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Profiles in Leadership: Whether it’s as a Reservist or a civilian employee in the corporate world, Chris Cunningham has found success by putting quality first

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command
 (Editor's note: This story is part of a regular series of articles that highlight the unique capabilities Air Force Reservists bring to the fight every day. Make sure to check out future issues of the magazine for more Profiles in Leadership.)

Like most Air Force Reservists, Col. Chris Cunningham is a busy man. In his civilian life, he's a procurement manager for Reed Elsevier, a large multinational publishing and information company. For the Reserve, he's the emergency preparedness liaison officer for the state of Indiana. At home, he's a husband and the father of three children, with one in college and two in high school. Sometimes it doesn't seem like there are enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to get done, but somehow Cunningham makes it work.

A 1990 graduate of The Citadel with a degree in electrical engineering, Cunningham was an active-duty Air Force civil engineer for 7 1/2 years before making the switch to the Air Force Reserve in 1998.

"My last active-duty assignment was at Wright-Patterson (Air Force Base, Ohio), and when I got off active duty, I joined the (Reserve's) 445th Civil Engineer Squadron right away," he said. "I was with the 445th for 14 years and finished my time there as the commander."

He left that assignment two years ago to accept an individual mobilization augmentee position as the EPLO for Indiana. EPLOs serve as conduits for information during natural or man-made disasters when the Department of Defense has been called in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or another primary federal agency in support of a state. When disaster strikes and local and state officials look to the federal government for help, EPLOs quickly go to work behind the scenes as part of the DOD response effort.

"EPLOs keep a close eye on what is happening whenever there is a disaster and are ready to step in when asked," Cunningham said. "The DOD is the last resort. Local city or county officials will try to deal with the situation first. If they get overwhelmed, they will go to the state and ask for help. If the state officials get overwhelmed, they will ask another state for help. Finally, they may ask the federal government for assistance, and that's when the EPLO would step in to coordinate DOD response to the disaster."

Cunningham believes his Reserve experience as the commander of a civil engineer squadron and his civilian experience with companies like IBM and General Electric have prepared him well for his role as an EPLO.

For both GE and IBM, Cunningham was a Six Sigma black belt, meaning he spent nearly 100 percent of his time working to identify and remove the causes of defects and improving the manufacturing and business processes at these two Fortune 500 companies.

"I basically did Six Sigma full time at GE and IBM for five years," he said. "And it really changed the way I think about everything I do. The biggest thing with Six Sigma is you really try to understand what is going on in the current situation and document it to the best extent possible. You look for the real root causes of a shortcoming or a defect, not necessarily what you think might be the real issue. You put data behind it, and then you fix it. Measuring everything you do is huge with Six Sigma. And it's really a great way to take defects out of a process."

Cunningham is not a full-time Six Sigma champion at Reed Elsevier, but what he learned as a black belt at GE and IBM certainly influences the work he does for his current employer.

"Reed Elsevier is a huge umbrella that is made up of a lot of different companies," he said. "We are big in publishing and information management, and it's my job to help make sure our products get from point A to point B on time. Of course, our print volume is going down, but the electronic side of our business is going up. My challenge is to make sure our distribution is where it should be at a time when the world is transitioning from a print-dominated format to a more electronic-dominated format. And there are certainly some things I learned from Six Sigma that apply to my current position."

The colonel said he has also been able to apply Six Sigma concepts in his Reserve life.

"I used Six Sigma quite a bit when I was the commander of the 445th CES," Cunningham said. "While we were doing Six Sigma in the business world, the Air Force was working with Total Quality Management, and there are some similarities between the two. I remember one weekend we used some survey tools to try to ascertain what was most important to our members. We were trying to prioritize what we wanted to work on the next year, and we really wanted to hear from the Airmen what was important to them. We used Six Sigma tools to find the voice of the customer so we could set our priorities."

Having experienced success in both private business and the military, Cunningham has some advice for leaders at all levels in the Air Force Reserve:

Be yourself
"I've seen a lot of leaders over the years who tried to act how they thought a leader should act, even if it was totally out of character for them. For example, if you're naturally a quiet person, don't try to be a yeller. And vice versa. People see right through that. The biggest thing is to be yourself and play to your strengths."
Pretend your parents are in the room

"One thing I learned at The Citadel that has stayed with me is to always interact with people like their parents were standing behind them and my parents were standing behind me. If somebody needs counseling, it can be handled in a professional way where your parents would be proud of the way you handled it, and their parents would understand as well."

Focus on fitness
"This one is simple: The commander should be one of the fittest people in the unit. Set the example for your people. It's tough to send a message to your troops that physical fitness is important if you aren't fit yourself."
Create a safe working environment

"One of the things I always tried to do as a commander was to make sure we had a safe working environment, and not just safe from an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) perspective. Of course keeping things safe from a physical perspective is extremely important, but it's also important that your people feel comfortable at work and feel like they are part of the team. The workplace needs to be free of abuse, free of ridicule, free of teasing. The people who work for you may not like work because it's work, but it shouldn't be because we have created some sort of hostile environment."

Make time for mentoring
"Finding that one person you can bounce ideas off of is important, whether he or she is higher ranking or lower ranking than you. As you gain rank, you need to reach down into the unit and make sure your better young officers and NCOs have everything they need to move up into leadership positions."

Think diversity
"Always look for diverse opinions. Get input from people who don't look like you. As a commander, I always tried to get the female perspective, the African American perspective. We all make up the Air Force, and we all bring different perspectives to the table. Anything you can do to get to a better decision is always worth it."

Communication is key
"Let both sides know what is going on in the other world. I try to keep my civilian bosses up on everything that is going on the Reserve, and I definitely want my Reserve bosses to know what is going on in my civilian life. Bad news doesn't age well. If you have a deployment coming up, let your bosses know as soon as possible. Communication is also extremely important with your family and part of that is making sure they are informed of your comings and goings. If you're going to the base, bring the family along so they can see what you do. It's the same in the business world: include your family whenever you can."

Encourage the crossover
"Take the knowledge you learn from one job and apply it to your other job. If you learn Six Sigma in your civilian job, apply it to your military job. If you learn leadership in the military and how to stand in front of a group of 100 people, certainly use that in your civilian world as well. Take advantage of training whenever you can on both the civilian and Reserve side, and let what you learn cross over whenever you can."

Do your homework
"Keep up with your Reserve stuff throughout the month. You can't not do anything in between UTAs (unit training assemblies). Especially as a senior leader, you can't just come in on the weekend and pick up where you left off last time. There is too much going on. You have to keep up with what is going on with big Air Force, you have to keep up with e-mails, OPRs (officer performance reports), EPRs (enlisted performance reports). There is no way to get everything done on a UTA, so do what you can throughout the month at home."

Beware the break in service
"My last piece of advice is to active-duty service members who are thinking about becoming a Reservist: That one weekend a month and two weeks a year will be hard to grab once you go off active duty if you don't make the switch to the Reserve right away. If you go straight away into the Reserve, the commitment is there. It's not impossible, but it will be definitely more difficult if you wait a few years before becoming a Reservist."