Four Harvard MBA candidates spent the summer working for the Chief Financial Officer of the Air Force, the Honorable Michael Montelongo, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Financial Management and Comptroller).
Mr. Montelongo is the driving force behind the interns’ presence in the Pentagon, and regards reaching out to promising students to be “imperative to the future of Air Force Financial Management.” The idea is to upgrade and up-skill the financial management (FM) workforce for the challenges of tomorrow. Introducing new and top talent from the best schools in the country is one way to do that.
The four ECs, including me, interned within the Air Force Budget office, the Financial Management Transformation office, the FM Workforce Management directorate and the Air Force Cost Analysis Agency.
Before Mr. Montelongo joined the Air Force in August of 2001, hiring interns from top-tier MBA programs was not a priority, and there was no formal program to recruit or fully tap their potential. According to the Assistant Secretary, the need to change that state of affairs was obvious: “High performing organizations want the best talent they can get their hands on. We need to attract and sign up our fair share of that talent.”
To Mr. Montelongo, bringing in students with track records of success and a strong interest in public service is a natural step toward transforming Air Force FM into the strategic, advisory, value-added work force the Air Force needs to meet the future’s evolving threats. “We must bolster our current menu of capabilities, cross-pollinate our workforce with fresh insights and new experiences, and bring in folks who have the competencies, training and skills we need.”
The Air Force benefits in the near term from the fresh, unbiased perspective sharp students bring, most of whom have substantial relevant private and/or public sector experience. Meanwhile, the interns get to experience government first-hand at senior levels. More important, they are thoroughly exposed to the high quality of Air Force personnel and the considerable opportunities to be involved in significant, challenging and exciting work that affects U.S. national security.
In addition to recruiting directly from this internship program, Mr. Montelongo is confident that as these students return to school, word will spread about the strong appeal of an Air Force career, both in the short and long terms. After all, few private sector positions offer opportunities of the scale and impact found within the Air Force, especially in the early stages of one’s career. According to Charlie Hansell, a current Harvard student and the only intern who had served in the military, “The most rewarding aspect of my summer was the opportunity to take the lead on a key transformational project and interface closely and meaningfully with top Air Force leaders about it.” Virginia Tech intern Ron King, who worked in the Air Force Cost and Economics Office, and who was one of only two undergraduate interns, added, “I worked on a number of multi-million and billion dollar projects that affect thousands of people and the security of our country.”
Over time, this program also serves to promote greater understanding and appreciation for the importance, sophistication and diversity of military operations, especially among those who are likely to be the country’s future business leaders. This goal is especially relevant given the potential for more and more Americans to feel disconnected from their all-volunteer, career-oriented military. On a broader level, Mr. Montelongo hopes that other public officials will emulate his office’s program, and that promising candidates will be attracted to government service early in their careers. According to HBS intern Sarah Strauss, “For someone with no military background, working for the Air Force has been a great personal and professional learning experience that opened my eyes to numerous potential paths for the future.”
Looking ahead to next summer as well as to full time hiring, Mr. Montelongo, who received his MBA from HBS in 1988, will expand his office’s recruiting to additional first-tier business schools. “When contemplating the size of the Air Force’s work force, budget, assets, global operations and overall complexity, we’re very similar to the top ten largest companies in the country. If you’re looking for persons to take on line responsibility and manage high operational sophistication, I think MBAs are uniquely well suited for those kinds of challenges.” Given the Air Force’s critical role in guaranteeing the peace and security of the United States, Mr. Montelongo asks, “Why wouldn’t the American people want the best, most competent people occupying positions in our government?”
Mr. Montelongo’s passion for actively seeking out previously ignored talent is part of his larger vision of how government service should be regarded.
For those who do not plan on spending their entire careers in the public sphere, government work in one or more career phases constitutes not just a noble act of public service, but rather should be viewed as a career-enhancing step because of the inherent learning opportunities, challenges and potential for far-reaching impact. Indeed, given the tremendous interplay between government and industry in today’s economy, if it were up to Mr. Montelongo, an individual’s career would not be complete without some form of public service.
But, what about the pay? There is no escaping the reality that the private sector offers higher salaries, but significantly, Department of Defense compensation is comparable to that of the non-profit world. Moreover, the public sector value proposition extends substantially beyond money, offering individuals the enriching opportunity to be involved in their country’s truly important, meaningful work. According to Strauss, “I have always had a personal drive to ‘give back’ to this country … I feel incredibly blessed to have been given so many opportunities.” Reflecting on his summer internship decision-making process, EC Hughey Newsome stated, “I wanted to be involved with something that extends beyond turning a profit on an individual product or service. I couldn’t pass up the chance to have an impact at the most influential military installation in the world.”
Major intern projects included assisting with the review, analysis and development of the Financial Management Strategic Plan; study and development of a Financial Management Competency Model and skill-gap analysis; preparation of business cases relating to proposed efficiency improvements; research, analysis and recommendations pertaining to the implications of limits placed on defense contractor profits; development of a new retention model for financial managers; and development of an Air Force-wide strategy and approach to performance management.
In addition to their duties at the Air Force’s Pentagon headquarters, interns participated in regular educational lunches and meetings with key Air Force decision makers, including Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. James Roche (DBA ’72) and Air Force Chief of Staff, General John Jumper, and visited the U.S. Senate, Langley Air Force Base and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.