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Q&A Insight: How TEC's AIR accelerated change

Recording in TV studio

U.S. Air Force Airmen use the TEC-TV studios during a recording session of virtual in-residence remote NCO academy for the total U.S. Air Force, June 2, 2020, at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center in East Tennessee. TEC’s Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center instructors begin teaching the inaugural VIR-R NCO academy as well as VIR-R Airman leadership school for more than 250 students, connected from homes across the nation, beginning June 15. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- When understanding organizational climates, getting the right feedback from people for the right plans and changes is difficult during the best circumstances. Improving such working environments successfully during a world-wide pandemic proves harder still.

For Airmen at the Air National Guard's primary accredited learning center adjusting during the last year to new leaders, new missions, and virtual classrooms — as well as keeping themselves safe — getting a record favorable response in a climate survey has impressed leaders.

The I.G. Brown Training and Education Center, a group of 84 total force Airmen, serves as a central hub for enlisted professional military education, professional continuing education, and other support to the regular Air Force, Guard, and Reserve. Agility, Innovation, and Resiliency, or AIR, are in their Vision.

The organization was among the first ANG units to participate in the new Defense Equal Opportunity Climate Survey (DEOCS) format. TEC’s DEOCS launched August 24 and closed September 25.

Public Affairs talked with the Commander, U.S. Air Force Col. Kenneth Lozano about the positive results.

Q: Getting a 72 percent response rate for the DEOCS is impressive, especially considering the average response rate is 40 percent. What inspired this level of response?

A: When we started this journey a year ago, we decided to make "Taking Care of Team TEC" our top priority. The old cliché "if you take care of the people, they will take care of the mission" is a true statement. We took a proactive approach towards building an organization where people felt heard and included by utilizing the DEOCS. The feedback we received last year was transformed into an action plan to go after our Airmen's concerns. By optimizing the DEOCS, we could listen, understand, and foster the attributes needed to improve the unit's climate. This experience resulted in increased confidence in TEC leadership's ability to fulfill the promise of "taking care of people."

Q: The impact on TEC is evident in the results and growth the unit had during the last year. A 90 percent overall Favorability Rate is excellent, and some might consider that challenging to achieve. What actions took place to achieve such a high rating?

A: The DEOCS measures the health of an organization's culture. After evaluating the previous years' results, we identified that out of the 16 climate factors, "Inclusion at Work" stood out consistently as the lowest from the last three years. It wasn't easy to comprehend how TEC could flawlessly execute its mission even when the Airmen were repeatedly communicating that TEC could improve Inclusiveness. I knew inclusive behaviors cultivated an environment where members can reach their full potential. However, technical solutions could not improve Inclusion, and it required creative thinking. We took an effects-based-approach in setting the conditions to increase and transform TEC culture to be more inclusive. The effects we needed were inclusive behaviors that would more closely align with the AF Core Values. These behaviors were Respect, Trust, and Engagement and became "TEC values." These values were to be exemplified at all times and, more importantly, would be utilized as a lens for our thought processes and decision making. More importantly, these values would become the equalizer that would bring us together with our collection of differences, not despite them.

Q: That sounds interesting and complex. Inclusion provides great organizational benefits, including Innovation. This area was improved by 21 percent in one year, a dramatic change, considering operating under COVID-19 conditions for half of that. What did TEC do differently that enabled Inclusion at work to increase the way it did?

A: Inclusion is problematic; besides, we are working with behaviors and emotions. What needed to be understood is that Inclusiveness was an effect and not an outcome. Making Respect, Trust, and Engagement as our desired effects generated the conditions to develop the attributes we needed to "accelerate change." Organizational Agility, Innovation, and Resiliency were the attributes that would enable TEC to perform at its optimal potential during uncertainty and ambiguity when combined with skill mastery. AIR is the outcome we pursue from Inclusiveness, and therefore, our vision "to be the most Agile, Innovative, and Resilient Total Force training and education provider." We were confident that we would increase the unit's Inclusiveness and reap the benefits from it in tangible ways through Innovation. Simplified, to accelerate change, we needed AIR.

Q: It seems increasing organizational Inclusion is part of a broader strategy. What were some of the activities conducted to put the plan into action?

A: Inclusion involves treating each other fairly and as a valued member of the team. Inclusive actions encourage Airmen to bring their unique perspectives and empower them to make work-related decisions. From a command perspective, it was essential to set the expectations in addressing what type of behaviors were not tolerated and a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination, abuse, or harassment to promote a psychologically safe environment. We flattened the entire organization to reduce the layers of bureaucracy. This initiative met some resistance, and it was understandable since military organizations follow strict chains of command. The effects increased the number of senior leaders' direct reports and transformed the environment in which mid-level supervisors feel empowered to take risks, introduce ideas, and make decisions. Lastly, the creation of diverse working groups to go after the unit's Lines of Efforts. This initiative allowed our Airmen to volunteer and empowered them to propose changes directly to me to improve the organization. These initiatives and modeling behaviors allowed us to grow significantly in becoming a more inclusive organization where all members feel they belong.

Q: What was the operational impact in terms of Innovation and leading with an Inclusive mindset?

A: Our organizational Agility, Innovation, and Resiliency were felt during our daily interaction and more significantly once we faced COVID-19. It was an uncertain and ambiguous environment for which we have been preparing. We rapidly pivoted from having hundreds of students attending residence Enlisted Professional Military Education (EPME), assessed the risk and within 48 hours coordinated and safely sent everyone home before the COVID-19 travel ban was in place. Within 60 days after sending the students home, we capitalized on our video production and curriculum development organic capabilities and transformed our EPME schoolhouse into an entirely virtual platform. With our new capability, we were able to educate and graduate 902 students by the close of the fiscal year, seamlessly meeting our original throughput goals. Additionally, our schoolhouse was recognized as "Excellent" during its Program Management Review, even after completely transforming our education delivery method. Lastly, despite the social-distancing conditions brought by COVID-19, we could leverage our physical assets and experience in expanding TEC's training portfolio by effectively piloting our new Mission Defense Team (Cyber) training right on schedule. When expectations became that things would slow down, the AIR we gained from Inclusiveness enabled us to go even faster.

(U.S. Air Force Col. Kenneth Lozano contributed to this article.)