This morning, in a ceremony at the Women In Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Howard became the first woman in the U.S. Navy’s 236-year history to be promoted to four-star admiral and Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the second highest position in the Navy.
While today’s proceedings make history, Howard is no stranger to firsts. In 1999 she became the first African American woman to command a Naval ship, the amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore. Howard was also the first African American woman in any branch of the military to reach three stars. In the past she’s been deployed to Indonesia for tsunami relief efforts, participated in Maritime security operations in the North Arabian Gulf, and served as commander of a Counter-Piracy Taskforce where–three days into the job–she spearheaded the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates.
A native of Colorado, Howard, 54, is an enthusiastic trout fisher (“I really am from Colorado!”) whose mother first taught her to cast off. She had been married to husband Wayne Cowles for one year when Operation Desert Storm began and both were deployed (Cowles, now retired, was a U.S. Marine.)
On the eve of her promotion, the highest ranking woman in Naval history spoke with Forbes about innovative teams, how to help employees stay committed, and what she’s learned from a caffeine habit.
If you want to innovate, first take a hard look at yourself–and be flexible about making changes.
Can an organization more than two centuries old built on tradition and hierarchy learn things from the private sector?
Howard thinks so.
“One of the things I’ve thought about is how different companies harness innovation and engender creativity. Some of it is how you bring together a team, when you look at the importance of diversity and creating diverse ideas.
I remember getting to the Bureau, it was my first tour in the Beltway. I was on this process team to look at and bring in and activate reserve healthcare people–how do you get them in faster and make them more adaptable? We completely changed the way we did business. Instead of taking months and months to bring in a doctor, when you needed them, we got them.
It’s the willingness to commit to look hard at yourself and commit to a new way of doing business. There’s great ideas out there–it’s having the courage to go ask people about what they’re doing that’s different, and saying, ‘I wonder how I could apply that to my organization.’”
Create space for creativity–you never know what could result.
“Sometimes it’s just letting people have the opportunity to play with things,” says Howard. To that end, she recently saw that a team of sailors were given 3D printers to experiment with.
“I’m mighty curious to see what they’re going to do.”
A morning routine can boost observation, not just efficiency.
Howard starts each day at her desk checking email and catching up on what’s taken place since she left the previous evening.
But then it’s time for coffee.
“I always get up from my desk and walk down to Dunkin’ Donuts, and get a large Dunkin’ Donuts with cream and sugar. It’s amazing what that walk can do for you. I run into people around the building, in the line, the Dunkin’ Donuts people know me–you learn a lot about the heartbeat of the building and what’s going on in people’s lives.”
This regular stroll–which Howard reluctantly tells me happens “between 06:30 hours and 06:40 hours” each morning–also provides colleagues access to the second most powerful officer in the U.S. Navy.
“I’ve actually had some people who will hang out in the morning to ambush me in the Dunkin’ Donuts line!”
An appreciation for the lessons of the past will help you better craft the future.
Howard knows the value of history. She notes that on a recent trip with her mother to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, she was overwhelmed by an exhibit of quilts throughout U.S. history, observing, “It’s just amazing what’s truly art that women in this society sewed into those quilts.”
An avid reader (“My Kindle is kind of overflowing!”), Howard is a fan of murder mysteries, but next on her list is a biography of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover that she picked up at a secondhand bookstore.
“He was an admiral who had to create something new, and create a whole new culture, by bringing in nuclear power. I think as leaders we’ll be facing the same sort of challenges to create a new culture with cyber.”
Create an environment where employees can meet personal goals and they’ll strive that much harder for the professional ones, too.
Howard could be seen as a prime example of a woman who’s “leaned in”–and one of her top priorities for the sailors she oversees is a professional framework that takes family needs into account as well as professional ones.
“When I talk to women who are just starting out, one of the issues is a lack of understanding of the path to success. For them, I think there are too few role models. ‘How do I manage this all?’
I think that is still front and foremost the biggest challenge, and some of that I personally believe is where we emphasize caregiving in society. We’ve got to get smarter about allowing women to manage their careers and still meet some milestones and have the opportunity to become a parent as well.
When you think about some of the countries where there is an emphasis on caregiving in the policies of the country, they encourage and support childcare and child rearing and caregiving overall, so it’s easier for both men and women to work outside the home. We have to get to the point where we value that.”
Howard references the support she received from friends and family when she and her husband were simultaneously deployed during Desert Storm, and recalled a time when she was a captain and worked on a team that developed a type of sabbatical open to Navy personnel who needed time to care for a child or aging parent, or pursue further education.
Creating that environment where personal and professional milestones can be met in harmony is a goal Howard takes to heart.
“The sailors get me up in the morning. I am pretty darn proud to serve with this group of people, and I’m at the point in my career where I feel a heavy obligation to make the Navy a place they want to continue to stay in and become the leadership themselves.
Whatever goals we set for ourselves we know we can go higher–I’m obligated to help set that legacy.”