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Chief of Engineers and Commanding General Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp Interview

In 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is facing a workload at “historic levels,” according to Chief of Engineers and Commanding General Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp. Van Antwerp is roughly halfway through his four-year tenure at the helm of the organization, guiding the Corps through a transformation he and its leaders have engineered to take USACE from “Good to Great,” based on a framework developed by business educator and author Jim Collins.

With a new Campaign Plan to guide them, Van Antwerp and the Corps are tackling more challenges than ever. It’s an “all-hands” effort, aimed at improving the responsiveness of the organization in support of contingency operations worldwide, engineering more sustainable solutions across a range of infrastructure and water resource management issues, and retaining and recruiting a larger, more inspired, and innovative workforce.

Intensifying the challenge is the rapidly evolving environment in which USACE is operating. Legacy operations and maintenance (O&M) work, a new presidential administration with a stimulus package known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), and the shifting emphasis of operations from Iraq to Afghanistan have pushed USACE activity to record levels.

“If we do everything we say we are going to do by the end of this year, we’ll have either under construction or under contract over $40 billion worth of work,” Van Antwerp affirmed. “A normal year’s worth of work for the Corps represents about $12 billion. It’s off the charts, but what a great time to be in the Corps!”

Amidst this backdrop, USACE’s leader spoke with us about the Campaign Plan, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the service’s human capital challenge.

Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces: What are the origins of the Campaign Plan and when did it get under way?

Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp: It all started when I went to a conference at West Point where Jim Collins was teaching. We struck up a friendship there, and then I read his books Built To Last and Good To Great. I knew they presented a good framework for any organization, not just those in the private sector. That’s how we adopted it.

As is my nature, sometime before I took the job in 2007, I sat down and thought about this four-year assignment. Keeping in mind that any plan has to be flexible and that, as they say in the Army, “Even a great plan doesn’t survive the first contact with the enemy,” I mapped out the four years. Within the first week or two of taking command, I sat down with my senior leaders, division commanders, chief of staff, and others, and we started to collectively list the priorities of the Corps of Engineers. The purpose was to focus the organization. What came out of that were our six priorities and three tenets. In the meantime, I was assessing the organization with the “good to great” framework in mind.

We started to gather folks together to talk about a Campaign Plan because of what I found in my assessment. I found 10 or 15 different lists of things including readiness that had to do with preparing for disasters. We had a lot of work being done around Louisiana and some principles that came out of that. In addition, a number of things were going on because we’d been at war since 9/11, and the Corps has deployed over 10,000 people to Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these things began to convince me that we really needed a new Campaign Plan to focus our efforts.

The Campaign Plan covers both current and future priorities. I look at it as the puzzle boxtop. When it comes to completing a puzzle, you have to have the picture of where you are going. The boxtop is the most important piece. After that, you begin to put the pieces together. The Campaign Plan is our boxtop and its purpose is to give direction and focus to the organization.

Where does the Campaign Plan stand now?

In year two, we rolled out the plan. It took the priorities, tenets, and other lists, and began to boil them down. What came out of that was the focused list of four goals and 16 objectives that make up the Campaign Plan.

I went personally with a team to every division, and those divisions developed the guts of the Campaign Plan – the I-Plan or Implementation Plan. There’s only one Campaign Plan, not separate plans for each division. Each division has an I-Plan with action steps. The action steps focus each division, and they all have metrics. For example, an action step in Goal 4, in pursuit of the competent, disciplined workforce we desire, would be to get as many people registered with their professional engineer’s licenses as we could.

All of the divisions also developed human capital plans. One of the things that came out of that was that the Corps needed to hire around 3,000 of the right people to really go to great. We had parts of our organization that were aging and needed an infusion of interns and young people. We had some gaps at the journey-person level, too, so we started to fill those gaps. The report I just received from our HR people shows that we have hired more than 3,200 new employees. These are civilian employees, which bring the Corps from a strength of about 32,000 up to more than 35,000. We need that to meet our new workload.

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...