When you think of the Coast Guard, the image that probably comes to mind is patrol boats scouting the coastline, ready to assist mariners in distress. While search and rescue will always be a primary mission, the United States Coast Guard is part of the armed services and a federal law enforcement agency with duties ranging from disaster response to preventing maritime terrorism.
Nobody knows the complexities of the Coast Guard’s work better than Vice Commandant Sally Brice-O’Hara MC/MPA 1993, second in command at the agency. Brice-O’Hara credits her year at the school with helping her prepare for advancement in a largely male-dominated organization, because while a student, she was introduced to cultural differences that bridged gender, ethnicity, and race.
She also observed what was for her a cultural sea change in the classroom, where group participation and Forum discussions trumped the authority-based teaching style she was used to. Since assuming her new role, in May 2010, Brice-O’Hara has endeavored to create an environment where these elements, especially inclusiveness, can flourish. “I’m a people person,” she says. “I would classify myself as someone who has always wanted to help others and to use my position as wisely as possible. It’s not about me and my stature; it’s all about how I enable other Coast Guard men and women to be as successful as possible in their careers.”
In addition to managing a force of 42,000 active-duty members, 8,000 reservists, 8,000 civilian employees, and 30,000 Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers, Brice-O’Hara oversees day-to-day business at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC, focusing primarily on policy and resources. “Until the economy rebounds, it means less discretionary funding,” she says. “I devote a great deal of time to finding efficiencies and making very difficult decisions about where best to spend the service’s next dollar.”
In the Coast Guard, every dollar is needed to sustain frontline operations and to recapitalize its assets. When environmental and natural disasters strike in the nation’s maritime regions, the service is often first to arrive on the scene. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Mississippi flooding, and the earthquake in Haiti (a country of national interest, which the Coast Guard’s cutters reached quickly when diverted from Caribbean drug patrols) are three recent large-scale incidents in which the Coast Guard played a key role.
“Life in the Coast Guard brings a highly unpredictable daily schedule because of the nature of our responsibilities,” says Brice-O’Hara. Since 2003, the agency has been part of the Department of Homeland Security, with post 9/11 duties adding to its maritime security operations.
One of the many enjoyable aspects of her job is managing the Coast Guard’s flag officers and senior executive service civilians. She is actively engaged in hiring decisions, evaluations and awards, and their professional development. In addition to mentoring a wide range of women and men, she often advises the service’s HKS applicants and students, writing recommendations and offering ideas for research topics.
Ultimately, Brice-O’Hara hopes her success can be a model for others interested in following the same path — in any organization. “You become a more capable leader when you have greater knowledge,” she says. “Leaders are better at what they do once they’ve seen how others may not have done as well. For example, some of the HKS case studies showed how initiatives faltered and didn’t necessarily achieve the expected outcomes. Fortunately, I learned from the best. I am very pleased that the Coast Guard gave me the opportunity to attend and continues to send promising officers to HKS.”