Effective leadership and productive management are honed by following the lessons from world leaders. In this interview, we learn from one of the best.
Dan Cooper retired the first time in 1991 after 37 years in the Navy, having worked primarily with submarines and when ashore in financial, budgeting or planning billets. His primary positions in the Navy (at sea) included: Commanding Officer, USS Puffer (SSN 652); Commander, Submarine Squadron Ten; Commander, Submarine Force, US Atlantic Fleet and ashore: Comptroller, Naval Sea Systems Command; Director, Navy Budgets and Reports; Director, Navy Program Planning; and Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Undersea Warfare.
In 2001, after completing a lengthy study into the Veterans Benefits Compensation Program, he was nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2002 to become Undersecretary for Benefits (USB) at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. There he was in charge of the VA’s Disability Compensation program as well as the Education, Insurance, Pension, Home Loan Guaranty and Vocational Rehabilitation programs for all veterans. He served for six years until 2008; then he retired a second time.
During the years between his Navy career and the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, he was employed in the Nuclear Industry and served on several corporate boards including Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU), United Services Automobile Association (USAA), Philadelphia Electric Co (PECO), and Excelon Corporation. Additionally, he was a member of the submarine advisory groups at Penn State and Johns Hopkins Universities.
Both he and his wife, Betty, have been deeply involved in local volunteer community activities including the Naval Academy, Naval Submarine League, Rotary, Boy Scouts, YMCA, World Affairs Council, Women's Exchange and their church. In 2012, he was selected with five others to be a distinguished graduate of the US Naval Academy and in 2014, along with about forty others, was selected for the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
He had graduated from the United States Naval Academy (BS), and later received a Master's Degree in Public Administration (MPA) from the Littauer School (now Kennedy School Of Government) at Harvard University.
As of October 2012, he and Betty live in Willow Valley Retirement Community, Lancaster, PA. There he is involved in some of the same activities plus SCORE (helping develop small businesses), AARP Foundation's free income tax preparation (for low-income families), and American Heroes First Foundation (AHFF) — headquartered in Texas.
The Coopers have two daughters, Amy and Cynthia, whose husbands have recently retired after 30 year military careers, one in the Navy and the other in the Coast Guard. Of the six grandchildren, one followed Betty (and Cynthia) to Muskingum and two of the four grandsons followed Dan to the US Naval Academy.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
PARTIAL EXTRACTS AND QUOTES FROM THE EXTENSIVE DISCUSSIONS:
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
What inspired you to go to the Naval Academy and what best practices stayed with you throughout your career?
"....There was a graduate from the Naval Academy who had lived in our hometown in East Liverpool, Ohio, and he started to encourage me to think about the Academy to a point of sending me catalogs every year and whenever he came back to Ohio. When he would come back to Ohio we would get together for breakfast or lunch and he would just talk to me about what I was doing or what I was interested in. So that's the type of thing that encourages any young kid to think seriously about a career....As far as best practices, first is a sense of patriotism. Another is time management....Another thing I picked up relatively rapidly was how leadership is developed...The people you meet at the Naval Academy, there's not a wide variety as you can imagine, but they are very solid people. You have a relatively amenable group of people who are coming in interested in being in the Navy; therefore you look at them, see what they do, and see what you can learn from them...."
How would you contrast that time at the Naval Academy with what you learned at Harvard?
"....First you have to look at the purpose of each of those institutions. The purpose of the Naval Academy is to develop officers who are going to pursue a military career, at least for a time if not for their entire career. At Harvard you are developing a much broader range of individual. Once you get past the purpose, I would say the advantages of going to Harvard are your exposure to a much broader range of individuals, and both as a student and as a professor you get a much broader range of thought. You are exposed to books and things you don't have time to look at when you are at the Academy. It is a broadening of your education...."
At what point in your career were you at Harvard?
"....I had gone into the amphibious force, then to submarine school, and then been on a diesel submarine for three years. At that point I requested to stay at sea another year and the Bureau of Personnel sent me a letter and said no, you are going to have to go to post graduate school and your choices are Stanford, American University, or Harvard....So I'd only been in five years and this is about the time historically that we have given junior officers a chance to go to post-graduate school or some additional education...."
What are some lessons you learned as a submarine officer?
"....One is attention to detail. In the nuclear program, we give great attention to detail in ensuring we do things right. The second thing is attention to procedures. A third aspect particular to a nuclear submarine is quality. Finally I would say focus and teamwork...."
Can you talk more about the challenging interview process to get into the nuclear submarine program?
"....You know that Admiral Rickover is a very hard-nosed, dedicated, intense individual whose primary purpose is to ensure that we had a successful, nuclear power program in the Navy. In that regard, one of his methods of success is ensuring he interviewed every single officer who ever came into the program so it could be an intense interview. He would ask you questions with which you were very uncomfortable..... He would look at your entire record and he would look at the interview and then decide if he was going to take you into the program...."
What qualities are required to transition from junior to senior officer?
"....The first quality obviously is experience; there is nothing that beats experience....The next thing is understanding people because you have really good people, both enlisted and officers; I would say understanding those people is vital..... Maturity, some people may grow older but that does not mean that they grow more mature....The next thing is the in depth knowledge, and finally the importance of ongoing study...."
In your opinion what do you think is the percentage that reach the kind of positions that you've been able to attain in the Navy?
"....I'm not sure. But if you start going in as a plebe and go up into the higher ranks, my guess is five to seven percent...."
As naval officer, what were your top challenges when ashore?
"....The challenges ashore are different. Some people, after having command at sea, when they come to the Pentagon or to Washington DC they have difficulty acclimating because everybody is not standing around ready to answer their every order....The next thing is many people are uncomfortable with the budgeting process....Another challenge is to understand the process, not only of a big organization, but the process in Washington DC, which has many organizations which interact....The final challenge and I've never had much problem with this, but a lot of people have great frustration because they go in on a given day and they say to themselves I'm going to do this, this, and this and at the end of the day they may have done one half of the first this....."
What led to your work with Veterans Affairs?
"....Fairly early into the into the program (about a month into the study), the Secretary asked me if I would be interested in being the Undersecretary and I said no. I said I like what I'm doing, I like doing studies, having the freedom to go around and do other things and I'm really not interested in a full-time job. After I completed the study he asked me again and I said no, I'm really not interested. Then he set up a board to select a new Undersecretary. The previous Undersecretary had left and he started up a board and asked if I would at least sit on the board to select a new one. We selected three people and he didn't like any one of the three and so finally he said to me, 'Look. I've really got to have somebody in there that I think is knowledgeable and good at the job, would you please take the job?'....I finally decided that in this point in my career and in my life that this was a pretty idealistic thing to do, that there really was nothing else better to do. I had just done a study into the major problem they had with the job itself and so I really should accept — so that's how I made the decision to take the job...."
Can you share your most memorable experiences while working with Veterans Affairs?
"....Probably the one I think about most of the time (besides working with all the people and visiting the many regional offices), is one experience I had which was quite unusual. Every year the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of American Veterans (DAV) get together and they sponsor something they call Winter Games out in Colorado....The second thing is I was meeting with the officials from other countries (I met with several different people at different times), and I began to realize that what this country does for its Veterans is far and away more and better than what any other country does. Each country has some kind of Veteran's benefits, but the United States is a much more extensive and in depth assistance paid for by the government....Another memorable experience was the study itself because I had these ten people who were in fact experts, but each of them willing to listen to what people had to say...."
You have this remarkable experience with Veterans Affairs, what would you say were your top challenges?
"....One of the challenges was to get everybody focused on what we had to do to make improvements, and the study came up with 32 recommendations of which 30 we implemented. Getting them all focused and moving ahead is a challenging thing to do, and then as you do that you want to ensure that you are measuring the quality and the progress....Finally I felt part of my job was to get between the detractors and my people. I had to insert myself between the Press and my people, between Congressional activities and the people, and let everybody know that I would give everybody the most honest, straightest answer possible, but I did not want them to beat-up my people who I felt were working very, very hard and trying to do the right thing for veterans...."
What is required to be an effective government leader?
"....The first thing I would say is you have to understand your people both above you and below you. You have to be willing to work hard, harder than anybody else so that you are one step ahead, so that you can see problems before they develop and therefore help divert from those problems. You have to have the technical knowledge of things and of process. You have to express and ensure people understand loyalty....Being consistent. They can do all sorts of innovative things within the rules, but there have to be certain rules when you are running any kind of an organization and your job as a leader is to ensure that everybody understands what you consider the proper rules for that particular organization....The final thing I'd say is you have to have a sense of humor...."
You've also worked on boards; can you have a short overview of your board history in terms of organizations and corporations and what useful lesson you can share from your past history of working on boards?
"....The kind of boards I've been on are a couple of utility boards, submarine advisory boards and a couple of financial boards (one was Navy Federal Credit Union and the second was the United Services Automobile Association)....You have many smart people so you want to make sure you play to their maximum advantage; you use their capabilities to the best advantage for the particular board or corporation. They also have varied backgrounds so you have to understand what their background is, sometimes that will help you understand the reason for whatever opinion they have or ideas they might have....The independence of the 'independent' directors is very important...."
You have had a remarkable career in the Navy, both in the submarine portion but also ashore working in many positions, and beyond that you have worked within government and served on boards. From that perspective you have an idea of what constitutes great leadership so can you share what you consider are top leadership lessons which apply to corporate executives?
"....Idealism is certainly one and again I can't overemphasize — people...."
When you look back at your career, what do you consider to be your top career successes and lessons learned that would be useful to the audience? There will be some overlap of what you discussed before.
"....The primary thing that has helped me in everything has been my family. That has helped me keep a focus on the type of work or whatever I am doing and not have family problems....Any success you have (as I've emphasized ad nauseum here), depends on the people you are with and the people you are able to work for who are willing to overlook some of your idiosyncrasies. When I went to my submarine I had five or six junior officers (I had a total of 13 officers in my crew). Of those 13 officers (counting myself), five of us made Admiral. That is a very unusual percentage within wardroom, but that shows the type of junior officer that happened by chance to come to my ship at the same time I did, so that is something that I feel very good about....I feel very good about the work we did at the VA. A lot of that was due to the strong support I got from the Secretary Principi and to the good relations that we had with Congress so that they were able to help us. I felt we had the strong support of the vast majority of those people in the VA because we had the idealistic goal of helping veterans...
What are your most fulfilling volunteer activities and why?
".... One of the activities that I've gotten into in this retirement community where I am is in the last two years I've done an AARP Foundation tax program in which we go into the community and for low income families, we will do their taxes for free. We did it three times a week I think it was, and that is about as fulfilling an extra-curricular activity as any that I have done...A nationwide organization that I'm involved with is called SCORE. I think they have 300+ chapters around the country and they take retired executives from businesses and try to help younger people who want to start a business....Another group I have been involved with and have been involved with in the last three years is a very idealistic group called America's Heroes First Foundation. We look at other veteran-related organizations around the country and then look at specific programs they have which will help individual veterans, servicemen and their families. We then sign a contract with that charity and say 100 percent of the money we give you will go directly to a veteran or serviceman in need in this particular program....Occasionally I get involved with committee stuff at the Naval Academy, and as I said earlier both my wife and I do a lot with the church...."
What kind of qualities make for an ideal candidate for the Naval Academy?
"....The ideal candidate is one who is pretty well rounded....I'm always interested in their extra-curricular things, both within the school and within the community. They do have to be doing well academically....I ask them a few questions that have nothing to do with anything in particular just to find out how broadly knowledgeable they are, just talking to them and finding out how they conduct themselves and how they answer questions no matter what they are...."
You are still very active in many very different activities (especially volunteer activities), so in addition to what you already talked about what do you hope to accomplish this year?
"....I'll be doing the income taxes next year and will still be doing SCORE things, and I'm also trying to improve my golf and racquetball. But essentially I'm keeping my eyes open for things for which I can volunteer and do on a case basis...."
You were an invited, honoured guest at the QTC event? Can you profile the event?
"....This particular program to which we were invited was to honour Dr. Kay; and we were very pleased to be invited and they were very kind to allow me to talk for a couple of minutes. I had met Dr. Kay a couple of times, but to finally see her in action, to see the respect that everybody had for what she had done and the type of person she is was really heartwarming...."
In your life what surprises you?
"....In the big picture, people surprise me with their ability to do things that you do not expect....I'm constantly amazed at the talent people have and their ability to respond to responsibility, problems that develop and to solve the problem....Another thing that surprises me is the variety of opinions that people have across the country. Unfortunately much of the opinion is based on bias, on background with little in depth understanding of the problem before the opinion is developed...The next thing that surprises me is the vast improvements we have made in computers and smartphones which gets to the real thing of the speed of information....The final thing that surprises me across the world is man's inhumanity to man...."
From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, do you have some stories (perhaps something amusing, surprising, unexpected or amazing)?
"....There were two Senators from the United States (two well-known Senators I might add), and after I had testified one day before the Senate VA Committee, one of them then asked me to come to his office in the next couple of weeks so he and I could talk more one on one. He thought that we were not doing particularly well by the veterans in their state (in fact we were doing as well there as anywhere, we were having problems across the board). So I went to talk to him and he had me come back and at the end I tell people I thought that we were sort of on a first name basis - I called him Senator and he called me Admiral. But the next time I went before the Senate VA Committee, he came in late while I was testifying and after a while he raised his hand and said, 'Mr. Chairman, I'd like to ask General Cooper a question.' At that point I thought I'd better not stay around, it was time for me to leave the VA...."
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....How do you view our country and our democracy today?....How would you characterize your life?....What's given you the most pride from your various endeavors?..."
Dan, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.