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Tanker PEO highlights guiding principles and tips for success

Brig. Gen. John Newberry (left), Program Executive Officer for the Tanker Directorate, confers with Maj. Larry Fairchild, Chief of the Tanker PEO Execution Group. (U.S. Air Force photo / Brian Brackens)

Brig. Gen. John Newberry (left), Program Executive Officer for the Tanker Directorate, confers with Maj. Larry Fairchild, Chief of the Tanker PEO Execution Group. (U.S. Air Force photo / Brian Brackens)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFLCMC) – Leading successful teams, solving challenging problems and providing warfighters with the capabilities they need, has defined Brig. Gen. John Newberry over the course of his 26 year career.

Tapped last year to be the Program Executive Officer for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Tanker Directorate, Newberry is responsible for arguably the U.S. Air Force’s most important aircraft in the inventory; the KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender, and the new KC-46 Pegasus.

As PEO, he leads the planning and execution of all life cycle activities for U.S. Air Force and partner nation tankers, to include development, test, production, fielding, sustainment, and modification.

Recently Newberry sat down for an interview and talked about a variety of topics including guiding principles and habits he’s developed during his career.

Q: Good morning General how are you doing?
Newberry: I’m doing well under the circumstances. Right now we are living in atypical times with COVID-19. It’s a health crisis, and we’re all under a great challenge. We are trying to balance getting the mission done – which is what we need to do – with personal safety and people’s health. Thankfully we have technology to help us continue our communications and get our mission done as best we can.

Q: During these times, as a leader for a large organization, how are you staying engaged with your team and keeping them motivated?
Newberry: I think it started before all of this. Everyone within the Tanker Directorate understands the importance of our mission. We have 396 KC-135s and 59 KC-10s that provide air refueling to our warfighters. Air refueling is essential to our national security, and it puts the word “global” into our global force. As of today, we also have 33 KC-46s. That new platform is coming online as well, and collectively all those aircraft are important to the nation, so folks understood that mission going into this crisis, and they understand what we need to do to endure. We stay engaged using all of the tools that we have today. Obviously emails, phone calls and as much as I can, direct engagement. Now that we’ve limited travel, I can’t always meet one-on-one with folks. I encourage the team to continue to balance personal safety with getting the job done in order to keep those aircraft flying and contributing to our national defense.

Q: You’ve been the Tanker PEO for under a year now, what has been the biggest surprise coming from being the KC-46 Program Manager to PEO?
Newberry: I don’t think there was a surprise. I had been a deputy PEO [with Mobility Directorate] in the past so I understood what the job entails. But I would say that when you take the position and the seat as PEO, at that point the challenges become yours. What is true for most new PEOs, you go from being a manager of a single program, to being responsible for a portfolio of programs. That challenge is something you have to overcome and do well at.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
Newberry: There are three things that I do in any given day. The first is knowledge management. The second is risk management and the third is stakeholder management. A good chunk of my day is spent either behind the computer or in meetings, just handling information, processing information, getting information on program status, program execution, understanding the issues and successes of the day and determining who needs to know what. Then there’s risk management. We obviously don’t have enough resources to do everything so we have to understand what our risks are in terms of execution and then take the appropriate steps to mitigate the risks. The third area is stakeholder management. We all have stakeholders whether that’s our Congressional leadership, Pentagon leadership, base leadership, and warfighters. I do my best to engage with them and meet their needs.

Q: You have a large spotlight on you, how do you management that?
Newberry: I realize there’s a spotlight, but I try not to perceive it. I try to do the things I’ve done since I was 18 and put the uniform on for the first time. Work hard, take care of the team, and let the spotlight, if there is one, be what it is. You have to live by your ideals, be a model citizen, and when you do that, you don’t care about the spotlight because you are doing your job, you are doing your best, and no one can critique you for that.

Q: Your job is a grind. What do you do to prevent burnout and stress?
Newberry: First, I do recognize that I have a high stress tolerance. I think you have to in these jobs. Balance in life is important, we are all in a marathon here. I use that analogy because I think fitness is important and I think that helps with the stress release. I’m an avid marathon runner. My time on the trail helps me think about work, prioritize my work and lets me escape a little.

Q: You mentioned that you have a high stress tolerance, is there a way to build stress tolerance or is it something that you are just born with?
Newberry: I’m sure it’s a combination of that. I think some folks can just succeed in a high stress or highly competitive environment. There are some inherent traits that make you more inclined for that, but there definitely is a need to train for stress. You have to train, or work at it, and I think that with any endeavor, the more you do it, the easier it is. To use a running analogy, the first marathon is hard, but the second marathon is easier, and then the third marathon is easier and eventually it just becomes normal. That’s true for high-demanding jobs. The first is hard and then you will take another one and you’ve learned from the first one. Challenge yourself. Learn how to succeed in that challenging job and then take a more challenging job and learn how to succeed in that and continue to challenge yourself because it only makes you better.  Because when it’s a really bad day, you can better respond to it because you’ve challenged yourself in the past.

Q: What’s your approach to problem solving?
Newberry: I do the classic problem solving approach. Step one is spend a lot of time and truly understand what your problem is. Ask the five whys. Too often we go after the symptoms and not the core problem.  Second, determine your objective. We jump into ‘I know what the problem is’ and immediately try to fix it, but you have to determine where you want to go and your end objective. For complex problems, sometimes the end objective is not so clear either. If you know where your problem is and where you are going, then you can develop courses of action and understand the risks of those actions. Once you understand the course of actions and the risk, then you have to do a balance decision on what’s the best course of action, because unfortunately, we don’t have unlimited resources to go after every course of action.

Q: What single event in your career has taught you the most and was it a success or failure?
Newberry: I don’t have one culminating event. No one job stands out, but they each have their own successes. I’m a product of all those jobs and all those years of experience and learning from everyone else.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Newberry: An important lesson that I think everyone should follow is you need to be an expert in something. We are acquisition professionals and if you are going to be a program manager, a financial manager, an engineer, contracting officer, scientist, you need to be an expert at that. If you are not an expert, how are you contributing? Also you need to have an affinity for work hard. You need to want to work hard. Lastly, you need to be able to work well with a team. Imagine if you are an expert, you’re willing to do hard work and you’re great in a team. I don’t care what career field you are in, if you can do those three things you are going to be a value to yourself, a value to your team, a value to your family and a value to your country.

Q: Do you see yourself as a risk taker?
Newberry: I don’t. For me, risk taking means making a decision perhaps independent of facts or data. I’m more inclined to understand all of the risks and to mitigate them and take what are considered low and medium risks. But I think there is an opportunity for all of us. We need to push ourselves into more uncomfortable areas, and to be willing to fail, if we are going to be more innovative.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
Newberry: We have a huge responsibility here in the directorate to deliver warfighting capabilities. Between our 455 strategic legacy tankers [KC-10s and KC-135s], and the 33 new KC-46s, it’s a huge task to keep those aircraft – some as old as 60 years old – flying and modernized while we stand up the KC-46 and work through its technical challenges.  The tanker team is getting the mission done.  NKAWTG.