Veteran Voices is a series that gives our veteran-employees a chance to discuss their time in the military and how it prepared them for their careers with Highmark Health companies. In part two, Director of IT Jonathan Edmonds talks about the lessons he learned while in the Air Force.
There wasn’t a specific moment but more of a general timeframe when I knew I wanted to join the military.
My great-grandfather was a WWI veteran and my grandfather served in Europe in WWII as an Army Air Corps mechanic. Through him, I became interested in both the history of that time and my German heritage; I studied the language for several years starting in grade school. Those things interestingly came together when I was selected for the elite Congress-Bundestag foreign exchange program for my junior year of high school.
I was one of 100 U.S. high-school students to be selected. I lived in Germany for a year with a host family, went to school and participated in government programs. This experience cemented my desire to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and serve in the Air Force.
Build trust with a team. One of my most difficult situations presented itself at the beginning of my initial assignment. As a brand-new second lieutenant, I was in charge of a group of 20 enlisted personnel, all of whom had more experience than I. While new officers receive leadership training, it’s a challenge to walk in with all the statutory authority but nothing yet earned. This was a great leadership lesson in knowing the people around you, realizing you don’t need to be the expert in every area and building trust with your team to accomplish the mission.
Stay calm under pressure. Many of the skills I learned have lifetime value, including the ability to stay calm under pressure — important in any stressful situation. You lose all ability to solve the problem if you can’t stay reasonably calm. Some may think that only those with their “hair on fire” truly understand the gravity of a situation. However, people who are thinking composedly, quickly and decisively will find the best solution.
Be creative. A sense of order and process is important in life and in business. But creativity and innovation also are essential. These are not mutually exclusive. Organizations and people are most successful when they have the ability to channel that creativity in an effective way for larger benefit and/or valuable solutions.
Anyone can show leadership. Acknowledge and foster people’s leadership abilities. I have worked with people at all levels who lead. Leadership can happen anywhere in an organization, with direct authority or without. You don’t need to officially manage anyone to show it.
Discuss openly and own decisions. Respect the chain of command. Decisions do need to be made. In the best organizations and situations, everyone feels comfortable presenting their viewpoint, even if it is contrary to the senior person’s opinion or the organization’s historical process. Once a decision is made, everyone must own it and move forward regardless of their original position. As much as input and consensus are valuable, so are clear, unified direction and progress.
Take pride in service. This is the most important element from my military experience. Serving others isn’t contrary to your own goals. You can have a positive impact on others and still find professional growth and reward. Just remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, and understand how you can leverage your skills and interests to support your fellow citizens, patrons, community, and customers.
Is that pride instilled through military service, or an underlying attribute in people that the military enhances and fosters?
I’m not sure, but that same spirit is present at Highmark. Invariably, when I talk with folks about why they like working at Highmark, one of the top reasons is the ability to help people in our communities.
I made several stops on my way to Highmark. I spent four years in the Air Force ROTC program and earned my commission upon graduation. With my mathematics degree, I was steered to the IT [Information Technology] group and sent to Wichita, KS.
I had several jobs at McConnell AFB [Air Force Base] there; spent time at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS; and then went to the Pentagon. Several years later, and after much introspection, my wife and I made the decision to separate from the service and move back to Pittsburgh.
In returning home, I was hired as the first CIO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The Trust wanted to focus more on strategic use of technology, and I was looking for an opportunity that blended technology with service. It was a great fit.
Many years later, I moved to Highmark, where my roles have evolved into my current position of Director of IT. Currently, I lead analytics, workforce and communications initiatives across the solutions company.
Service has been the theme of my career. Whether in the Air Force, the Cultural Trust or Highmark, I have wanted to lend a hand in organizations that truly provide valuable service to the community and have that as a stated component of their mission.
There are similarities between my work at Highmark and in the military beyond the technology and leadership connections: The job never stays the same for long. Whether through larger changes in role and responsibilities or smaller changes to the way and with whom you work, both have been dynamic environments looking for the best methods to be effective and efficient. Additionally, the ability to work in a fast-paced organization, with a diverse group of people, was instilled in the military and also has proven valuable at Highmark.
My professional roles have been in large part about relationships. Building positive relationships is key to getting things done. The military, overall or each individual unit, is a diverse collection of people striving for a common goal. My experiences helped me not only work better with different people, but capitalize on our differences. That same collaboration is critical at Highmark. We not only recognize and respect all aspects of our diversity, but also try to make the most of the asset that it is.
Although there were difficult and anxious moments (initial separation, short-notice orders, etc.), I very much appreciated and grew through my military experience. It’s challenging and demanding but has a tremendous support system built in, whether it’s for spouses and families or the member themselves — on or off the job.
If you have the right motivation and determination, military service can be an immense engine for personal and professional growth. You will emerge as a leader with confidence, a sense of purpose and drive.
As a military-friendly employer, we pride ourselves on hiring talented people who have served or continue to serve our country. Join our online military talent community to learn more.
We also encourage you to read “Living Out Loud,” a monthly blog series by Sara Oliver-Carter, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Highmark Health, who is instrumental in building a talented, diverse and inclusive workforce at our company that includes veterans like Jonathan.
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