The U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s LaFonda Sutton-Burke HKSEE 2017, director of field operations for the Chicago field office, exemplifies what it means to be a leader daily. The more than 1,200 employees she oversees processed 6.2 million passengers, $542 billion in imports, and $151 billion in exports last year. Highly skilled in operating on an incredibly large scale, Sutton-Burke was nonetheless eager to immerse herself in a collaborative environment that would allow her to expand her leadership prowess even further, which brought her to Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education program, “Senior Managers in Government.” 

Portrait of LaFonda Sutton-Burke with John Tien, the host of the Secretary’s Awards.
Homeland Security Deputy Secretary John Tien recognizes LaFonda Sutton-Burke as a plank holder during the Secretary’s Awards Ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I wanted to overcome leading, thinking, and operating within a silo,” Sutton-Burke says. “I wanted to transform my leadership style to have the ability to manage from a range-of-an-enterprise approach, to a whole-of-government approach, to a private enterprise approach. The value of  ‘Senior Managers in Government’ is that it opens the aperture of not only knowledge, but it also allows you to understand partner government agencies, community organizations, foreign trade organizations, etc. I appreciate collaborative relationships, and I value the give and take of negotiations to accomplish a win-win solution that benefits everyone.” 

Her time in “Senior Managers in Government” not only had an invaluable impact on her abilities as a leader, but it also allowed her to take a step back and examine her current role through a larger lens, particularly when it comes to collaboration, and strengthened her ties to fellow government communities. “I was able to utilize the case studies, discussions, and networking opportunities to understand that my role is beyond the Custom and Border Protection (CBP) mission. It allowed me to understand the whole-of-government approach to global supply chains, and it allowed me to establish and seek relationships with international and national trade communities, air carriers, airport authorities, congressional staff delegations, community organizations, and more.”

This deepened understanding and appreciation for how her work at the CBP has a ripple effect to other departments has led Sutton-Burke to an exciting new project involving many different facets of the government, where successful collaboration will be key. “I am currently working on an enterprise problem set within CBP that is impacting not only internal CBP stakeholders but also external stakeholders that include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the White House, Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Border 5, and e-commerce stakeholders,” she says. “The knowledge gained during the executive education experience is assisting me to bring all stakeholders together to address this challenging problem set.”

Read more about Executive Education alumni stories.

DHS Photography by Brent Skeen