Don’t let it happen on your watch

  • Published
  • By Col. Dennis W. Lisherness
  • 55th Communications Group commander
As an Air Force Airman for many years, I've developed many philosophies, as well as leadership and management styles based on my experiences. Examples include such things as: "learn from the actions of your 'good' bosses and learn what not to do from your 'bad' bosses," "there is an opportunity to learn and grow from every person around you, from young to old Airmen, officer and enlisted, civil service and Department of Defense contractors," "take your job very seriously, do your best every day, but don't take yourself too seriously."

I could go on and on about the things I've learned and the stories that underlie my style(s). What I would like to do is relate an experience that taught me many things, such as to always do your best job, improve your processes, organizational skills, and focus every day, and avoid the pitfall of getting into a "defensive crouch." Let me explain.

In the early to mid 1990's, as Captain Lisherness, I was stationed at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England, with the 100th Regional Support Group, and was responsible for war readiness material and logistics support planning for United States Air Forces in Europe. The group was assigned as the lead for many activities surrounding the 100th Air Refueling Wing's annual air show, and I was given the responsibility for all ticket sales. We charged the public $5 per vehicle, and similar to Offutt, received approximately 300,000 visitors. With a make-shift team of professionals throughout the 100th RSG, I led a team that was responsible for all aspects of ticket sales from shift scheduling to cash pick up and equipment set up.

Every area was key to a successful air show, but an essential area was distribution of numbered tickets at every gate, with the intent being that the number of tickets sold per vehicle times $5 per ticket equaled the total revenue collected at the gate each day. In theory, it all adds up. Well, the inevitable happened. Of the $200,000 plus or so collected, a few thousand was stolen.

How did we know? Although there's always some discrepancy in the actual number of tickets sold reconciled against the money collected, usually the differences are small and a few thousand dollars is not small. Since this wasn't Air Force operations and maintenance dollars, there wasn't much that the Air Force Office of Special Investigations or security forces could really do.

So, I personally investigated, to include interviews with all scheduled gate ticket sales workers. As expected, no one had any idea what happened to the money. In hindsight, it was just too easy for situations such as this: two people working at each gate, one person needing a bathroom break, cash exchanged in large amounts ... it's hard to prevent temptation from getting the best of a person. By the way, we discerned who had stolen the money, but couldn't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I, of course, kept my group commander fully apprised of my investigation. Realize, that because it was not Air Force dollars, and it really was a good-news story for the wing with so much money collected, the wing commander wasn't overly involved. My group commander however, was involved and was very concerned, rightfully so. I briefed him a few times over the course of a few weeks on the status of the investigation.

We of course tightened up the procedures in our continuity books for the following year. At one point toward the end of all this, I was in my group commander's office. He looked at me and said, "Dennis, does this bother you?" I replied, "well, of course sir, but in another sense, no, because I'm confident that we did all we could to organize and account for thousands and thousands of tickets sold, money collected and people managed, in a hectic environment, and at some point we just need to trust that people will not steal money that is not theirs, even when laid before them with practically no chance of getting caught." He responded, "well, Dennis, it bothers me greatly because it happened on my watch."

In a sense, I felt like I let him down. I'll never forget this conversation. My group commander at the time was Col. Frank Pruisman, a prior enlisted professional who had been around for many years. My goodness, what a great mentoring moment this was for me and I don't think Colonel Pruisman even intended this as such.

Here's a staccato-fire summary of what I took away from this experience and his simple words: Take all your jobs seriously, pay attention to details, be sure you truly understand all parts of your mission essential tasks, be organized, delegate where you need to, don't get in a defensive crouch and try and learn from all experiences, and don't be naïve about people's ability to "do the right thing when no one is looking." Bottom line -- it was a great experience in leadership, followership and teamwork, as well as the importance of professional development, that can come via organized, scheduled sessions, or via some impromptu times when you least expect them. So, the ultimate message is, "every day can be a positive, learning, 'growth' experience from the eclectic variety of people we run into, and don't let it happen on your watch."