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Creating the culture we’re proud of: an interview with Col. O’Malley and Chief Cooley

Col Derek O'Malley, 20th Fighter Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Scott Cooley, 20th Fighter Wing command chief, spend time at each Welcome Weasel connecting with new Airmen here. Creating and sustaining a culture of kindness and respect starts on day one. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Araceli Donaldson)

Col. Derek O'Malley, 20th Fighter Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Scott Cooley, 20th Fighter Wing command chief, spend time at each Welcome Weasel connecting with new Airmen here. Creating and sustaining a culture of kindness and respect starts on day one. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Araceli Donaldson)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --

Accountability for yourself and your team is one of the key pillars the 20th Fighter Wing command team has actively promoted during their time here. Most recently, Col. Derek O’Malley, 20th Fighter Wing commander, has encouraged members through open dialogue, social events, one-on-one discussions and an internal questionnaire to identify areas of sustainment and improvement. We sat down with both the Wing Commander and his Command Chief, Chief Master Sgt. Scott Cooley, to get their feedback on how they are aligning their efforts, the current status of the Wing and the concerns they are still trying to address.

Here at Shaw, we had a three-day tactical pause consisting of one day where we came together as a team, as well as two additional days off to make sure Airmen could spend time with their loved ones. What do you think is the most important thing you learned from those events?

·       Col. O’Malley: I think one of the biggest takeaways is that trust is earned slowly over time. It takes courage and authenticity, putting yourself out there and being accountable for your actions, and connection to one another to create a sense of belonging. Being kind and respectful to one another is not conditional; it is valuable, if not essential, in every situation. And that requires creating a space where our Airmen feel safe to talk openly about their struggles so we can truly get to the heart of some of these issues. We have to earn the trust of our Airmen over time, and prove to them that we are the leaders they deserve every single day. If we just show up at a resiliency tactical pause, and haven’t been doing the groundwork to earn their trust – our words will be meaningless to them. I also learned that Airmen really like days off.  We’ll do more of that!     

·       Chief Cooley: We need to take more time to build relationships with one another and create a system that doesn’t show we only value the execution of flying sorties, but being a good human being. We realize that is easier said than done, but every time we hear about an Airman who stopped what they are doing to help someone out, or who went above and beyond to provide impeccable customer service, we try to find a way to thank them. We know many of our Airmen are humble and do this without needing any thanks, but just know, your efforts are appreciated and noticed.

One of the ways you tried to get feedback was through social media and a questionnaire where operations tempo was discussed. Can you elaborate on the work you have done in regards to the tempo?

·       Col. O’Malley: First off, we can’t thank the people who responded enough. We received over 1,000 responses to the survey, and I still get flooded with feedback on social media. In the surveys, approximately 80% of our personnel said they enjoy being a part of the Wing, feel empowered to raise concerns and are happy with their work center in terms of operations tempo and relationships, but we still have work to do to make sure every Airman and their loved ones feel valued and respected. One of the ways we looked at operations tempo was in regards to our flying hour program. We looked at data to see when our members tended to take leave, when our team was on the road more for exercises, when our key maintenance periods were so we could better realign our flying hour program. This ensures we have the manpower and resources to surge when needed, but more importantly, allows us to reduce the demands when we aren’t supporting exercises and deployment trainings - to give time back to our Airmen. We’re already getting positive feedback from our maintainers that they feel the difference, but we still have more work to do to get this right. I’m not going to declare mission accomplished yet!

·       Chief Cooley: For those who aren’t directly affected by the flying hour program, we have pushed authority down to the squadrons to consider options like flex schedules and more flexibility for physical fitness during the day, particularly when their operations are slower. The biggest thing is to remember not one schedule fits all, and we really need our unit-level leaders to find that harmony between creating a team and mission-focused atmosphere, while still realizing each person has individual needs. When I hear stories that a section willingly changed their hours by rolling an Airman’s schedule so they can better accommodate a single parent who is balancing getting his kids picked up from school while working a full-time job, I know we are establishing a culture we are all proud of.

In regards to work schedules, how are we ensuring shift workers have adequate time to rest and take care of other obligations such as physical fitness and helping agency appointments?

·       Col. O’Malley: We have implemented readiness days once a month. This is a day where our shift and flight line workers can focus solely on their administrative and training requirements, visit helping agencies, schedule medical appointments, get what they need done without feeling like they can’t leave the line. We also track 12-hours shifts and weekend duty for our maintainers at our weekly stand-up meetings, and we closely watch the schedules of our defenders and command post controllers. Sure, there will be times where we’re going to have to surge our ops, but I keep a close eye on this to make sure we’re doing this out of a true mission necessity. Otherwise, I want people at home recharging.  

·       Chief Cooley: One example is that many of our maintenance units have policies for their Airmen to ensure they aren’t working over a certain amount of hours without commander’s approval. We also have told units during night flying weeks to try and shift their schedules to later in the day to avoid working extended hours; we realize many of our mission support and medical group personnel are serving retirees and families that may need morning appointments, but hopefully by us taking the lead to schedule meetings in the afternoon, the units feel empowered to do the same where they can.

In the questionnaire, some Airmen felt that they worked with coworkers or leaders who were creating a toxic workplace, how have you looked into this issue?

·       Col. O’Malley: Yes, we’ve looked very hard at this issue. Leadership is a privilege, not a right based on rank or time in service. We’ve all heard people say ___ is horrible to work with, but he/she is really good at his/her job. I would argue that a primary part of our job is working together as a united team. That requires us to see each other as people. That requires us to treat our co-workers with respect. If we’re not doing those things then we are NOT good at our jobs, even though we may be technically competent in our particular fields. I also think we are sometimes too quick to label people as “toxic.” I want leaders to set high expectations, and give helpful correction and feedback. I want them to challenge our Airmen. I want them to have necessary, but difficult conversations when Airmen aren’t giving their best to contribute to the team. There’s nothing toxic about those actions. When leaders manipulate, threaten, control, exclude, or belittle Airmen – that’s the toxic behavior we have to eliminate. I truly feel if we coach one another, provide feedback early and often, and really take time to establish and maintain compassion in everything we do, we can create an environment where everyone feels safe and valued in their workplace.

·       Chief Cooley: We spend more of our waking hours at work than at home so it is imperative we create, maintain and sustain an environment based on our values. I would say to anyone who is treating another person with disrespect, please stop. Your behavior is unacceptable and does not enhance our mission or our lives. While we have agencies who are well equipped to address discrimination and unfair practices, we have also told leadership at all levels that they have the authority to move people around and to spend time developing all levels of their team. We need to look for ways every day to get out of our own head and to consider the perspective of the person we are conversing with or about. We need to work on the ways we respond to difficult situations. It is so easy to become frustrated and shut down, but we can’t let our emotions get the best of us.

You mentioned treating people with compassion and trying to understand each other’s point of view, is that aligned with removing your previous command chief?

·       Col. O’Malley: It certainly is. My entire command focus has been about building a culture at Shaw where we are truly listening to our Airmen; taking care of one another; and treating each other with professionalism, kindness, and respect. I have made a commitment to my Airmen and their families that I will do everything in my power to lead a Wing that stands by our values at all times. This means I will never walk by a problem when it is brought to my attention. When individuals on our team, particularly those in leadership positions, fail to treat people with professionalism, kindness, and respect – I have a responsibility to take action, and in some cases, to remove them.

How did both of you handle the transition, knowing it impacts your entire Wing?

·       Col. O’Malley: I know there will always be tension between transparency and privacy. As an Air Force we are often criticized for not being more transparent when we remove people from positions. Sometimes there is a perception that we don’t share information because we’re hiding something, or not holding leaders accountable. On my watch, I will absolutely hold people accountable for their actions, and the higher in rank we climb, the more accountable we become. I made mistakes as a younger officer that would be completely unacceptable to make as a Colonel, but I was given the opportunity to work hard and recover. Our young Airmen should also have the opportunity to bounce back from their mistakes, as long as they are willing and able to align with our core values. And while I hold people accountable, I will also protect their privacy as best I can, so they have the opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes without additional scrutiny and hardship.

With this in mind, I knew I needed to share the key points with my leadership team, and I did it the way I provide feedback – open, honest and early. I immediately brought in all of my group and squadron leadership and explained to them, while respecting our former Command Chief’s privacy, the decision I made. I reiterated the fact that our job is to focus on the now and the future. We owe that to our Airmen, and one of the ways we were able to stay true to our culture was by welcoming Chief Cooley with open arms. He had already served our Wing and had a great reputation; we just had to let him fly. He was exactly the Command Chief we all needed.   

·       Chief Cooley: The Boss and I knew we needed to focus on creating stability. One way we were able to do that was by continuing to promote and grow a better sense of belonging at all tiers, regardless if you are active duty, a family member, a civilian or a community member. We are really trying to carve time out of our day to be more present and fully engaged, promote a sense of community, and offer events that not only give back to our Airmen, but help us see the world differently. We have partnered with groups like the Gary Sinise foundation to revamp our deployed family readiness dinners, offered seminars where the primary focus is on building resiliency and a shared sense of purpose, listened to warriors like Sergeant First Class (Ret.) Schlitz share their views on the importance of mental health, and have simply taken more time when we can to connect with one another.

What have you found most effective in your own lives to be able to lead and tackle your priorities?

·       Col. O’Malley: If I can’t communicate effectively, I am not communicating at all. I try to use humor and humanity as much as I can when I talk to different audiences because laughter and positivity is something I think we can all agree is an important part of making us want to come to work. When you laugh, you release oxytocin, which in turn helps you connect with those around you and hopefully builds trust and understanding. Obviously we have to be careful that a person doesn’t feel they are being targeted or attacked, but if we do it right, I think teams that can laugh with one another are more resilient and can come up with more innovative solutions.

The videos we push out on social media have also been a great tool for me to connect with Airmen. When a senior leader walks into a room unexpectedly, as I often do, it can be really awkward. But I’ve found that many of our Airmen are actually happy to see me, because we’ve already built a relationship on social media. I always ask them for video ideas, and many of their ideas make next week’s videos. It takes a ton of my time to produce those videos, but it’s totally worth it. I love telling their stories.     

·       Chief Cooley: The importance of a routine that includes taking time for yourself and those who need you. I call my mom on my commute; I generally work out before I get to the office; I always spend the first moments of my day trying to learn something new about the people I run into; I make sure when I can to disconnect from work and spend time with my family. Our Airmen are talented and driven to achieve mission success. However, sometimes in the business of achieving that goal, we lose sight of being there for one another no matter what we are going through. That is why it is imperative to set aside time in your routine to reach out to your Airmen so they too feel mission essential.

Access to Mental Health and wanting resources/personnel in the squadrons came up, have you been able to make any progress in this area?

·       Col O’Malley: This is very challenging because it has to be done right, but this topic is incredibly important to us, and we have been trying to find and implement beneficial options. The most important thing you can do is take care of yourself, and we are trying to normalize seeking help by sharing stories and showing Airmen that taking time during your day is acceptable and looked positively upon. We have our Chaplains and helping agencies visiting squadrons more frequently, and they actually have office space in some units now so Airmen know exactly where to go when they have a free minute; we are creating a peer-to-peer support program and have worked courses like SafeTALK into curriculums to ensure those who are willing or in a position to help are properly trained; we are hosting a Brothers at War Seminar with the Gary Sinise foundation; we have a handful of new doctors, and we’re trying to hire more - so we should see appointment wait times decrease; and we are continually reviewing the feedback our medical providers receive so we can continue to simplify the process and create more access points. There is still a lot more work to be done on this front, and it will remain one of our primary focus areas.     

·       Chief Cooley: Our Community Action Team has been working hard to pinpoint programs and processes that need to be simplified so our Airmen can get access to quality care and services faster. We also need to do a better job communicating to our Airmen all the avenues that are available to them, to feel empowered to talk to their leadership if they can’t get an appointment time, and to explain the changes going on above and at our level that directly impact our Airmen.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

·       Chief Cooley: We need to continue to find ways to create authentic and meaningful dialogue, clearly communicate information to everyone and continue to work with our frontline supervisors to give them the tools, resources and time they need to become the leaders our newest Airmen need. A lot of the feedback we saw stemmed from lack of communication and understanding of things like why there were short-notice changes or why someone received an opportunity over another co-worker. I think a lot of this can be solved by taking a step back from seeing one another as a means to end, and remember that we are working with Airmen who have their own unique talents, fears, motivations, and needs.  

·       Col O’Malley: There is nothing I, nor my leadership team, can’t improve upon so we promise our Airmen that we will come to work each day with a positive attitude, an open mind and a willingness to make changes; I hope they will do the same. The best part of my day is getting to recognize the incredible people who are making it happen, who are putting their teammates first, who are solving problems and teaching others to do the same.

I also think about the Airmen that we’ve lost over the past 18 months since I’ve been here. I keep all of their names on my desk. I didn’t know all of them personally, but I’ve looked their families in the eyes, and promised them I would do everything in my power to prevent this from happening again. This means I will never walk by a problem or a person that needs my help. If we all just spend five seconds a day looking one another in the eyes, asking how someone is doing with genuine interest, and spending time actively creating opportunities to truly connect, I know we can change lives. But I don’t want you to think I’m trying to dismiss the complexities of the challenges we all face with feel-good generalities. We have several other specific initiatives that we will be rolling out shortly. One in particular is the Outward Mindset initiative. We’re bringing in some amazing consultants to give leaders, Airmen, and families the tools they need to thrive at Shaw, in the Air Force, and in life. Stay tuned!