Editor’s note: James Onusko was named National Security/DHS Industry Executive of the Year on Nov. 12.
The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.
Next up is National Security/DHS Industry Executive of the Year finalist James Onusko, who’s director of strategic solutions at LexisNexis Risk Solutions. Here, he talks career turning points, professional risk-taking and career advice.
What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?
I was part of a LexisNexis Risk Solutions team and contributed to the development of a suite of next-generation solutions for the intelligence community to mitigate threats targeting their agencies and personnel.
With my previous government experience, I brought a real-life customer perspective to the array of products and services that our customers rely upon.
What has made you successful in your current role?
I recognize the value of teamwork in developing and delivering customized solutions to serve agency needs. In my view, establishing governance with the right stakeholders, providing effective communication and being a good facilitator who can move the agenda forward create the atmosphere to develop the most credible plan and, most importantly, results in successful implementation.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
As an officer in the Air Force, I was fortunate to have grown up in a culture that promoted continuous improvement. Air Force leadership principles taught me that when you delegate a task to be done, never dictate to a subordinate how to do it. You empower them to incorporate their own ideas promoting innovation, stewardship and accountability.
At an early age, I adopted this mindset into my everyday management practices and have always encouraged others around me to create better business processes. While written policies and checklists provide standardization and consistency, they can also create an impediment to future improvement unless frequently revisited and updated.
Early on, I was taught the value of recognizing internal and external customers in everything you do and connecting stakeholder interdependencies to achieve greater synergy, even in a law enforcement and security organization, to favorably impact mission performance.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
It’s very rewarding to be a part of a team that helps government agencies solve crime, prevent fraud, locate missing children, enable digital government and protect national security. To be in one company that makes significant contributions to all of these mission areas has been a highly rewarding experience.
What are your primary focuses areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Given the new emerging digital world, numerous vulnerabilities are prevalent as a result of synthetic identity fraud and other threats that can attack and exploit our country’s critical infrastructure and erode the principles of trust that we all rely upon in the course of our daily lives. I will continue to develop new solutions for the government to incorporate the highest levels of due diligence and safeguard the integrity of our supply chain to help protect our nation.
How do you help shape the next generation of government/industry leaders?
It’s important to encourage the next generation to continue the journey that develops more robust government IT systems with a focus on structuring the government’s data across federal agencies, sharing data to achieve synergies and providing smarter decisional outcomes.
While automation is possible to internally manage and also deliver products and services to agencies and customers, it’s also important to keep the human factor firmly embedded in all aspects to ensure effective two-way communication, fair and impartial results and continuous feedback for improvement.
What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?
Keep IT requirements basic, achievable and deliver a minimum viable product, then plan for gradual enhancements beyond that implementation. Aggressive prototypes can fall short on promises if you are customizing or are the first to deploy.
Which rules do you think you should break more as an industry leader?
Risk taking should be more prevalent in the government to advance technology and become more efficient. Pilots are the perfect mechanism for challenging the status quo and elevating new solutions. Make minimal and incremental investments to easily alter the course or even restart on a new path, if necessary.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
Without a doubt, it was establishing the Customer Service Center within an end-to-end security clearance operation at a time when the words security and customer service were rarely ever used in the same sentence. As the center was stood up, job applicants and employees were able call and make inquiries regarding the status of their background investigation and provide feedback relating to the progress of their own individual case.
This provided a great deal of customer feedback and transparency. Sometimes, complaints were used to analyze the reasons for delays. They were mapped back to specific policies and process inefficiencies and quickly remedied. The center was cited as one of the best in federal government.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
In my law enforcement career, I received great satisfaction from accurately investigating the facts that brought justice for victims, exonerated those falsely accused and proved the circumstances surrounding unexplained deaths, assaults and fraud against the government, which made a real difference in people’s lives.
I transformed a background investigations process at the State Department into a customer-centered process that responsively hired the nation’s best and brightest faster. A high number of vacant manpower positions were filled around the world, helping the United States avoid conflicts and wars.
What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?
Changing the culture, processes and procedures of a government organization is challenging. In doing so, there will be those who are risk averse, naysayers and some who openly oppose change. Communicate, overcommunicate, embrace your leaders, identify informal leaders who can be change agents, provide lots of feedback and do your best to get and keep as many stakeholders as possible on board for the journey. Create governance, plus a forum and safety net for those who don’t quickly come along.
The reality is that it’s also necessary to develop an exit strategy for those who overtly oppose and become true barriers to change.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Perform at your absolute best, regardless of what job you have, and I guarantee you that continued success will always follow. Represent yourself, your boss, your teammates and your organization extremely well.
Establish a vision with your team to be the very best at delivering your organization’s products and services, including the concrete steps necessary to get there. Collaborate with your superiors, subordinates, customers and stakeholders and identify measurable goals over several years. Take care of your people every single day along this journey, and they will take care of the mission and you.