Leaders come and go in the workplace all the time. It is something those in the Armed Forces get used to. Recently, the 75th Medical Group said goodbye to Col. Don Hickman, its commander, as he re-entered the civilian world. An interview was conducted with Hickman before his departure. What follows is an excerpt from that interview:
Fascinated by the B-52s and KC-135s flying from Castle Air Force Base, Calif., Hickman joined the Air Force Academy on July 6, 1983. He came from a family that didn't have much of a military background, with just his two grandfathers serving in World War ll.
He joined for the purpose of receiving an education and the chance of going to school in Colorado. However, he said he received much more than just an education in his 29 years of service.
Hickman was a 43E3 otherwise known as Bioenvironmental Engineering (BEE). After graduating from the Air Force Academy he obtained a master's degree in civil engineering from the University of California - Davis. Following his education he went on to have a succession of assignments taking him to Sembach Air Base, Elmendorf AFB and Kirtland AFB.
He said that sitting behind the desk all the time didn't suit him; he enjoyed more that as a BEE he was out on the flight line and in all the shops monitoring the health of the employees and their work environments. If you ask him what he considers the best job in the Air Force, he answers that it is the job you currently have.
Hickman said he lives by a "work hard, play hard" philosophy. As commander he assessed work conditions to help balance any resource mismatches. He set strategic vision, missions and goals and made sure to measure the organization against those goals.
Hickman did not wait for news to fall in his lap, and he made sure that he put in just as much effort. However, when the work day was done, he would go home to recharge his batteries with his family, doing the things he loves.
The colonel also had some advice for anyone arriving at a new base. Among preparations that you make whether as an officer or an enlisted member, such as house hunting, exploring the area, meeting your new co-workers, settling in -- it is important, to not forget what you need to do in a new workplace. Most might think -- learn the job (if new to it), get to know your co-workers, establish who is your supervisor or who you will supervise. According to Hickman, one of the most important things to do when you arrive at a new base, and maintain throughout your stay, is to establish credibility. He has always believed that focusing on honesty, transparency and communication is the key. If you put all your cards on the table when expressing your opinion then people are more likely to respect your opinion even if they should disagree with it. He has always told everyone what he knows -- and what he doesn't know -- which he feels is just as important.
No matter what precautions you take, or even if you have established credibility within your flight, squadron, and group there are bound to be conflicts. His response to this is: "Conflict happens all the time. People have varied backgrounds, experience, temperaments, emotions, and they respond to situations in different styles and manners. How one deals with this conflict is situational dependant. As the leader, I set the tone and standards for the organization. I expect open and respectful communication, discussion of the issues and points of view, and then if I am the decider, I decide. Once the decision is made, I expect everyone to support it. If I am not the leader, I respectfully express my views and opinions and support the boss when they make their decision."
Being a dedicated leader, Hickman, like many other supervisors, had to occasionally deal with difficult subordinates. He advised that "the leader has to do the right thing, all the time, for the Air Force, for the unit and for the employee. When you keep that simple truth in mind, providing difficult feedback can become easier." He goes on to address a situation he once had with a physician that also required him to inform the staff that his job was to ensure patient safety and quality of care. Feedback is a way for the supervisors and raters to let those that they are entrusted with know how they are doing in their jobs -- to let them know what is expected of them and what they are doing well and what they are falling behind on. The feedback process was constructed to help facilitate employees' learning and their success.
As Airmen, the line between good and exceptional is often blurry or not well understood. When asked what the difference between good and exceptional was, Hickman replied, "A good Air Force unit gets the job done. An exceptional Air Force unit is one you want to go to because you will enjoy the experience, provides 'Best in Class' customer service, and both the customers and the IG say are 'Outstanding.' Leaders set the tone for these organizations. They ensure everyone knows that customer service matters most at the end of the day. They know that 'Best in Class' customer service breeds outstanding units."
Hickman was considered an outstanding leader by those who knew him. He made sure to check on his squadrons, flights and people. He constantly reached out to those who were working their hardest to complete the mission. He motivated others by being the example, and he set goals knowing that they were reachable for those that they would affect. He will be missed by everyone who had the chance to work with him.