I used to think about the GAO in relatively simple terms. Yes, its formal title had changed from “Government Accounting Office” to “Government Accountability Office”, but that didn’t change my perception that it was something other than an organization primarily focused on matters of accounting, deep-diving into the back books of federal entities to perform razor-sharp, purely numerical auditing tasks. I am happy to say that my conversation with Chris Watson, Assistant Director of Defense Capabilities and Management, has opened my eyes to the full depth of the GAO as an organization and the vast range of issues on which it works.
As the Assistant Director of Defense Capabilities and Management, Mr. Watson is directly charged with managing a team of 15 individuals and supervising three to four specific auditing projects at any one time. Having moved through the ranks of the GAO’s Norfolk/Virginia Beach field office over the past 15 years, from junior analyst to now Assistant Director, he has an expertise in all things defense-auditing related and has employed that knowledge to tackle difficult tasks throughout his career.
One of the most meaningful and important projects in his career was dealing with questions surrounding U.S. Navy fleet readiness capabilities, support structures, and personnel affairs in the Pacific Theatre. Of particular note was his prominent role in the investigations surrounding the 2017 collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain, as well as recent queries surrounding the Navy’s unwillingness to change in response to recommendations regarding personnel management.
In fact, Mr. Watson had the opportunity to present the GAO’s report on the systemic issues surrounding the 2017 incidents to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, even meeting directly with then Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, Senator John McCain, and others over the course of the Committee’s deliberations.
Throughout our conversation, two major themes emerged. First, Mr. Watson continually expressed the importance of the team in everything he has done. Having a strong team is fundamental to having sustained success, and rallying as a single unit in support of one another can not only help to build lasting, meaningful relationships, but makes coming to work each day something to look forward to and be excited about.
The second major theme which Mr. Watson hit upon was his belief that the work he and his office are doing is meaningful, and that he feels personally responsible, along with all of his GAO colleagues, for ensuring that U.S. taxpayer money is being used appropriately and efficiently. This sense of purpose, he says, has also served as a motivating factor, pushing him to ask the hard questions, the uncomfortable questions, which need to be answered.
When asked about what advice he would give to his younger self, Mr. Watson was extremely candid. As human beings, we all have, at times, caught ourselves deeply invested in our work and it is only natural for us to be defensive when criticized. “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, he says, and be sure to take criticism constructively and with positive intent. In other words, don't take criticism personally, but rather heed the words of others and seek to integrate their suggestions into your future work.
At the end of the day, when asked what advice he would give to any graduating student intending to work for the U.S. Federal Government, Mr. Watson had this to say: It all comes down to remembering three things. Be prepared. Keep your eyes and ears open and learn from the best. And, as a manager, always remember to show your appreciation for your colleagues and the work they do. If you do these things, the culture and bonds of your team and organization will flourish, and the everyday grind will cease to become just that. To reach that point is not easy, but the benefits are vast and definitely worthwhile.