On Wednesday, Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning spoke to a crowd of students, staff and faculty during a fireside chat with Alec Gallimore, dean of the College of Engineering, at the Chrysler Center on North Campus. Fanning met with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel earlier in the day.
During the talk, Fanning focused on the importance and versatility of public service careers, as well as his path to becoming the secretary of the Army. He discussed his beginnings in the public service sector, stating that he first became interested in government work as an undergraduate at Dartmouth University.
“I was (at Dartmouth) in 1988,” Fanning said. “Both parties had open primaries, so there were quite a few candidates running for president. It’s a small state; there aren’t many places to go and they were always on campus. I just got the bug for government politics, government service.”
Fanning, a Kalamazoo native and the self-described “CEO of the Army,” is responsible for overseeing its $140 billion budget and personnel matters, among other things. Though he was appointed to his current position by President Obama only last year, he worked as a congressional aide during the Clinton administration and has spent much of the last 25 years in various jobs with the Army, Navy and Air Force.
“My team likes to call me the oldest millennial, because I’ve had a bizarre career path,” Fanning said. “But I was moving into many different things, seizing many different opportunities. People can get very focused on wanting to do ‘X’ and that’s not necessarily the best way to come into Washington. The best way to come into Washington is to find good bosses doing interesting things and start there.”
Fanning also offered advice given to him by his first boss to students looking to go into any kind of management position. According to Fanning, communication is crucial to managing any organization.
“Never underestimate the degree you need to communicate,” Fanning said. “That is a non-stop, ongoing requirement for any leadership job. I find that even in a large organization like the Army, you can drive change very quickly, so long as you have the right people involved and you just prioritize and focus on them. If I tried to have a handle on everything the Army did, I would grind to a halt. You have to size up the people you trust and tell them, ‘Come to me when you need help because you’re on your own.’ ”
The event was put on by the College of Engineering as part of Entrepreneurship 390, a class taught by Max Shtein, associate professor of material sciences and entrepreneurship. The event was open to anyone, and the auditorium was nearly filled by students, staff and faculty from all areas of the University.
The advice Fanning gave, Shtein felt, fit perfectly into his curriculum. Entrepreneurship 390 focuses mostly on entrepreneurial design, but the class also deals with more general topics regarding business and management.
“He wanted to talk about the importance of public service, and how they do need somebody with entrepreneurship skills and desire to innovate and business acumen, as well as technical skills, to get into the service line of work,” Shtein said. “In the class we focus a lot on problems — what are high quality problems, what are difficult problems, what are problems that affect a lot of people. And this is certainly within that realm, so I think it was good for folks to see that, yeah, this is a huge organization … how do you run something like that?”
The audience responded to Fanning’s talk enthusiastically. Engineering senior Alexander Mills said it was different from other talks he’d heard and that Fanning left him with a lot to think about.
“It wasn’t anything like any other talk I’ve gone to before,” Mills said. “Mostly I go to engineering TED Talks, and I’ve never been to anything politically sided before. It was eye-opening and interesting.”
When the Obama administration leaves Washington, Fanning will be leaving his position as well. He said he thought for a long time about whether he would be willing to continue to work under President-elect Donald Trump if he was asked to, but ultimately decided that he would not.
“The philosophy, to me, is a big part of the job,” Fanning said. “Part of why I can struggle through this job that’s very difficult and demanding and even more rewarding, is that I can wake up and say I’m part of this president’s team. By the time I got this job, I had an understanding of what the military was, what the Army was, but I had a vision that aligned with this president that aligned with the changes that I wanted to bring about.”