“Treat Others With Dignity and Respect:” An Interview with Premise’s Devon Blake

01 April 2022

In the latest installment of Premise’s Women’s ERG series, Premise’s Senior Director of Operations for Global Security, Devon Blake, shared her philosophies on leadership and how those philosophies have developed over her career. Devon’s goal with this interview was to focus on the importance of a reliable team for your personal growth, as well as having the right attitude as you move into new positions of leadership.

Premise: Hi Devon! You’re joining us from Qatar today, right?

Blake: Yes, that’s right!

I think it’s 8 PM where you are so we thank you, Devon, for joining us. We’d love it if you could give a quick overview of your role at Premise.

Absolutely. Thank you for the warm introduction. So what does the Sr. Director of Operations on the Global Security team do? Primarily, I’m responsible for all of our programs and projects running smoothly. With Jason Chung, who’s the lead on our team, we ensure that the team is resourced in order to do that.

With our incredible team of Customer Success Managers and our Strategic Solutions Consultants operating across the globe, we ensure everybody is trained, equipped, and set up for success in order to be able to oversee their projects. That’s the reason why I’m in Qatar meeting with clients right now and conducting some training as well. The role is fluid and it’s super engaging, and every day is different. I absolutely enjoy what I’m doing.

(Photo: Blake joined Premise in 2019 after a 24-year career in the U.S. Army.)

That’s fantastic. So Devon, can you describe your leadership philosophy and how you lead others?

Absolutely. For those who may not know, I retired from the military after 24 years of active duty in the Army. Anytime we went into a command position, as a commissioned officer, we always had a noncommissioned officer who we led our team with. We call them our battle buddy – basically our right hand.

What I love about the military is that it really allows and expects you to prepare in varying ways, and one of them is to do some pretty deep thinking. About 10 years ago, I was preparing for what’s known as battalion command, overseeing an organization of 1200 soldiers and their families. I was sitting with my right hand – my battle buddy –  and we were thinking about our command philosophy. I shared a quote — and it was a bit out of the ordinary for a military organization — but the quote that came to mind is attributed to John Maxwell: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

(Photo: Afghanistan, 2009)

My Command Sergeant Major opened up a notebook that he carried around with him and turned back three pages. He’d recently given a speech to an Army organization and used that quote as the opening of his speech. I knew right away we were going to be a good command team. 

I realized that was the basis of the philosophy that we both embodied. And so around that quote, we developed basically four components. And we worked throughout our two-year tenure to instill these components in each and every one of the 1200 soldiers that fell underneath our command. 

What are the four components you’re referencing?

The first component was compassion. Again, it doesn’t sound very “military,” but I think it’s really important as a leader to demonstrate compassion. That means having empathy and making time to listen to others, always saying “thank you,” and being genuine when you say it. You have to respect those around you and recognize it’s our differences that make us stronger. Look for opportunities to really assist others in meeting their full potential. And then sometimes compassion means having the moral courage to speak your mind with tact when the situation warrants.

The second component we defined was commitment: setting goals in all areas of your life and then really striving to attain them. Once you have the goals, it’s great to recognize them, but you have to work at defining objectives and ways to attain each goal. And what we realized, especially when it comes to being away from home a lot – which is something that we often ask our soldiers to do – was to ensure that individuals are committing just as much energy to their loved ones as to their profession. And that can certainly be challenging. You have to follow up on commitments and find answers to questions when you can say, “Yes, I’m going to get back to you,” and actually ensure that you do follow up. Maybe that’s putting a mark on the calendar to get back to someone, or committing to being creative and resourceful. It also can mean correcting those who fall short of standards, recognizing those who meet them, and then also taking the time to reward individuals who exceed standards. Sometimes we forget to do that – we take some people for granted who go above and beyond. The other aspect of commitment is mentorship, which I know is a big part of the ERG here. At the end of the day, if we’re able to look in the mirror and ask, you know, “what could we have done better today?,” we’ve found a great way to reflect on our level of commitment.

(Photo: Col. Devon Blake taking command of the 66th Military Intelligence Brigade, Germany, 2016)

The third tenant is trust. Obviously, everyone wants to be reliable. But if we make our word our bond, it helps to build that trust amongst teams. Living transparently is something we can do at work as well. I believe it’s important that we’re living an honest life and don’t necessarily have things to hide. Integrity has always been a non-negotiable trait. It doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. There are a lot of honest mistakes, I’ve made plenty of them. But when we make an honest mistake and we own it, we admit it, and then learn from it, rather than compromise our principles, that’s extremely important for building trust. It all comes down to really knowing yourself and then being yourself. When you can do that, then you can empower your subordinates and inspire others. 

The last component is teamwork. That sounds like a given, but it involves working together, holding each other accountable, treating each other with dignity and respect, and taking the time to build each other up. It is encouraging one another and doing things in the right spirit for the right reasons with the right attitude. It can be hard, but it certainly lends to driving better teams. When it comes to teamwork, the loyalty piece can’t just be vertical. It’s got to be horizontal as well. It is not healthy and doesn’t contribute to a cohesive team if loyalty is only in one direction. One thing I do love about the Global Security team at Premise is that we intentionally assign some of our most junior team members to serve as mentors to some of our most senior new employees when they join the team. We can all learn from one another and it’s just a great opportunity to make the team more cohesive.

Do you think there is a difference between leadership and management? If so, what is it?

That’s a great question, and I really appreciate you asking it. In the service we never talked about growing managers; we only talked about training leaders and the importance of being leaders of character. It’s an interesting shift, going from that environment into the private sector. I personally think there’s a huge difference, and there are important characteristics of both. I think the best leaders have good management skills, and the best managers have good leadership attributes. It’s great when they go hand in hand. I think it goes back also to the age-old question of whether or not leaders are born or made.

It’s funny, my husband says it all the time and we’ve been married for 24 years; he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s not a leader. He doesn’t want to be a leader. It’s hilarious – I watch him every single week as he leads his church as the head pastor of the congregation. He’s leading but he’s not a born leader — he learned how to do it and he’s really good at it. But as he says, it doesn’t come naturally. And he doesn’t see himself in that light. Overall, I think the key difference, if I were to define it quickly, is that managers tend to have a transactional style and a way of approaching the role, whereas leaders are more transformational. So what does that mean?

Transactional management is more defined. By maintaining a sense of control, managers are really good at short-term planning, organizing, coordinating resources, managing tasks, delivering results – that’s all tremendously important. Good managers are really skilled at ensuring systems and structures are being followed. These managers who adopt a transactional style are more reliant on a system of rewards and punishment to motivate their followers. 

Conversely, a leader focusing on transformation shapes a culture rather than enforces it. Their purpose is to drive passion and energy. So it means transforming an employee’s role, their output, and then holistically looking at the overall team success, rather than necessarily at one individual. It’s more about appealing to the people around you while recognizing their talents, what they can contribute, and then unlocking the full potential of the team. Different from a manager, a leader is going to focus on inspiring, motivating, and influencing those around them. That’s what’s going to drive the people on the team to achieve goals and objectives while they’re also working toward a bigger picture.

Excellent. I think that is a really nice synopsis. It’s been very interesting to hear these thoughts on leadership as we continue to do these executive spotlights with the Women’s ERG. And I would agree that leadership lines up a lot more with this transformational thinking rather than that managerial piece, but I like that you said that having the two in lockstep is really kind of the ideal situation if we can make that happen.

So when you began your career, what was the best piece of advice you got?

For background, I grew up in a really small town. It was a farming community with a population of 900 people. (I think it’s still 900 people.) Growing up, we were taught to treat everyone with dignity and respect. We were always told, “Don’t ever burn a bridge.” Regardless of where life would take us, we should never forget where we came from. And I think one of those lessons goes back to a story about my dad.

(Photo: Speaking at a change of command ceremony in San Angelo, TX in 2014. Blake led 1,200 troops in this battalion.)

My dad was a huge civil rights advocate in the 60s. I remember him talking about his participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. He was marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and he shared with me that experience of never feeling more bonded with a group of people for a cause he knew was just, despite the unjustified hatred that was so openly expressed by so many people. Laws were passed that allowed the police, for example, to tear gas people and beat them with clubs – he was beaten, he was gassed. My father said he never let go of the hands of the people on his left and his right, even when a horse nearly trampled them. He even pushed some of the women out of the way that might have gotten trampled. But it’s interesting how in the Army, I felt that it was one of the first U.S. institutions that actually allowed for equal pay and opportunities, even though we still have a long way to go.

I think growing up in an environment where I watched my dad espousing that concept of treating everyone with dignity and respect led to one of the early lessons I learned that I brought over to the military. 

(Photo: Participating in the 26.2-mile Bataan Death March in White Sands, NM, in 2014.)

Are there any particular stories from your time in the military that highlight this style of leadership?

One story that really sticks out was during a deployment to Afghanistan when I was there for a year. I worked inside one of the most contentious maximum security prisons ever known. We had about 1,000 detainees at any given time, some of whom were the most extreme international terrorists. When we arrived, the culture inside the detention facility was super, super tense, to say the least.

My specific role was counterinsurgency inside the wire. So that was ultimately recognizing who could be reconciled to not become a recidivist: someone who, if released, would not rejoin the insurgency. The role was to build a program to prepare those who couldn’t be reconciled for their inevitable release at some point. As we know, in August when the Taliban took over, all of the detention facilities in Afghanistan released their detainees. So it’s always fascinating to see how history evolves. But in my approach, I realized that there was a tremendous lack of understanding, as well as a stripping away of dignity and respect between the guards and the detainees. And because there was that lack, there were daily riots. And I mean, it was pretty chaotic. At the time – and even now it’s still the case – post-traumatic stress was experienced by more of the prison guards than by units that were in direct combat because of that constant strain of being face-to-face with an adversary. 

One of my goals was to change the culture inside the prison, both with the detainees and with the guards because the rules weren’t going to change. I mean, obviously, we still had to maintain discipline. But what I noticed was, over time, that behavior did change. I spent about 18 hours a day working on reform efforts and building programs. One of the greatest rewards came when I noticed that when detainees were being released, they began to thank the guards for their care rather than spit on them or throw food or other matter. It’s kind of gross that that was something that was a common practice in the past. And then I remember the transformation that occurred.

There’s one story of one detainee that really sticks out. He’d been captured while burning a school for girls in eastern Afghanistan while the girls and teachers were inside. This was a very common practice for the Taliban, who just didn’t believe in women’s education. The detainee himself was a teacher by trade, which made it even more alarming that he would do something like that. But he didn’t believe that women should be educated. After gaining his trust over time, I talked to him on an almost daily basis. I asked him if he had daughters and he shared that he had eight. So I asked him why he wouldn’t want them to have an opportunity to be able to contribute to a better Afghanistan, why he would want them to be subjected to another man’s wishes without education or even an ability to reach their own potential. He didn’t respond to me that day. But I knew that he was thinking about it.

He was actually released about two months later. We had a few more conversations that were cordial. But again, he never responded to that particular question. Three months after he was released, I was looking over the file of a newly captured prisoner that was from the same area that the man had been released to in Afghanistan. I asked the new detainee if he knew any of the detainees that had been released three months prior, and what came back was totally unexpected. He shared with me that they both had been members of the same tribe. They had been together and participated in the burning of that girl’s school when his friend had been captured. He next shared that after his release from prison shortly after, his friend founded a school for girls and all eight of his daughters were students at the school. It was really incredible to hear. Then he said when the Taliban leadership saw the girl’s school, they actually went and attempted to burn that school. But the former detainee that had been released defended the school and was willing to sacrifice his own life to prevent them from burning it down. He said to the Taliban tribe, “If you burn the school, you’re going to burn me with it.” The Taliban left on horseback and they didn’t touch the school. So I think it goes back to the premise of treating one another with dignity and respect. Even when you have to discipline somebody, or they have done wrong, it’s amazing what can be accomplished and what can be changed when the dialogue is open.

(Photo: With British, Italian, German, and French colleagues in France.)

What a story. Wow. And it transitions nicely into my next question: why are you excited about there being a Premise Women’s ERG?

I just love knowing that there’s an organization within Premise, not just for women because I love seeing all the guys on here. But it serves as a resource for personal growth, professional growth, mentorship, and collaboration on topics that aren’t necessarily connected to each of our roles. That’s going to make our company stronger. 

Within Premise, I’m so impressed by the amazing minds, experiences, and skills that everybody brings to the organization. And I think we can really benefit from each other and learn from one other. The other piece, I would say, is every person has a story. Multiple stories. I get so inspired when I hear other people’s stories. I think this forum is just one great way to be able to connect and share with people that we probably wouldn’t normally connect with on a daily basis. And I find that exciting.

Thankyou for getting in touch

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