By Brian Brackens, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Public Affairs
/ Published March 02, 2020
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – When Lynda Rutledge began her Air Force career in 1989 as a mathematician at Eglin Air Force Base, her goal was to work for a couple of years and leave for the private sector.
However, she soon fell in love with the challenge and impact of her work, and 30 years later she’s still serving the Air Force.
In her current role as the Program Executive Officer for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Mobility and Training Aircraft Directorate, Rutledge is responsible for acquiring, updating, modernizing and sustaining the Air Force’s mobility and training aircraft fleet, to include the C-5, C-17, C-130, T-38, T-6, T-7A, E-9 and U.S. Air Force Academy training aircraft.
A seasoned acquisition leader, she is the recipient of the 2019 Presidential Rank Award in the Meritorious Executive category.
During a recent interview, Rutledge shared her perspective on a variety of topics.
Q: Congratulations on receiving the 2019 Presidential Rank Award. How does it feel to receive it?
Rutledge: Thank you. It was a nice surprise and I’m very honored. However, when I read the things I was recognized for, my first thought was that I hadn’t done much of the work. My teams did it all, so I give them the credit. My job is just to support them, and try to give them what they need to meet their mission.
Q: You have a very interesting background, I was looking at your bio and it says you’re a mathematician. Why did you start working for the Air Force?
Rutledge: After college, I moved down to South America and lived in Colombia for two years. Afterwards I came back home to the Fort Walton Beach area and enrolled in the University of Florida for a master’s degree in Systems Engineering.
One of the guys in the engineering program mentioned that Eglin Air Force Base was hiring, and even though I originally wanted to get my degree and leave the city, I reluctantly applied and was hired as a computer scientist, where I did data analysis and wrote software that supported the test missions on base.
My first program office experience was with the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) Program Office [at Eglin] where I was part of the team that got JASSM awarded and off and running.
After we had JASSM awarded there was a program coming out of the Air Force Research Laboratory called Small Smart Bomb. I was asked to be the program manager to transition it from the lab.
Q: Did you know then that you wanted to be a Program Executive Officer (PEO)?
Rutledge: I did. I saw what the PEO did, what their job was, and that they got to interface with all of the programs.
At that point I was six years out of college. I had six years under my belt where I was exposed to program office PEO structure. I just thought being a PEO would be fun, and it is, I was right.
Q: If you were sitting down to mentor a young employee what would you say?
Rutledge: It depends. It depends on what they want. What I tell them is don’t always worry about the next step. Pick a really good job and enjoy what you are doing and appreciate what you are doing today and just do your best at it and the rest will take care of itself.
Q: Throughout your career starting out as a young acquisition person, did you take any risk?
Rutledge: So I told you I really didn’t want to come work for the government. My parents were both civil servants, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to move to the big city, and work for General Mills or some big company. I always thought I was only going to stay (at Eglin) three years, and after three years I was only going to stay another three years. I kept getting challenged, and I was doing what excited me. I also had leaders that gave me rope and a lot of liberty and freedom.
Q: Did you take risks?
Rutledge: Yeah, I took risks along the way. As a matter of fact, I took more risks when I was younger than when I was older, because I didn’t have as much invested, and I didn’t have the hindrance of experience. I was mostly going off my common sense and ideas.
Q: Did you ever fail?
Rutledge: Sure. First source selection I did was on JASSM [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile]. A protest was filed and it wasn’t necessarily in my area, but when they went and looked at the data, they found something I did in my area that deviated from the plan. So it’s my first program office, first time I had ever done a source selection, and I’m sitting in what is almost like a courtroom during the protest and I was petrified that because of me we might have undone the whole thing. I was horrified.
I will never forget my senior leader, who would be the equivalent of a senior program manager, telling me the protest was good for me to experience and that it would make me so much better. And he was right. Taking that risk and failing made me a lot better program manager. I survived, and the program survived, so I knew taking risks were okay and necessary.
Later he came up and said, “One of your virtues is that you are willing to take risks. That’s a strength you have. I don’t want this [protest] to cause you to lose that and be afraid to take risks again. You did the right thing. We had an objective to get through, and you did what you thought you needed to do to meet that objective. It didn’t work out exactly how you thought, and that’s okay. We’ll get through it.”
Q: What’s your favorite book?
Rutledge: The Cider House Rules by John Irving. A character in the book was asked, “What do you want out of life,” and he said, “I just want to be of use.” As soon as I read that, I go that’s me, that’s what motivates me! If I feel I’ve been of use and done something that’s useful to somebody that’s all I need. I’m not happy or satisfied if I feel like I’m not being of use.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
Rutledge: I really like working with my teams, whether it is solving a problem, trying to get a program issue worked, reviewing the programs, and setting up acquisition strategies. There’s no doubt and I don’t make it any secret, my favorite, favorite, thing to do is to set up acquisition strategies. I love working with the teams to do that. And I also love source selections. But it’s always when I get to engage with the teams and working together and solving problems, that’s just my favorite part.
Q: Say you are a young acquisition professional and new to the team, but don’t have a lot of experience. Perhaps you have a really great idea, but the senior person doesn’t want to listen. How do you get heard; how do you get your ideas on the table?
Rutledge: Go to somebody else. That’s why I do like to be in the room with teams, so I can hear other people’s ideas. What I tell junior folks is that I had the best ideas and the best thoughts when I wasn’t tainted by my experience. The things that I asked and I observed just from my common sense and just from the outside are still the smartest things I ever thought of. I’m now tainted by the system, by my experiences.
Q: So you were smarter back in the day?
Rutledge: Yes. I asked good questions, and they were questions that made people go hmm… A lot of times having a fresh set of eyes look at something we all have been doing maybe the same way for many years, can bring a great aha moment. I have a lot of our junior workforce asking me those good questions today, and it’s great!
Q: Anything you would like to add?
Rutledge: We have to embrace an environment of change. It is what has and will continue to give us the leading edge.