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"Mission First, People Always"

From serving the country as a career soldier and presidential appointee, to becoming CEO and board director, Michael Montelongo shares how his bicultural background and unparalleled career experiences shaped his leadership journey

Editor's note: This article is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month Q&A series highlighting leaders of Latino and Hispanic heritage.


The Honorable Michael Montelongo, a career soldier, former presidential appointee and Senate-confirmed official, and corporate executive, is President and Chief Executive Officer of GRC Advisory Services, LLC, a private firm specializing in board governance matters. Most recently, Montelongo was chief administrative officer and senior vice president for Sodexo, Inc. He is also a senior advisor at leadershipForward, a premier leadership performance firm serving Fortune 500 and small business clients. A governance and audit committee financial expert and NACD Board Leadership Fellow, Michael serves on the boards of Civeo Corporation, Conduent Inc, and Leadership Roundtable.

A former Bush White House appointee who served as the 19th assistant secretary for financial management and chief financial officer of the US Air Force and the first Latino in that role, Michael is a public policy expert and lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, Michael was an executive with a global management consulting firm, a regional telecommunications company, and completed a career in the U.S. Army, a Congressional Fellowship in the U.S. Senate, and service as an assistant professor teaching economics and political science at West Point. Michael earned his bachelor’s degree in science from West Point and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School.


How did you approach your readiness to lead? Was there a defining moment that led you to this point in your career?

A review of my career might prompt one to conclude my leadership apprentice years began at West Point. That’s partly right because I learned a great deal about what authentic leadership looks like at the nation’s premier leader development institution. Plus, my experiences after graduation as an Army officer further developed my leadership instincts and readiness.

But my first exposure to leadership-in-practice actually happened when I was the “leader of the band” for my “rock” bands at every education phase—in grade school, high school (where the “Soul Vibrations” won the New York City “Battle of the Bands” contest), college (“Sweet Harmony”), and grad school (where my “New Ventures” bandmates gave me the nickname “La Bamba” which was also my Air Force “call sign” as a presidential appointee). In directing these bands, I learned first-hand about what it really takes to motivate and lead a high-performing team, building coalitions, persistence, project and production management, logistics, sales and marketing, and communications—all skills and lessons that became part of my professional career toolkit, complemented what I learned at West Point, the Army, and Harvard Business School, and informed my work as senior leader advisor and independent board director.

As for career defining moments, there are two. The first was my service in the Bush administration as a Defense Department assistant secretary and CFO in the Air Force during the 9/11 era which dramatically widened my strategic aperture and exposure to national and global leadership. The second was my first board appointment because it significantly broadened my leadership aperture and exposure to strategic matters in the corporate environment.  


Have you faced any specific difficulties during that process? What have you learned from that?  

Throughout my career and in numerous leadership positions, most of the challenges I faced were two-fold. First, the scale and scope of a particular task to be accomplished and second, the challenge of forming, developing, motivating and inspiring a team of committed colleagues to tackle that task. One example comes from what I faced as the Air Force CFO on September 11, 2001. On that day, I was in my Pentagon office when the third hijacked plane hit and shook the building as if a massive earthquake had hit us; instantly, I became a wartime CFO financing two overseas wars but still had to complete my “peacetime” finance transformation mission. Fortunately, I had a great team and we worked together tirelessly to support each other, prepare for, and execute our missions. In memory of those who perished on 9/11, all of us were determined and committed to doing what had to be done to defend the homeland and deliver an unambiguous response to our adversaries.

The key takeaway from that and other challenges is that success in every endeavor depends greatly on assembling the right people with the right set of skills, experiences, and competencies led by the right leader in the right environment at the right time doing the right things right. That kind of alignment significantly increases the likelihood of mission accomplishment and excellence.


What lights your fire as a leader? 

Throughout my multiple careers in the public, private, and civic sectors, I’ve abided by a few guiding principles that have served as my North Star including “Mission first, People always” and “Troops Eat First.” These principles embody a fundamental servant leadership ethic where leaders lead best when they serve first by prioritizing the welfare of others. This foundation has served me well throughout my leadership journey and, because of that, I gain a great deal of personal satisfaction and drive from being part of an organization whose mission is purposeful and impactful whether in the local community or on a national scale. I have been very fortunate and grateful to be part of something larger than myself in such purpose/mission-driven organizations working alongside dedicated and selfless colleagues.


Leaders of Latino or Hispanic heritage are often the “only” ones or the minority at the executive level of a company or in a boardroom, for instance. Has this impacted your professional journey?

It has in a positive way. For context, my parents—mom, a Puertorriqueña and dad, a Mexican-American—frequently reminded me and my siblings that we were fortunate to be Americans and biculturally Latino complete with all the rich family, culinary, musical, religious, and holiday traditions of each culture. We inherited their love of country and pride of heritage; they made us believe and feel that the combination was unique so we always felt we belonged.

So whenever I happened to be an “only” or a “first” (for example, I was the first Hispanic valedictorian in high school, the first Hispanic on my first board and other boards, and the first Latino Air Force CFO), I was grateful to be selected and for the opportunity to be an “ambassador” and demonstrate I had the hard and soft skills and background and training to supplement and complement my peers and contribute at the c-level or in the boardroom. Indeed, I’ve always focused on the competencies I could bring to a team with my heritage being a bonus.


What advice you could offer other professionals of Latino/Hispanic heritage to tap into their full potential and become their full selves as leaders? 

Aspire to become a “Be Know Do” leader, a leadership model I learned in the Army and have found to be relevant everywhere I have worked. It emphasizes what the leader must be, must know, and must do for the people and organization he/she serves.
 

  • Be. This is all about one’s character and demeanor as a leader; who this person is at his/her core. The leader is expected to behave consistently with his/her personal core beliefs and the organization’s values – like loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. These are “mission first, people always” and “troops eat first” leaders: tough-minded and determined yet caring and compassionate – those with the courage to do what is right regardless of the circumstances or the consequences. They must be all-in, all the time. Applied to the corporate world, these are individuals with high ethical standards, a high EQ and self-awareness quotient, a strong people engagement track record, calm demeanor, and a heavy dose of humility. 

 

  • Know. This is about the mastery of the fundamentals and essential skill sets – interpersonal, technical, tactical, and strategic – that enables the leader to accomplish the mission. It’s also about leaders who are lifelong learners who understand that to learn, they must also be humble. Those who are humble are likely self-aware – and if they are self-aware, they’re more likely to learn.

 

  • Do. Leaders must act to influence, operate, and improve; they must act to anticipate (predict what lies ahead) and navigate (course correct in real time). To do so, they combine everything they are, everything they believe, and everything they know to give the organization purpose, direction, and motivation. These leaders also prepare to act by cultivating a readiness discipline. Such leaders are comfortable in the uncomfortable world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) and know how to strengthen and nurture their people because they are successful in creating healthy, safe, and trusting workplace environments where everyone is treated, respected, dignified and served as he/she would like to be.

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Written by
Michael Montelongo
Michael Montelongo
President and CEO of GRC Advisory Services, LLC

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