Active Duty Army Officers as Project Managers within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

By applying leadership and problem-solving skills honed in the military, officers can overcome a lack of experience to provide alternative perspectives to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers districts and successfully serve as project managers handling large civil works infrastructure projects.

By Capt. Aaron F. Anderson, P.E., PMP, M.SAME, USA  


 

The use of active duty Army officers as project managers within USACE, especially districts whose primary mission is large infrastructure civil works projects, is an uncommon practice. USACE is an organization built from within the Department of the Army upon inception. As the country expanded through World War II, many USACE districts relied primarily on military officers to perform most of their required duties. Yet today, the Army assigns the majority of Army officers either as commanders or to assignments for short tours lasting two to three years. With Corps infrastructure projects ranging from hundreds of thousands to multi-million dollars, it is a sound practice for experienced civilian project managers with longevity in their assigned districts to oversee work completed. The use of Army officers in project manager roles brings about a set of unique challenges that organizations must overcome, but utilizing officers in this way also provides advantages based upon their military backgrounds. In those organizations where the right combination of certified, ambitious military officers can pair with experienced supervisors and project delivery teams, there exists the opportunity for the organization to learn and grow as a whole by assigning active military to unfamiliar positions.

 

A FRESH PERSPECTIVE

Upon taking over as project manager, regardless of the project’s stage in the life cycle, it becomes clear that a project delivery team (PDT) is unlike a typical military unit.  As an Army officer commanding Soldiers, officers have enough skills and experience to perform and manage the troops in their unit by setting the example and leading from the front.  There are basic skills that all members in the military are required to master and this leads to a common point of reference.  Inside a civil works infrastructure project there is no such common ground.  A project delivery team will consist of highly skilled individuals who are experts in their skill sets such as engineering, contracting, legal, public affairs, resource management, etc.  It would be unrealistic to believe the project manager could walk into a project and be considered the subject matter expert in these different roles; therefore the realization that the project manager is not the technical expert in the room becomes not only accepted but essential to project success.  Officers must be willing to ask the tough questions, and the simple ones.   The intent is not to become the expert in each field, but rather create a common operating picture between the project manager and the team in order to ensure that the project manager can best utilize resources and manage stakeholders to ensure project, team and organization success.

  

STAKEHOLDER MANAGEMENT

To be successful, the incoming officer, as a project manager, must listen and be open to accepting the advice of their project delivery team, while using their outside perspective to question those recommendations that lack detail and understanding.  When identifying stakeholders, it is imperative to know not only the PDT members, but also their supervisors so that the officer can seek answers to questions and guidance to bridge the gap caused by inexperience.  Seeking out guidance of leadership and supervisors in the organization allows the project manager to achieve buy-in on decisions and opens the door for further professional development. 

Much like in the military, civilian organizations solve some problems best with experiential knowledge.  While the military officer may lack this experience personally, the ability to seek out those that can provide it is the required skill.  Officers who take the time to get out from behind the desk as much as possible and sit down with each member of the team gain a better understanding of their duties and responsibilities.  In addition, visiting project sites and discussing the technical aspects of the work allows officers to create a common operating picture amongst the PDT.  This may be difficult as one tries to wrangle with the scope, schedule and budget of each project, but it is an action that serves several key purposes. 

Shadowing team members allows the officer to gain a better understanding on how to lead each individual employee on the team, and in return, the team member gets the feeling that the project manager cares about their work (which fosters member buy in).  In addition, it allows the project manager to ask questions and identify inefficiencies that may build over time as employees spend years in the same positions.  The project manager then has the opportunity to reciprocate the education they receive by educating the team on the military and its methods so that the team has a better understanding of their leader.

 

TRANSFERABLE LEADERSHIP SKILLS

Regardless of an employee’s age or position within an organization, they look to supervisors and managers to serve as leaders and provide purpose and direction.  By nature of the position assigned and the duties inherited, the project manager becomes that leader.  It is in this leadership role that the officer can overcome a great deal of the technical and experience-based gaps that result from not working in the industry.  The Army and Project Management Institute (PMI) both identify multiple leadership traits attributed to success in each career field.  To start with, officers understand chain of command and the importance of communication both to superiors and members of the project delivery team. 

Upon taking the position as a project manager, one becomes a part of a wide array of meetings.  Whether the project manager is hosting the meeting or simply acting as a participant, the meeting forum allows him/her to display how comfortable they are communicating to groups of people.  This forum can provide the officer with an initial boost in credibility from their civilian counterparts who may not have had very much interaction with uniformed service members.  While getting up to speak may cause anxiety in others, an officer in the Army at this stage in their career has already commanded platoon and company sized units consisting of 50-250 Soldiers and understands and exercises the principles of mission command.  More than 15 years of persistent conflict has created a military population where the majority has served in combat zones. Today’s officer brings a different perspective to the organization on how to manage stress and prioritize conflict, ensuring that mission completion is nested into the organization’s larger picture and that managers and leaders are taking care of people.  These officers have also been in charge of millions of dollars of equipment and property; therefore, the sticker price associated with the cost of large infrastructure projects is not overwhelming.  

 

Regardless of an employee’s age or position within an organization, they look to supervisors and managers to serve as leaders and provide purpose and direction.  By nature of the position assigned and the duties inherited, the project manager becomes that leader.


 

 

MEETING THE CHALLENGE

Being a project manager in an organization as diverse as the United States Army Corps of Engineers is a demanding and challenging assignment for officers with little experience with USACE or PMI specific processes, and in managing civil works and large infrastructure.   However, like other military assignments, district commanders assign officers to their positions because they have trust in their capabilities and potential.  The size and scope of large infrastructure is simply too great for districts to accept the risk of failure and they trust their officers to produce results.  Officers will undoubtedly experience a steep learning curve, but at the same time will give back to the organization in their ability to provide a new and open perspective to problems and take charge when leading people.  The long-term benefits to the organization are a fresh perspective of business practices and the development of talent for future USACE assignments. In return, the officer gains valuable project management experience and leadership skills specific to civilian organizations.  They develop a greater understanding of engineering opportunities in the U.S. Army and how the Corps meets the needs of the nation. 


Capt. Aaron Anderson is Project Manager at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-808-4786.

*A version of this article is being published in the 2017 November-December issue of Army Engineer.