Career Development

Shaping the Culture and Future for Veterans

Carla Ford, General Counsel with U.S.VETS, sits down with CCBJ to encourage trust and transparency and promote creativity in your organization.

CCBJ: What led you to join U.S.VETS?

It was the end of 2016. Darwin Thomas, a former colleague from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, was working on a part-time basis as the first General Counsel at U.S.VETS. In March of that year, I had started my own private practice. We were seated at the same table at a conference luncheon, and we caught up and enjoyed talking about our work since leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office. A few months later, Darwin called to ask me if I knew of anybody who might be interested in succeeding him, explaining that he was ready to retire -- again.

I told Darwin that I was focused on building my practice as a plaintiff’s attorney and I would try to think of other potential candidates. A few months passed and, though I was still committed to building a viable practice, I needed regular income! I reached out Darwin to ask if the job was still open and it was! I interviewed and was selected for the job, and I’ve been extremely happy ever since.

Talk to us about your leadership style and who or what has influenced it.

Before this interview, our executive leadership team had just had a presentation about leadership styles and I realized that I and many others call ourselves “servant leaders”, but that doesn’t really describe how I lead. A “servant leader” is something different from what I learned I actually am, which is a “transformational leader”. The transformational leadership style encourages trust and transparency in the team. It can be really effective at promoting creativity in an organization. It’s a style that’s a little bit different from a servant leader, which is someone who shares authority and decision-making power.

I don’t fully subscribe to the servant leadership style in the sense that I do think there needs to be an ultimate decision maker, so the collaborative power-sharing that defines servant leadership isn’t exactly mine. But the part of it that I do adopt is that one’s job as a leader is to help your team think, create, and do their jobs. In that sense I’m somewhat of a hybrid.

What qualities do you look for when bringing new people onto your team?

I would say I look for people who are going to be “on the team,” which is to say, people who recognize that when they’re at work, they’re supposed to be devoting their time, talent, education, and skills to the mission of the organization, not seeking to advance some personal agenda. I look for people who talk about how they made change in other places where they have worked, how they contributed to the mission. I like to hear them talk about whether they share credit for whatever they did with others as opposed to it all being about them. I need clarity and encouragement about whether or not I think they’re going to be “on the team.”

How would you describe the culture of U.S.VETS?

The culture of U.S.VETS is “get it done” and we do that with a social services organization mindset. I’d never worked with social workers before and that’s really what we are; that’s our service. “Get it done” is tempered with “get it done with compassion, empathy and grace,” understanding that the people we serve are coming to us at their worst moment in life. They’re homeless or about to be homeless, and also likely unemployed or underemployed. There are folks who were in the military (mostly; while 12 of our 13 sites serve veterans exclusively, we have a site in Hawai`i that also serves non-veterans).

We recognize that there’s a whole way of life they are no longer living and that, for some, the structure was comfort and now they’re living without it. Some have endured trauma, on the battlefield or, particularly with women, from other members of the military. Unfortunately, there are many women veterans who were sexually assaulted. With every client, we meet them where they are and we serve them with empathy.

What do you feel makes this company different from others you’ve worked with?

Well, the social workers first and foremost. I’ve always worked in law offices—at private firms, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, at a major corporation—and the driver in all of those places was, “Get it done, and we don’t really care what your problems are” or “Yes, we understand you have problems, but it’s not something that drives us.” In many of those places how you feel and the reasons why you may feel that are really tertiary, not even secondary, to the work.

I feel heard at U.S.VETS because I am at the table, in the C-suite. But I am also present for the important conversations that happen around the policies that we create and enforce. But I’m also around the table to talk about how something we may be considering doing is going to affect our employees or whether it’s fair to our employees, or how, our first consideration, how it’s going to affect our clients. Many of our clients live in housing that we secured for them, permanent or transitional, as well as in shelters. Whenever we encounter some roadblock that is going to interfere with the housing, that’s the first conversation we’re having: How do we make sure out veterans are taken care of? We do the same for our employees. All of which is to say it’s a robust and inclusive conversation.

Our senior leadership team includes several women and African Americans. As a matter of fact, the white male is in the minority. And we have conversations as a company that I know other companies don’t have, perhaps because they’re afraid to. This was certainly true after the George Floyd murder, and it happened spontaneously; there was no directive from the National Office. At each of our sites, conversations were had around how people felt about what happened and what it said about us as a society. Of course, our COO and our CEO also sent nationwide message addressing the tragedy, but there was no hesitation to check in with everyone to help us all work through our feelings.

I felt really secure and supported and heard and I believe other employees felt similarly. But it wasn’t one and done. We’re doing the work. We hired our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Manager, initially, as a grant-funded position, but it is now a permanent position in our organization. Even though we’re a heavily heterogeneous organization, ethnically, with many nationalities, races and religions, genders and disabilities represented, it didn’t mean that we didn’t feel like we didn’t have work to do when it came to DEI and belonging. Moreover, DEI isn’t just a job in the company, it is an integral part of U.S.VETS strategy planning, insuring that DEI is maintained and sustained for the future.

What’s the best career advice you ever received?

Know your job and your place. That doesn’t mean you are the lowest person in the company and sit down and shut up and we don’t want to hear from you. What it means is understand the structure of your organization and where you fit into it so that you can manage up, down and sideways across all of those levels to serve the mission of your organization and to build your ladder up or to the place you want to go. Not everybody wants to be the CEO; some people want to be the person who’s in charge of a particular thing because that’s their passion. If you’re not in that space yet, you’ve got to figure out how to get there.

So “know your job, know your place” is another way of saying: Make a roadmap and go up, down and across whatever path will get you to where you want to go.

Do you have any advice for those just getting started in your profession?

Assume good intentions. Don’t waste time wondering why people are supposedly “after you” or trying to sabotage what you’re doing. Reject all those negative thoughts we have when somebody hasn’t returned a phone call or an email or didn’t included you in a meeting. Instead of assuming it was done to hurt you on purpose, bring it up. Talk to that person. Say, “Oh, I see you had a meeting about this, and I wasn’t there. I think I needed to be at that. Can you catch me up on what I missed?”

When you assume good intentions, you don’t mire yourself in all that negativity or run the risk of shooting yourself in the face. Because if there was a completely innocent reason why your phone call wasn’t returned, you weren’t included in a meeting or something else happened, if you just have “the conversation,” you can find out the actual reason and then don’t have to be stressed out or send out negative energy. Because if others see you as a negative person, they may decide, “Oh, I don’t really want to work with that person” or “That person’s future with the company is doubtful.” I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be your authentic self. Just don’t waste your time assuming that people are thinking negatively about you. Work from a positive mindset and assume their action was innocent or inadvertent or perhaps just ignorant and they just needed more information.

What changes would you like to see within the legal profession?

I’m already seeing them! I started law practice at a time when word processing was just becoming a thing. (I shared my secretary with a partner, and she still typed on carbon paper and, let me just say, she hardly ever made mistakes!) Then, the traditional law firm model included a nice office, a secretary, and the expectation that you would work yourself to death in hopes of making partner somewhere. Today, that model is going away because the younger generation doesn’t want to work that hard if it has negative impacts on their personal lives, and I applaud that—somewhat.

I say “somewhat” because sometimes “get it done” means get it done. It doesn’t mean you can put a pin in it and come back after the weekend. It means you might have to work through the weekend. That said, I think the changes that I’d like to see in the law are actually happening already because Millennials and Gen-Zers are insisting on work-life balance. Working from home has become a huge issue in ma

ny workplaces and to a degree, it has its upside; but taken to extremes, it’s not always a good thing.

What often gets lost in the rise of working-from-home is the notion of mentorship and sponsorship. The mentors teach, not just about what to do in your job, but how to do it – ethically and with integrity. I treasure the many mentors I’ve had in my career because I learned how to be an ethical, principled attorney by their examples. If your exemplars are people who cut corners and do not act with honesty and integrity, that very important part of what it means to be a good attorney gets lost. For that reason, working-from-home, whether a little or a lot, is not a great model for demonstrating those values to young lawyers in the day-to-day practice of law.

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