Most recently the department’s assistant deputy chief management officer, Wennergren also served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for information management, integration and technology after a stint as the DOD’s deputy chief information officer, among his many roles.
Wennergren recently joined CACI International as vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based intelligence, defense, homeland security, IT and business transformation firm’s enterprise technologies and services group.
In that role, he will run the group’s opportunity management and customer delivery practices and work to help “evolve (CACI’s) capabilities to support the government's most critical information solutions and services requirements,” said President and CEO Ken Asbury.
In his conversation with ExecutiveBiz, Wennergren discussed his career in public service, managing change in a complex global military organization, and the technologies transforming how agencies execute their missions.
Dave Wennergren: I am really looking forward to working at CACI.
My federal career has been a great ride; I've done things I never would have really dreamed of doing, had some wonderful jobs and worked with great people.
Now, I'm ready for new adventures and more mountains to climb, and so when the opportunity to work for CACI arose, I couldn't pass it up. The timing worked out really well.
Executive Mosaic: What captivated you about first entering the Defense Department and working in public service?
Dave Wennergren: I grew up in a military family. My dad was an Army Signal Corps officer and then when he retired from the military, he went back to work with the Army as a civil servant. I think the value of public service was instilled in me at an early age.
As I was graduating from college, I got a call from the Navy to interview to be a management analyst. I was quickly hooked and I never looked back as one adventure led to another in service to the nation and working for the Department of Defense.
You get a wonderful leadership opportunity at a young age. I kept getting opportunities to do more things to help defend the nation. It's hard to believe it's almost 33 years later. I remember when I went to work at that first job and they told me I could retire in 2012 and that just seemed so far away at that moment.
Executive Mosaic: How did you feel about your respective positions as you were moving up through the department?
Dave Wennergren: For me, as an extrovert, I think that it really all comes down to the people. Through many jobs, more than 26 years of working at the Department of the Navy and then the last six years working for the Secretary of Defense, the common theme throughout has been being surrounded by men and women who have chosen careers of service and sacrifice for the nation.
There is an energy and enthusiasm in that shared sense of commitment from people who make those choices ““ it is both inspiring and a motivating force. As I look back, one of the things that will always stay with me is the joy having worked with so many great leaders, bosses and co-workers – people that made a profound difference to me and to others.
I've had a tremendous number of leadership opportunities and a lot of great jobs. I was the Chief Information Officer for the Department of the Navy, then Deputy CIO for the Defense Department. I've been really blessed by a lot of wonderful opportunities to make a difference.
It seems to be so easy to be hypercritical nowadays, and we often don't take the time to recognize that the people that are doing these jobs ““ and I mean that total force, the military personnel, civil servants and contractors from companies like CACI and others are working together and accomplishing great things. It is crucial that rather than just focusing on what's not right, that we take the time to recognize the successes that are taking place, and I've witnessed a lot of great successes over the years.
Dave Wennergren: That's a subject that I feel very passionate about. I am an optimist, so I view my career as having had tremendous opportunities to help facilitate change. You are continually confronted by the challenges of having to change, but to me that's a wonderful place to be, because if you have a chance to change, then you have a chance to be better.
As I look across the Defense Department, it's a very big place; with 3.5 million people spread around the world. I've heard a statistic that if the Defense Department was a nation, it would have something like the 16th largest economy in the world. The challenges of helping change take place in large complex organizations, public or private, has been a big passion of mine.
It all comes down to personally leading change. The leader sets the tone. You have a covenant relationship with your organization, and the people of that organization, and as the saying goes, your actions speak so much louder than your words. And your actions, what you exhibit and tolerate, will be what drives the behavior of those around you.
There are so many things you can talk about in terms of leading change, but if you distill it down to some key things, I would start with helping organizations understand the importance of being aligned. If you don't understand the main thing that you do and the strategy of how you intend to get your mission done, then heaven help you. But, then coupled with that, if secondly you don't have a focus on delivering results, the follow-through, the execution-oriented culture, then your plan is only a set of ideas that never turns into a concrete set of realities.
Successful organizations often have a challenge of maintaining a sense of urgency. Oftentimes, our success leads to complacency and so helping an organization maintain that drive is also an important thing. It's important to never rest on your laurels but to continue to move forward.
In addition, I would say that large organizations, both public and private, still suffer from operating in a low trust environment. And yet in today's technology world, it's all about being able to trust others ““ whether it be shared services, enterprise services or common data centers, it's all about being able to rely on somebody else to help get the mission done. So, helping organizations build and maintain trust is another area that people must stay focused on.
As I said a few moments ago, we don't celebrate our successes enough. We focus so much on what went wrong that we don't remember to recognize and measure the success you have achieved, which helps build confidence in the organization to take that leap of faith to embrace change. And in the end, as a leader, it's all about making peoples' strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant. As a leader you have to know when to coach, when to be personally engaged and when to step back and get out of the way and release the fire and creativity of your team to go and do their best.
Executive Mosaic: Was there a diversity of attitudes towards change within DOD?
Dave Wennergren: It's true that in DoD, you're bound by a common mission. But, having said that, it would be foolish to think that in any organization, if you drew a bell curve of the people within the organization, that the majority of the people within the organization would live in that tail of the curve where you just can't wait to change and try something new. Most people don't necessarily want to be the one to jump into the abyss of the unknown and try the new thing first.
The majority of the people in an organization are probably change neutral or even change averse, and when you couple that with the fact that as people grow through the ranks and become successful, part of it is due to their drive, dedication, and intellect, but also part of it is because they become very expert at the processes of today ““ the way things have been done. That's another motivation to not want to change. You know your personal expertise may not be as important, your background, what brought you here may not get you there, and those are all reasons why we fear change.
So, while I would say that the Defense Department has the advantage of a common mission, even a military organization faces the challenges of change. The actual act of making the change, being able to take the chance, seeing it through, is really a challenge for everyone across the board.
Click here to continue reading the interview for Dave’s insights on managing technological innovation and the disruptive technologies defining the cutting edge of the federal IT space.