PEO's highest ranking civilian retires after 35 years
When James Shields first began work at Picatinny Arsenal as a young mechanical engineer in 1983, he had no aspirations of one day leading one of the installation’s major tenant organizations.
However, 35 years later, he became one of the highest ranking civilians at Picatinny when he was selected to lead the Program Executive Office Ammunition, which is responsible for the life-cycle management of the Department of Defense’s conventional ammunition.
“I’m not your typical SES (Senior Executive Service). I didn’t follow the classical mold,” explained Shields, whose civilian rank is equivalent to a two-star general.
To attain such a high rank within the military, many SES’s actively seek jobs across the military to broaden their portfolio, gain experience and exposure, and ultimately find higher-graded positions.
So what was Shields’ secret to success?
“I think it was good timing, good exposure, and being fortunate enough to get involved in some high visibility programs where I worked hard, did reasonably well, and made a name for myself,” he explained.
“It always felt like I was being pulled into my next position. I was always told, ‘you need to apply for this, you need to do this, you need to go to the Advanced Program Management Course,’” Shields said. “I didn’t really want to go to PM school – it was 14 weeks away from my job and family, and my wife was seven months pregnant with our second child at the time.”
However, not one to disappoint his superiors, Shields followed the well-placed advice of his colleagues and continued furthering his professional education and applying for higher-graded jobs on the Arsenal.
“As a result, I kept rising through the ranks,” he said, acknowledging how fortunate he was to be promoted to SES without having to accept a position outside of Picatinny.
“In the acquisition world it’s very unusual for an SES to start and end their career in the same place.”
WORKING THROUGH THE RANKS
Fresh out of college with a Bachelor’s of Science in mechanical engineering from Rutgers University, Shields applied to Picatinny’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) after talking with his college friend, Gene Schlenk, who worked at Picatinny.
Shields was hired to work in the Precision Munitions Division, working on the M712 Copperhead munition. Copperhead was the Army’s first smart artillery round, a laser-guided 155 mm projectile.
After six or seven years, he left the Precision Munitions Division to become the team lead for the Wide Area Mine. Like many ARDEC engineers, his next career choice lead him to the proverbial “fork in the road.”
“That’s an artifact of being an ARDEC employee,” Shields said. “You’re hired by ARDEC and if you’re a mechanical engineer you work technical things for 8 or 9 years and then you come to a fork in the road. Do you want to stay technical and remain part of ARDEC, or do you want to go into program and business management?”
While working in Wide Area Mine, Shields’s colleague, Ellen Kuriata, encouraged him to apply for a GS-14 business management position in the Advanced Field Artillery System program, which later became known as the Crusader program. The Crusader was a self-propelled howitzer that was being developed for the U.S. Army as a replacement for the Paladin.
At first, Shields did not believe he was qualified for a program management position as an armaments engineer. Kuriata convinced him that his munitions knowledge would be beneficial, and that his experience on the munitions side of armaments qualified him for the job.
“When I went to work at Crusader, that was kind of my fork in the road, as I left the technical side to enter business management. I took that position and that set me on the path towards program and business management versus research and development,” he said.
“I knew it would be a challenge because I had never done program management before. But I took a risk, took a chance and it worked out.”
While this may seem like a difficult decision, Shields said his decision was fairly simple.
“At that time, if you could get a position as a GS-14 that, was a big deal - you grabbed any opportunity. It seems as if there are a lot more of those positions today than there were back at that time. It worked out well for me, but the reason I initially took the opportunity was for the opportunity of promotion.”
After leaving Crusader, Shields joined the Joint Program Manager (JPM) Lightweight (LW) 155mm Howitzer team, serving first as the Deputy JPM, under both Col. Steve Ward and Col. John Garner, and then ultimately becoming the JPM in 2004. JPM LW155mm later became the JPM for Towed Artillery Systems (PM TAS).
In 2009, Shields became the Deputy PEO Ammunition, and in 2014, the Honorable Heidi Shyu, then Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics and Technology), asked Shields to become the PEO when BG John McGuiness retired.
For those aspiring to follow in Shields’ career footsteps, he has advice beyond working hard and continuing your professional education.
“Don’t do it for the money, because the money’s not there,” he laughed. “The hours you’re going to work are probably more than you anticipate. However, you’ll get great experience and great exposure. As an SES you’ll get to shape policy and organizations and have a lot of influence over things. If you have a vision and an idea of how you can change things for the better, SES’s are going to be more effective simply because of their position. But if you’re doing it for financial reasons, that’s not a good thing.”
Typically, Shields will arrive to work early, work through lunch, and leave 11-12 hours later. It is well known that he has two periods within the day that are blocked off so that employees who need to talk with him can walk into his office and chat. Once he arrives home, he will eat dinner and then answer the emails that he wasn’t able to answer during the workday.
“That’s the battle-rhythm,” he said. “Be careful what you wish for if you want to be an SES, because to do it right, you’re going to have to put in a lot of hours to do the job the way that it needs to be done.
“You have to be able to walk the walk. You shouldn’t be asking anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. As a leader, everybody looks at you as the representative of your organization. So if you’re not a hard worker, if you’re not at work on time, if you’re not conscientious and if you don’t follow through on actions in a timely manner… that reflects badly on you and your organization.”
Another aspect of leading is inspiring and innovating employees.
“Every meeting I go into, I know that the people in the room are looking at my demeanor and how I feel about things - and they’re feeding off it. So I think you have to be upbeat, at least look like you’re having fun, and you have to be encouraging. And I think you have to treat people with respect, listen to everyone and let them know you value their opinion.
“I think there are people who consider themselves leaders who are screamers and hot-heads, or there are others who won’t offer any ideas and take a passive role and let people do what they please. Those are two extremes, but I like to think I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and empower them.”
Shields said, “a leader needs to understand that subordinates will never do everything exactly the way you would. Keep in mind that we’re all individuals, so as long as the work is responsive, accurate and answers the mail – you have let your staff run with it.
“You’re not always going to be successful 100 percent of the time. And when you’re not successful, that’s ok, as long as you take something away from it and learn so that you don’t continue to be unsuccessful.”
Shields thinks empowerment is important, otherwise employees will not take risks.
“You don’t want people doing the same thing over and over again, because the organization will never get better. You want people to take chances and step outside their comfort zone. And if you do that as a leader, I think other people in the organization will be encouraged to do that as well.”
THE FUTURE OF AMMUNITION
The first rule of every Picatinny Arsenal employee is to never forget who they are working for – the Joint Warfighters.
“They’ve got to be in the minds of everybody who’s working in this enterprise,” Shields said.
Currently, dynamic changes are occurring in the Army as it stands up the Futures and Modernization Command, which will streamline and manage the Army’s acquisition priorities.
“There’s been a lot of discussion and criticism of acquisition, so I think we’re seeing the results of all that. I think the good news is that Picatinny is well postured,” he said. “We’re all about continuous improvement, which is what acquisition reform is getting after. I think when the dust settles, the workforce here will fit nicely into the modernization command because we’re already in that mindset where we look for better, faster, cheaper ways to do business. So I think the key is to make sure that the ammo we deliver on the next contract is better than the ammunition we’re delivering on the current contract.”
Shields noted that today is an exciting time for the ammunition enterprise.
“In the last five years we’ve seen a doubling of research and development investments. So the good news is that there’s lots of R&D coming down the pipeline– from small caliber ammo to artillery ammo, precision, to things like multipurpose rounds and air bursting technologies, enhanced fragmentations, new insensitive explosives and propellants.
“There’s a lot going into improving Soldiers safely and enhancing lethality and range of our armament systems. These are exciting times because a lot of these efforts have only recently been funded. That’s good news because the R&D that is now being funded will transition into production over the next few years. And the Soldiers of tomorrow are going to be given much more capable ammunition because of the efforts of the people of Team Picatinny.”
“We need to continue to work on relationships across organizations, build more trust and become more collaborative and team oriented in going about our business,” Shields said.
“If you can bring your Training and Doctrine Command customers in and understand what requirements are important to them – what’s tradeable, maybe what’s not tradeable – these relationships will make the acquisition business, which is very hard, a lot easier.”
Shields also said it’s critical for government and other DOD organizations to understand what we do is important.
“Because what you don’t want is duplication of effort. If we’re the center of excellence for guns and ammunition, or the preeminent organization for propellants or what have you, we need to make sure that people who work in related fields understand what we do.”
That includes the general public.
“It’s important to build close ties to outside Picatinny so they can understand the importance of the mission of this installation. It’s good to brag a little bit about our accomplishments. It builds a sense of community with those outside our gates, and again teamwork and collaboration. The people living around Picatinny should understand what we do and how important it is to our national defense.”
“I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for the people who work here. They’ve got an incredibly important job to do and they do it well,” he added.
Shields includes in the praise the Garrison employees, not just the acquisition corps.
“This is a great place to work. I think there’s been a tremendous improvement in the infrastructure here – the roads, the facilities, the gym, the child development center – there’s so much here for employees that make it such a great place to work. The garrison and folks here – I think they do a phenomenal job of ensuring our safety, providing protection, yet making it as accessible and unobtrusive as possible. Given the threats we face today I think they do a great job securing the installation.”
When reflecting on his career in the Army, Shields final words of advice to the Picatinny community is to keep your focus where it needs to be.
“And again don’t ever lose focus on who we’re here for, and always improve yourself, your organization and the products you deliver.”
Shields graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and received a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology. He is a graduate of the Program Management Course and the Executive Program Management Course of the Defense Systems Management College.
Shields is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Association of the United States Army, and the United States Army Field Artillery Association. His awards include the Department of the Army’s Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, and Superior Civilian Service Medal; the National Defense Industrial Association’s Firepower Award for Outstanding Achievement in Production and the John A. Ulrich Award; the Field Artillery Association’s Ancient Order of Saint Barbara Medal; the Armor Association’s Saint George Medal; the Ordnance Corps Samuel Sharp Medal; the Army Engineer Association’s de Fleury Medal.
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