How I Got Here: Michèle Flournoy

A conversation with
Michèle Flournoy

Sep 9, 2020

Sep 9, 2020 • by Michèle Flournoy

Michèle Flournoy

  • Co-Founder and CEO, Center for a New American Security
  • U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
  • Co-Founder and Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

An architect. I loved engineering, drafting floor plans, designing fantasy houses. I figured out how to convert my uncle’s house to solar power (at least in my head). My high school had an engineering and architecture program, and I took everything in it, went to the state fair, all that stuff. I was lucky to have a college counselor who said, “It’s hard to know what you really want to do when you’re 16. Instead of going right to architecture school, you should go to a liberal arts college. You can take design classes there, but you’ll also be able to explore other things.” So instead of going to the great architecture school at UC San Luis Obispo, I ended up at Harvard. I started on design, but along the way, I discovered international relations and national security.

I had been an exchange student in Belgium in high school, and that opened my eyes to the world.

I continued working on my French in college and was able to travel in Europe and then work in France for a summer. I had a great academic mentor, Dr. Michael Smith. He had gone to Oxford and suggested that after college I compete for a scholarship there. He said, “You need to get a non-American perspective on international relations, because we’re too self-centered in our worldview.” I followed his advice and got a master’s in international relations (and rowing!) at Balliol College. It was a fantastic experience. The morning after President [Ronald] Reagan chose to invade Grenada, lying in wait for me in the breakfast room of the graduate dorm was a mini United Nations. Not only the Brits but also the Germans, a Mexican, a Chilean, a Russian, a Chinese, and a Japanese student. Everybody saying, “What the hell are you people doing?” I had to learn what had happened, figure out what I thought about it, and interpret American foreign policy for people from other countries. Oxford also gave me a great grounding in the fundamentals of international relations theory and practice.

What came after Oxford?

I applied for a job at think tanks in Washington. This was in the mid-1980s, with nuclear saber rattling between President Reagan and [the Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, and I decided that I wanted to work on reducing the nuclear danger. Nuclear weapons were like the climate change of my day: if we don’t solve this, we won’t be around to solve anything else. This is before email—I’m writing these thin airmail-paper letters to everybody in Washington, trying to find a paid internship. I got one paid offer, and I took it sight unseen. It was at a place that no longer exists, called the Center for Defense Information. What I didn’t understand then was that think tanks in Washington are arrayed across the political spectrum. CDI was not just progressive, it was at the extreme left end, where I was not very comfortable.

You didn’t know that CDI was lefty when you applied?

I did not. It was a bunch of former military officers who established a think tank. They must be pretty centrist and bipartisan, right? Nope. I found out very quickly that I was more moderate than they were. I was also the first woman they had ever hired other than secretaries, and that was challenging for some of them to deal with. So it wasn’t a great fit. But I determined I was going to do my job, get a publication out of it, and use it as a springboard to do something else. I wrote a piece on how to avoid accidental nuclear war. And I learned to choose the boss, not the job.

Looking for a great boss, I found Jane Wales, who was leading the DC office of Physicians for Social Responsibility. They needed a policy person. I wasn’t sure I was cut out for advocacy but decided to try it. I worked there for a couple of years and gained all kinds of great skills. Jane was fantastic and became a lifelong mentor. I realized, however, that I was an analyst and policy wonk, not a lobbyist. So once again, I learned something important from a job—what I didn’t want to do.

I ended up next at the Arms Control Association, then a truly bipartisan, largely analytic organization with the attitude: “We want to promote arms control, but through really great analysis of how best to protect and advance U.S. interests vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.” I stayed there for a number of years.

What were your credentials for writing about nuclear strategy at this point?

Through college, I moonlighted for Time as a stringer. I became a good, fast writer and a quick study. That was my ticket in a lot of these jobs—I could get smart about things quickly and write about them coherently. That was a huge advantage. But I was also a total nuclear geek. I had been working toward my certification in the nuclear priesthood for years. So I knew my stuff.

Did you dream of ruling over the entire community of geeks one day? Or were you happy to be an analyst?

I was passionate about my work and wanted to be excellent at it. I wanted to be an expert and contribute to the debate. This was the late ’80s. We were literally conceiving and debating the design of the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, START II, what the future of arms control should look like. I didn’t have a ten-year plan. I still played with the idea of going back to journalism. After the Arms Control Association, I moved to Boston, mainly for personal reasons, because my future husband was there. I was able to land a postdoc fellowship at the Kennedy School at Harvard, even though I didn’t have a doctorate, because somewhere in the fine print it said you could substitute the equivalent in professional experience. And I ended up running the Avoiding Nuclear War Project for Joe Nye, Al Carnesale, and Graham Allison at the Belfer Center, where I learned an incredible amount. And then [Bill] Clinton got elected.

Had you worked on the campaign?

No. At that point, I was an independent. But several of my mentors were going into the administration as assistant secretaries, and they were all looking for staff. One choice that sounded perfect on paper was working on the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, what became the Nunn-Lugar Program. Another was helping to reestablish a strategy office in the Pentagon. That one was working for incoming Assistant Secretary of Defense Ted Warner, who was already well known as a mentor of young people. He said, “The learning curve to go from arms control to defense strategy at large is steep, but I’m confident you can do it, and the more you achieve and contribute, the more work I’m going to give you. If you come here, you’ll have multiple jobs over time.” I chose the boss over the job, and it was the right move. I started as an office director, in two years became a DASD [deputy assistant secretary of defense], and two years after that, I was the principal deputy. He was a fantastic mentor, particularly to young women at a time when we were pretty scarce in the field.

What did those jobs involve?

The first was to understudy Dave Ochmanek [the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy] in standing up a new strategy office. We had the pen on the Bottom-Up Review and became the driver of what became the Quadrennial Defense Reviews. We would write the secretary’s defense strategy which drove the planning, programming and budgeting guidance for the Department. We operated as something akin to an internal think tank in the Pentagon for the secretary and the deputy secretary.

When Dave went back to [the] RAND [Corporation], I was made a deputy assistant secretary. As DASD, in addition to running the office, I led the first Quadrennial Defense Review. In classic Ted Warner fashion, when it came time to brief the entire DOD [Department of Defense] leadership—the secretary, the chairman, the chiefs, the combatant commanders, all of the service secretaries and undersecretaries—he said, “I don’t need to stand up there. Why don’t you do it? It’s a great professional development opportunity. I’ll kibitz from the side.” I was in my early 30s and pregnant. The QDR was born six weeks before my first child.

Did it feel weird doing that briefing?

I didn’t think so. But it made some people nervous, particularly when I was standing up. They kept offering me a chair. I think they were terrified I was going to go into labor on the spot. [Chuckle] In general, as a young, civilian, female, Democratic political appointee, the initial expectations for me among some were low, shall we say. There was definitely bias. But in my experience, DOD was a fairly meritocratic culture, and if you worked hard and performed well, that was recognized. While that is certainly not always the case, I was fortunate that it was in mine.

What exactly is the QDR?

At the beginning of every presidential term, the Defense Department goes through a review of the strategic environment: what U.S. interests and objectives are, what the role of the military is in advancing them. Out of that comes a defense strategy—guidance for budgeting, risk management, and so forth. In theory, it’s the intellectual framework for what the Pentagon will be doing over the next four years.

In practice, isn’t it just a bureaucratic exercise in which everybody submits their standard departmental wish list and you cobble it all together and put a strategy on top?

That depends on how it’s done. In the Bottom-Up Review and the first QDR, we used the process to try to align the various stakeholders in the department around a common set of priorities. The process was as important as the product. It was really about getting people bought into a set of post-Cold War priorities and a way of thinking about things going forward.

What did it mean to go up to principal deputy?

In the second Clinton term, there was a reorganization of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Ted Warner’s strategy and requirements portfolio was combined with [assistant secretary of defense] Ash Carter’s nuclear and Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia portfolio under one assistant secretary. They created a second principal deputy, and that was me. I covered strategy and requirements and Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia. Frank Miller oversaw nuclear and missile defense. I had to do much more management than before. And I had to be able to support and stand in for the assistant secretary.

So at this point you started to move from analysis to administration?

Definitely much more management and leadership and less time as an individual performer.

What were the upsides and downsides of that?

I’ve actually always loved leadership and management. Dave Ochmanek is an incredible thought leader, but he wasn’t that interested in management. So early on, I jumped into running the office and found that I really enjoyed it. You inherit people with very different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and styles, and you have to get them normed and formed as a team—bring the best out of each person, establish some common ways of working, and hopefully have a culture that’s not only productive and high-performing but also fun, that makes people excited about coming to work. I always loved that challenge.

This is the Pentagon. Don’t you just give orders?

[Chuckle] No. You had civil servants, political appointees, and military folks in the same office. It was a very mixed group, with people having different expectations, backgrounds, styles of working, and so forth. The key to managing the situation well was spending time as a team, talking about how we wanted to work together, what our culture would be, being clear about the vision and guidance, trying to play to people’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, empowering them while also holding them accountable. The fun part is giving people the opportunity to shine and coaching them to help them grow. The hard part is sometimes having to find them another opportunity if they’re not performing.

What you just described could summarize leadership best practices in many areas, including both the corporate world and the military. You’ve always been military adjacent. Has that affected your thinking?

I have spent a lot of time working with people in the military. My father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. I’m married to someone who spent 26 years in the navy, active duty and reserve. My son is now training in the navy. So it has been around me all my life. What I appreciate about the culture is the strong mission focus and the strong altruistic element. People sign up to serve. They sign up to be part of something greater than themselves, and that’s a wonderful motivation to work with on a team. But there’s also a tradition of accountability. And a tradition of recognition—of recognizing important achievements, promotions, retirements, milestones, the contributions of spouses and families. Having my first child when I was in the Pentagon was an amazing experience because of the incredible celebration in this community when someone in their midst has a child. I have a wonderful picture of one of the service chiefs of staff, on his knees on the carpet in my office, coochy-cooing my firstborn.

Was it tough being a young mother in that kind of incredibly demanding job?

Yes and no, because I had wonderful support—not only Ted Warner but also Walt Slocombe, who was the undersecretary at the time. They were very supportive of me taking maternity leave. When I came back, they were very supportive of actually trying to use the flextime and flexplace policies that were on the books. Unless there was a national emergency, they tried to get me some time at home one day a week, working remotely. These were all policies on the books, but little known and rarely used. They used me to provide an example of how to create a more family-friendly work culture. Later, when I came back as undersecretary, I was able to push that to a new level, which was great.  But it was tough being a new mom and a senior defense official at the same time.

What came after the Clinton administration?

I went to work at CSIS [the Center for Strategic and International Studies] for John Hamre. He had been deputy secretary of defense and was working on interesting projects in national security—everything from post-conflict stabilization to nuclear nonproliferation.

How did your work as a think-tank analyst differ now that you had been inside and knew what the real world was like?

I understood what was really useful to policymakers. There are some kinds of work that the Defense Department does really well and doesn’t need a lot of outside quarterbacking. But there are other kinds of work that are extremely useful but hard to do inside. And that’s where good think tanks can help.

Such as … ?

The department is very good at assessing and responding to current threats, current intelligence, and immediate crises—zero to six months out.

So an op-ed that says, “Here’s what you should do on Syria tomorrow” is worthless to policymakers?

It’s not that helpful. What’s really hard for people inside to do is look over the horizon, to say, “This is what is coming a year from now, or five, or ten, that we’re not paying enough attention to or preparing for.” Only a few little enclaves in the building do this kind of work—Andy Marshall’s former shop [the Office of Net Assessment], parts of the Strategy Office, a few others. This is where the think-tank world can be invaluable—providing a longer-term perspective.

When you talk about “invaluable” think tanks, what kinds of institutions do you have in mind?

The most useful ones tend, in my view, to be clustered around the center and open to diverse perspectives. They’re less about advocating for one particular point of view than about bringing together people with different perspectives through deep, fact-based analysis. The ones that are more bipartisan are more able to bring together the full range of stakeholders needed to think through complex national security challenges—civilian and military officials, diplomats, the development community, etc. I spent a handful of years at CSIS, and it was a wonderful experience. Then my colleague Kurt Campbell [who at the time led the International Security Program at CSIS] and I got this crazy idea that Washington needed yet another think tank. Just about everybody thought we were nuts and tried to discourage us, but we persisted, and the result was CNAS [the Center for a New American Security].

What was the gap you were trying to fill?

We wanted to create a think tank that was nonpartisan but not overly cautious or afraid of offending one end of the political spectrum or the other. At that time, for example, the Iraq war was a giant problem. There was a huge debate about whether it had been a good idea to get in, but we were in, and the question we wanted to focus on was how to end the war responsibly, in a way that protected U.S. interests. Many people were uncomfortable with the topic because they thought it would create partisan divisions. Our response was that CNAS should “go to the pain”—take on the hardest, most consequential issues, even if controversial, and make headway on them.

We also wanted to create a place that would give young people real professional development opportunities. If they worked on a report, they would get a byline on the report. They weren’t always just ghostwriting for senior people. We gave them media training, op-ed writing training; we paid as much attention to human capital development as to policy development. We were trying to produce people who could serve – the next generation of national security leaders. We wanted to showcase futures as opposed to formers.

Did it work out the way you had planned?

I think so. It has endured: we’re heading toward our 15th anniversary in the next couple of years. It has become known as a great place to go if you’re interested in professional development. It has done cutting-edge work that has had a direct impact on U.S. policy. One of my favorite anecdotes involves former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who hired a lot of folks we trained when he was Secretary of Defense. Someone once asked him, “Why haven’t you gone to speak at CNAS?” He said, “Why do I need to go to CNAS? I can just call a staff meeting.” That to me was evidence of the model working.

So Barack Obama wins, the Democrats come in, and you go back into the system. Did you work on the campaign?

I did work on the Obama campaign, and I co-led his transition team in the Department of Defense. We started to write a foundational memo on defense policy for the president and, we assumed, the new secretary. Then Obama decided to keep Bob Gates on, which was a wonderful choice, and the memo became an opportunity for Gates to think through his new agenda. He had come into the job a few years earlier with an extraordinary focus on Iraq, where his job was to turn things around and put them on a solid footing. Now he could embrace a much broader defense agenda. So what should that be? I worked closely with him on that and then was honored to be asked to stay as the undersecretary for policy.

What does that job involve?

Under most secretaries [of defense], the undersecretary for policy has a couple of functions. First, you run the policy organization that supports the secretary in all of his international engagements, at home and abroad. You also support the secretary in the interagency process, serving, for example, as the secretary’s representative on the [National Security Council] Deputies Committee. You also support the Secretary of Defense’s civilian oversight of military plans and operations. The deputy secretary, in contrast, is essentially the COO of the department, managing this massive organization and all the subsidiary agencies.

How many people did you have to manage?

Close to 1,000. I also had oversight of three agencies: the Defense Technology Security Administration, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. I had a handful of assistant secretaries and dozens of DASDs to help me, so that was great. Because the United States was in two wars, the Senate moved very quickly on defense appointments, so several of us were confirmed in early February. I inherited a wonderfully talented civil service staff and some military officers who were detailed to the office. But the problem was the two layers in between, which were vacant. Almost all of the DASD and assistant secretary positions were for political appointees and would not be filled for months. So you come into the job and are responsible from day one, staffing the secretary, traveling to Afghanistan, undertaking a series of major policy reviews, and so forth, even as you have 50 plus positions to fill. I would spend evenings going through résumés, making calls, and trying to staff up a good team as quickly as possible.

You had just been running the transition planning. Didn’t you have binders full of candidates?

We did, but until you’re in there and you have hiring authority, it’s all theoretical. Then you have to find people, interview them, match them with jobs, get them to say yes, and bird-dog the lengthy Pentagon hiring process. It was challenging; it took a lot of time. You end up filling your DASD middle-management positions first. Your assistant secretaries—who require Senate confirmation—don’t start rolling in until month eight or nine.

Is this any way to run the world’s largest empire?

We basically decapitate ourselves every four years. Across the entire U.S. government, the top 3,500−4,000 people leave. And just when you finally get most of those positions filled—say, by the end of the second year—the natural turnover process starts, and you have to do much of it all over again. It’s just crazy.

Do the members of the so-called deep state, the officials below the political appointees, actually run things?

They’re critical. They’re ballast in the system, incredible institutional memory and knowledge. The political appointees provide tremendous innovation, energy, and new ideas, which are very valuable. But a system built on an endless flow of political appointees in and out can create severe management challenges at the beginning of an administration, when no one’s home, and toward the end, when people start leaving and you can’t fill the jobs.

What was it like being a senior bureaucrat in one of the world’s largest bureaucracies?

You need to have a clear understanding with the secretary about what your job is, what they want you to focus on, how your success will be evaluated, and what authority you have. Getting all that is incredibly empowering. Under Bob Gates, I knew what my job was, he empowered me to do it, and he defended my lane. Many people wanted to go to the White House for Deputies Committee meetings, for example, but he would say, “No, that’s Michèle’s job; she’s going. Tell her what your issue is, and she’ll represent the department.” And he would prevent bureaucratic game playing by enforcing good process. When that happens, a lot of the bureaucratic nonsense goes away. A lot of the friction in the system comes from the time and energy people spend fighting over turf instead of getting the mission done. With bosses like Gates, Panetta and Obama, I learned that even a big bureaucracy can actually function well—if you’ve got clarity, discipline, and priorities you’re trying to achieve.

You served in two different administrations. What was similar, and what was different?

I’ve also worked for five different secretaries of defense. The early Clinton administration taught some tough lessons. The whole painful experience of Somalia, for example, with its tragic losses, forced the National Security Council, State Department, and DoD to learn the importance of having a whole of government strategy, of working together better, and of providing proper oversight and support to people in harm’s way. That was a very difficult evolution, and you had a secretary of defense lose his job over it.

Did that say anything about what kinds of people should not be put in charge of the department?

A lot of people come into the secretary’s position from the Hill or elsewhere, and they try to run this massive organization from their front office, and they drown. The Pentagon is like a giant corporation; you’ve got line leaders and managers in charge of various areas of responsibility. Unless you use them and align them and make them your team, get them rowing in the same direction and hold them accountable, you’re not going to get much done. [Secretary of Defense] Les Aspin was a brilliant man and an incredibly creative defense intellectual. But he was not a leader or manager well suited to running one of the world’s largest and most complex enterprises. And pairing him with someone like Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was both, set up an unhealthy imbalance in civil-military relations. You had a secretary who was not really running the department, which was not a good thing. With the elevation of Bill Perry to secretary and John Shalikashvili to chairman, the authority of the secretary and a healthy civil-military relationship were restored.

You’ve said that DOD is a “planning organization.” What do you mean by that?

It has a planning culture. When you’re sending people into harm’s way, one of the ways you buy down risk is trying to anticipate every possible contingency. And then you plan for them; you train for them; you make sure you’re equipped and ready for them. That narrows the risks and makes them more manageable. This culture is not widely shared in other parts of the national security and foreign policy arena, and so sometimes people give the Department big eye rolls: “Oh, look, DOD wants to do another plan, or exercise, or war game. Can’t they just leave us alone and let us do our jobs?” But that’s what DoD does, and that’s how it succeeds. Look at the bin Laden raid, for example. The detailed planning that was done for that meaningfully reduced the risk. When the helicopter went down, it didn’t mean disaster, like Desert One back in Iran [in 1979]. We had planned for a helicopter going down, so we had two other ones forward positioned and ready to go.

You’ve talked about secretaries. What about presidents?

I was too junior in the Clinton administration to have a lot of contact with Bill Clinton. I met him, but didn’t have to brief him. President Obama was the first president that I got to spend serious amounts of time with.

Were you nervous?

First time, sure, you’re absolutely nervous. You’re in the presence of the most powerful person in the world. And I was a huge Obama fan, so that made it doubly nerve-racking. But as you get to know someone over time, you get more comfortable with them, and it gets better.

What did you do when you came out of government the second time?

When I came out of the undersecretary position, I decided to challenge myself, learning some new things and growing my skills. The business side of the Pentagon was very frustrating. Having oversight of three agencies, I saw just how badly broken its business practices were. It felt too late for business school, and I had to make a living, so I came up with a plan. I approached a couple of management consulting firms and said, “I want to work for you and get the practical equivalent of an M.B.A. through the case method—and in exchange, I’ll advise you on how to build your public-sector practice and your defense and aerospace industry practice.” Boston Consulting Group made me a senior adviser, and off we went. I learned about supply chain management, market-share analysis, how to manage change in large organizations, how to read a corporate balance sheet. It was a fantastic experience. You’re never too old to learn, to pick up new tricks and new tools. The experience also gave me the skills and perspective to move on to my most recent project, which was starting a business.

What’s the business?

WestExec Advisors is a strategic advisory firm. We help Fortune 100 U.S. companies manage geopolitical risk and seize opportunities in new markets. We help investors doing international deals understand the broader, nonfinancial factors that could affect returns. And most fun and exciting, we help small technology companies navigate the national security space. We’re trying to help bridge the gap between the national security world and America’s best tech talent—something that we as a nation need to figure out urgently if we don’t want to be overtaken by other powers.

Are the institutions in Washington in which you served going to survive the current era in any recognizable form?

The Department of Defense, like the State Department and the intelligence community, has experienced a lot of brain drain. That has created a vacuum, and the Joint Staff and other parts of the military, in many cases, have stepped in to fill it. The department will have to do a lot of human capital building to rebuild the civil service, bring in a strong team of appointees, and restore a proper civil-military balance. The secretary of defense is in the chain of command and always has formal control; the question is, do they have a capable, empowered staff that can offer independent perspectives—on policy, law, budgeting, and everything else needed to do a good job? Having lived through an earlier cycle of this, I know that with the right leadership—both civilian and military—civil-military relations in the Pentagon can recover very quickly. So I have hope there. The larger problem will be replacing the senior civil servants who have left. You can’t just manufacture someone with 20 years of experience overnight.

As for the NSC [National Security Council], the process there is unrecognizable at this point. The president doesn’t use it; you don’t have regular principals or deputies meetings. There is no disciplined mechanism for bringing the interagency voices together, encouraging and hearing dissent, or making sure diverse views are fairly represented all the way up to the president so he can make well-informed decisions. So that needs to be reset.

Why should any non-geek care about the bureaucratic process of the NSC?

You have to care. If you care about the quality of presidential decision-making, you care about the process behind it. And the NSC process ensures that the president will hear everything—consensus, if there is one, disagreement or dissent if there is any. Dissent often points to some risk that needs to be managed. If you’re not aware of that dissent, or unwilling to acknowledge it, you don’t get the opportunity to manage that risk—so you end up with bad decisions, or at least decisions that are worse or more costly than they should be. The value of the multidisciplinary, multilevel staff process is that senior policymakers get better information, a more diverse range of perspectives, and a fuller exploration of the decision space—and, hopefully, as a result of that, make better decisions.

What are you proudest of in your career?

The work I’ve done on building human capital—at the Pentagon, CNAS, WestExec and elsewhere. Your impact on policy may be ephemeral, but the impact you have on developing people and bringing up the next generation is incredibly long-lasting and meaningful, in ways you will never even know. So that has been my greatest source of satisfaction, other than my family and dear friends.

Your greatest regrets?

I don’t have a lot of regrets. I feel very blessed and honored.

Any advice for those starting out?

Choose something that you’re passionate about and go deep. Establish some expertise, and pursue that and be excellent at it. Don’t worry about not having a grand plan. Find bosses and mentors that will help you develop to the next level, and don’t be afraid to change paths. I have gone from journalism to think tanks to government to another think tank to starting my own think tank to government to management consulting to starting a business to serving on nonprofit boards that I’m passionate about that have nothing to do with defense. Don’t be afraid to try something new, even later in your career. Be a mentor to others.  And always, always make time for the people you love.

This interview has been edited and condensed.