When Hondo Talks, People Should Listen

By Stew Magnuson
James “Hondo” Geurts

Navy photo by Richard Rodgers

The change in the administration in January meant a change in leadership at the Defense Department.

Departing the Pentagon were three executives who we in the press were going to miss sorely: Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord; Air Force chief weapons buyer, Will Roper; and his counterpart at the Navy, James “Hondo” Geurts.

All had a great, mutually beneficial working relationship with the press — which isn’t always the case with senior leaders. But most importantly, they almost always had something interesting to say. The marching orders here at the magazine were: when these three talked, we wanted to pass on what they said to our readers.

Fortunately, Geurts did not resign from the senior executive service and just before we went to press was named as the person “performing the duties of” the undersecretary of the Navy.

We have been listening to Geurts since his days as an acquisition executive at Special Operations Command. He was there for a decade — forging a reputation as someone with innovative ideas who could deliver new technology quickly and affordably — before being hired by the Navy to be the assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition.

He admits that the hire three years ago was a bit of a head-scratcher. He was a former Air Force acquisition officer, then SOCOM, and now Navy?

“I think there was a little bit of anxiety on my part — how do I contribute to a team here?” he said in what would be his final talk as assistant secretary during the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference.

Hondo earned a reputation as an acquisition guru — someone who thinks deeply about how to get the best technology in the hands of the warfighters as soon as possible.

Here are a few of Hondo’s thoughts he shared before stepping down as assistant secretary:

On dealing with COVID-19…

“We delivered $140 billion of contracts. That’s about 21 percent more than we did last year, almost twice what we did two years ago, we did it with 10 percent less contract action. So we did it more efficiently. …

“It takes us all working together, identifying opportunities, leveraging those opportunities by doing so with an output in mind, not an input in mind. … We proved ourselves as a good partner in government. We put a lot of things in play that helped our industry partners [and gave] them stability.”

On his constant discontent…

“We need to continue to work at scale and at speed. We are making improvements. We are seeing better outcomes. That’s the positive in me. The discontent is we’ve got to do more and we’ve got to do it faster and we’ve got to do it at larger scale.”

On pivoting quickly…

“How fast can we adapt? How fast can we learn? And what I’ve come to realize over time is pivot speed really relies on a strong foundation, right? You can’t pivot effectively if you don’t have a strong foundation on that fulcrum to pivot from.”

On readiness verses modernization…

“We’ve got to get away from a false situation where it’s either we’re ready or we’re modern. … We have got to be ready and we need to continue to modernize. We can’t either just be ready or just modernize. The only way we’re going to do that is us continuing to find those opportunities to drive costs out of the equation. And I’m not talking drive profit or margins out. I’m talking drive fundamental costs out. …

“There are things we do that drive fundamental costs that don’t add value to a product. They just add costs. Lots of work to go there.”

On developing talent…

“…That’s developing talent across the board: talent in industry, talent in our labs, talent on our waterfront, and really focusing on creating that environment where folks want to belong.

“There is no better job in the world than supporting the military and our international security from my perspective. And there’s lots of awesome ways to do that. And they don’t all have to be in uniform. ...

“I go back to this COVID example, the patriots in the shipyard — keeping the ships sailing in the middle of COVID — there is no greater example that I can think of, at least in the modern era, where we have seen that. ...

“As long as we have the courage to really leverage the diverse inputs and experiences and backgrounds and get past: ‘Are you a uniform person or an industry person? Or a female or a male?’ We need to get past all of that and get into: ‘What do you bring to the team?’”

On innovation…

“If we can close down the distance between the fleet operator and the acquisition person and the technology person, that inherently allows us to find opportunities and go after them faster. … We should never do a fleet exercise where we aren’t experimenting with anything, and we should never have an experimental exercise and not have fleet operators trying things.”

As for the trio of Lord, Roper and Geurts, the marching orders will remain the same — whether they are inside the Pentagon or out — we will be listening to what they have to say. 

Topics: Defense Department, Navy News, Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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