and willingness to try new roles are obvious factors, Runstrom said, but advice from mentors like DLA Vice Director Mike Scott and Kathy Cutler, former director of DLA Information Operations, also led her toward paths many would’ve avoided.
“I got a lot of clear guidance that I couldn’t stay in one spot and that I should be picking up projects and programs nobody else wanted to touch because, depending on who you asked, they were destined for failure,” she said. “So I put myself out there and I made mistakes along the way, but I learned from them and wasn’t afraid to put myself back out there again.”
In 2011, Runstrom led inventory management and stock positioning changes at Navy Fleet Readiness Centers mandated by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure initiative. Reaching agreements on how to reengineer business processes and information technology assets to meet the Navy’s needs was contentious and uncomfortable, but Runstrom persevered through setbacks on the way to what she now calls a “raging success.”
Later, while heading DLA’s Planning Improvement Effort, a 2014 program that increased the agency’s ability to forecast customer demand, Runstrom found herself selling change to a workforce comfortable with the status quo.
“I took the project and ran, but again, it was sometimes ugly because nobody wanted to talk about new, transformational ideas and doing things differently when they were used to pushing a certain button every day.”
Building a career was not Runstrom’s only ambition. On top of daily work challenges, she and her then-husband struggled to conceive. They tried in vitro fertilization and insemination.
“Between all those procedures, I was pumped full of hormones. It was a rollercoaster followed by phone calls with bad news,” she said.
They turned to an egg donor, and Runstrom became pregnant on the first try. Her daughter Lyvie, aka “Bug,” was born in 2015, just hours after Runstrom briefed then-DLA Director Air Force Lt. Gen. Andy Busch on the Planning Improvement Effort. She had no idea she was in labor but her then-husband noticed something different about her at home that evening. Runstrom shrugged it off and said she was just hungry. He insisted they go to the hospital, where a nurse hooked Runstrom up to a monitor before turning to her in alarm to ask if she was OK.
“I just said I was hungry, but the nurse turned the monitor around to show that I was having massive contractions. Apparently, I have a high tolerance for pain and ended up having the baby 20 minutes later.”
The feeling of brokenness that shrouded Runstrom melted away as she held Lyvie for the first time, a moment worth every ounce of pain and yearning.
“The amount of women and men who have fertility issues is heartbreaking. Maybe people think it’s taboo to talk about it or are ashamed, but I believe it’s something we need to talk about more. We need to figure out why it’s happening,” she said.
Other women have asked Runstrom how she balances a hectic job with motherhood, and she prefers to plow through her days without stopping to consider the “how” for fear she’ll not be able to keep doing it. Having a four-year-old can be chaotic; it’s also the reason for all she does.
“I do what I do for her, and I want to be able to give her what my mom gave to me,” she said, adding that workdays lasting 10 hours or more don’t keep her from spending quality time with her daughter reading or crafting. “There’s times when I have to get on a work call in the evening. She knows that mommy puts a suit on and makes life better for other people.”
Eagerness to connect with those around her by sharing her personal life and her drive to succeed professionally make Runstrom a unique leader, said Joe Brooks, chief of the Agency Synchronization Operations Center’s Operations Division. Brooks worked for Runstrom in 2019 in her previous position as deputy executive director for DLA Logistics Operations’ Logistics, Policy and Strategic Programs Directorate, which developed policy for key business and supply chain management functions.
“One of the most remarkable things about Karyn is that she maintains her humility and humanity even though she’s working at such a high level,” Brooks said. “I think that’s what it’s going to take to lead this agency to the next step because, as much as we like to automate, people are still pretty darn important.”
While conducting research and analysis on DLA’s functions and capabilities to help DLA and Defense Department leaders make fact-based decisions on reform efforts, Brooks was also impressed with Runstrom’s ability to create an agencywide picture.
“Karyn was quickly realized as the ideal pitch person to brief the deputy secretary of defense. She has a natural ability to take in lots of disparate viewpoints from across our supply chains and shape them into a cohesive story that clearly describes what we’re doing to reduce costs while effectively supporting warfighters,” he said.
Runstrom’s goal now is to help match emerging IT capabilities with DLA business processes. She also hopes to inspire improvements in those processes through new systems like the new Warehouse Management System, a commercial, off-the-shelf program that’s expected to replace the almost 30-year-old Defense Standard System by fiscal 2023.
“Instead of customizing the new system to make it do things as we’ve been doing them, let’s look at our internal policies and processes first and determine whether those are the most effective and efficient ways ahead,” she said.
DLA policies can easily be changed to incorporate better business practices and minimize the money and resources needed to maintain customized systems, she continued.
“Or maybe it’s an OSD policy that needs changing, but it’s worth it. And if warfighters are having the same issues we are with their warehouses and systems, let’s come together as a DOD enterprise and create a better, streamlined solution across the board,” she said.
Despite the barriers broken by women before her, Runstrom said she has at times felt she was being judged for being both a woman and young. After speaking up at a meeting years ago, a man turned around to her and said, “What, are you 12?” A self-proclaimed people person with thick skin, she fired back: “By golly, I just turned 13 yesterday.’”
But his remark lingered in Runstrom’s mind. Afterward, she pulled him aside to say he should keep such comments to himself.
“If it had been somebody who wasn’t like me involved, that behavior could’ve stopped them from speaking up in meetings,” she said. “My advice to other women is get out in front and don’t let anyone hold you back.”
As a teen, Runstrom dreamed of joining the Marine Corps like the men in her family, but her father wouldn’t allow it. You’re destined for better things, he told her, so she earned a master’s degree in business administration. And though she originally hoped to have her pick of jobs at large civilian corporations, DLA won her heart.
“Every day I feel like I’m doing something good for somebody. I don’t think you could get that with the same intensity at a job in the outside world,” she said.
What’s next for her?
“Even though she’s reached a pinnacle level as an SES, I think she’s got so much farther to go,” Brooks said.