It didn’t take long for Dana Tulis to become a leader. With a degree in environmental engineering, she began her career with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1987, and her superiors immediately recognized her gift for managing and directing. Within five years, she was overseeing the work of others. After the 9/11 attacks, Tulis, a native New Yorker, was tapped to lead the sampling and analysis work involved in the World Trade Center response, and her performance there eventually led to her elevation into the Senior Executive Service (SES): the upper echelon of civilian government leadership, a classification equivalent to the general or flag officer ranks of the armed services. The SES was formed in 1979 to be a corps of executives, selected for their leadership abilities, to serve in key positions just below the top presidential appointees.
Tulis rose to the level of Senior Executive in 2004, and as both deputy office director and acting director of the EPA’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), she managed a $250 million budget, oversaw a staff of 75 people, and chaired the 15-agency National Response Team. In 2010, when the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, caught fire, and caused a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, she was EPA’s National Incident Coordinator, working closely with the Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC) for the response: the Coast Guard. During these high-stakes interactions, she and the Coast Guard developed a mutual respect, and soon after Deepwater Horizon, the Coast Guard formed its own high-level position, a single individual in charge of coordinating emergency response and preparedness. Since 2016, that position has been held by Tulis, director of the Coast Guard’s Office of Emergency Management.
“I love the Coast Guard mission,” she said. “It’s what attracted me to the job. I’ve learned so much and I get to pursue my passion, environmental response, at a new agency while protecting the oceans. It seemed like a natural transition.”
While she was pursuing the same mission in the Coast Guard, Tulis learned that the uniformed service, formed in 1790 at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, had an institutional culture driven largely by the service’s 41,500 active-duty members, rich in tradition and heritage – and remarkably different from the culture of the EPA, a civilian agency established in 1970 by order of Richard Nixon. As one of the highest-ranking of the Coast Guard’s 8,500 civilian personnel, Tulis sensed that career opportunities, paths to development and promotion into the leadership ranks, were far less clearly defined for civilians – or at least far less clearly publicized and made available – than for the service’s active-duty personnel.
But Tulis also knew she had joined an organization committed to becoming a welcoming, inclusive, and rewarding place to work, for civilian and uniformed personnel alike. Both Coast Guard commandants for whom she has served – Adm. Karl Schultz and his predecessor, Adm. Paul Zukunft – have explicitly stated a desire to make the service an “employer of choice” for the nation’s most talented people.
The Coast Guard did hire the best people, Tulis thought – people so good at their jobs that their performance sometimes didn’t match to their station within the General Schedule. “I had international experts working for me who were at a GS-13 level,” she said, “and I thought they would be GS-15s at EPA, with that level of technical expertise.” She and other civilian executives also wanted to create a pathway for supporting and encouraging SES candidates from within the Coast Guard’s own workforce.
Knowing the service’s leaders were open to hearing from and responding to civilian employees, Tulis teamed with SES civilians in the service’s Force Readiness Command (FORCECOM) and the International Office to form a civilian advisory council that met periodically with Coast Guard flag officers. “We got civilians to start talking about their experiences,” she said, “and I think it really started to hit home.”
The issue of civilian career development certainly had the attention of the new commandant, Schultz, when he began his tenure and outlined his guiding principles in June 2019. With service readiness a top priority, Schultz announced a series of “Early Action Items” he wanted achieved within the first months of his tenure. One of these items was the formation of a distinct office within FORCECOM led by civilians – the first organization within the service dedicated solely to the issue of civilian career development.
The Civilian Career Management Team
To lead this new team, the Coast Guard turned to a civilian with military experience: Stephen Keck, a strategic planner at FORCECOM who had served 26 years in the Army providing training and exercise support to active-duty and Reserve personnel. Before retiring from the military, Keck was responsible for overseeing the work of career counselors who helped guide and advise 16,500 reservists.
Keck was named director of the new Civilian Career Management Team (CCMT) in December 2018, and promptly began digging into the issue of civilian Coast Guard careers. He found survey results indicating civilian Coast Guard employees were very happy with their work and with the Coast Guard – but many shared Tulis’s sense that the service’s civilians could benefit from opportunities for advancement and career development.
Those opportunities, Keck knew, existed; the Coast Guard offered numerous professional development programs for civilians. Aside from the issue of whether they offered enough to civilians in particular, Keck thought, a significant problem was that surprisingly few Coast Guard civilians knew about these initiatives. “The communication of them, the way we reached out to civilians, was antiquated,” he said. “We saw that these opportunities do exist, but there is just no good way for civilians to find out where and when they happen, and to learn more about them.”
One of the team’s first actions was to create an internal online portal specifically targeting Coast Guard civilians to help them find, learn more about, and sign up for opportunities. The site includes information about details and rotations. “We wanted to put it all in one place so civilians had somewhere to discover where there was upward mobility, and the tools to develop and manage their careers.”
Keck and his teammates are working to add a tool to the portal that will allow employees to enter their job information and get specific information about what would be needed for them to rise to another GS level. A GS-7 accountant, for example, could map out pathways to higher levels, learning what education, training, and certifications will be required to move on to the next level.
“We’re going to provide a career map so that they can plug in their current grade and rank structure, and it will show them: Here is a recommended path and the recommended training that you should have in order to make your next promotion, your next promotion, and your next promotion.” From that career map, people will be able to link up with the opportunities to meet these requirements.
An online portal is an important starting point, but as with any organization, the best way to grow a career in the Coast Guard is to meet, interact with, and learn from other people. The CCMT has begun to sponsor town hall-style meetings in which they offer training, networking, and development opportunities to Coast Guard civilians. These events are held in the areas that together contain about 60 percent of Coast Guard civilian personnel: facilities in and around Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.; Atlantic Area (LantArea) Headquarters in Portsmouth, Virginia; and Pacific Area (PACAREA) Headquarters in Alameda, California.
Guardians of Institutional Knowledge
Tulis and Keck – both transplants from other government agencies – understand the value civilian personnel bring to the Coast Guard. “There is an expertise that civilians can offer that military personnel can’t,” Tulis said, “because of the way uniformed personnel rotate every two to four years.” Within directorates and offices, civilians can offer an anchor, a stable source of knowledge and institutional memory.
“The role of the civilian is critical,” Keck said. In the three years he’s been at FORCECOM, it’s been commanded by three different admirals. But Dr. Gladys Brignoni, FORCECOM’s deputy commander and the Coast Guard’s chief learning officer, is a civilian who has been at the command since 2011. “Because of that,” Keck said, “she has the institutional knowledge, the understanding of where and when and how other decisions have been made. She can help the new commanders who come in. … We’re there to provide continuity across the Coast Guard, in all different areas.”
At the same time, both Tulis and Keck see themselves as needing the Coast Guard as much as it needs them. After long and successful careers with other agencies, each came to the Coast Guard with a sense of awe and admiration for all the service has done and continues to do for the nation. For them, the Coast Guard is the employer of choice – and they remain passionate and tireless in their desire to make it so for others.
Now that he leads the efforts of the Civilian Career Management Team, Keck enjoys being able to help civilians develop their Coast Guard careers and find paths to promotion and certification, but he also wants to engage other civilians – those with no prior Coast Guard experience – and spread the word about the service’s legacy and traditions. The CCMT recently launched an acculturation program, in which civil servants learn about the history of the Coast Guard and its rates and ranks, and are offered a tour of a Coast Guard cutter or aircraft. Keck hopes learning about the Coast Guard will be as eye-opening for participants as it was for him: “I never knew about the 11 missions, or any of that. I had no idea of all the Coast Guard does. It was mind-blowing, and I’ve completely fallen in love. And to be able to be part of it now – I’m just really grateful.