Creating Strong Partnerships

By: Laura Keenan
Creating Strong Partnerships

The Army of today operates in a joint environment alongside civilians, contractors, and interagency staff. It is not a question of “if” you will work with Army civilians, service members from sister services, contractors, or interagency staff in your career, but “when.” 

Check your ego

Over 330,000 Army civilians in the Department of Defense serve in various roles from logistics to cybersecurity to medicine.[1] As you stand in line at Central Issuing Facility, in-process the Finance Office on base, or reserve your next firing range, acknowledge the impact army civilians have on your mission. Military civilians are the human capital continuum among the ever-changing military personnel rotations and offer an in-depth historical perspective on how to staff and execute missions. It is not uncommon for civilians in a command to work with generations of military leaders and to have robust relationships with military leaders on and off an installation. Although Army civilians can relocate from installations, it is not uncommon for civilians to serve their whole career at one installation, earning them an essential perspective of watching lessons learned from units attempting improvement year over year.

Army civilians often know the written and unwritten cultural norms and bureaucratic processes that slow down a leader or a unit. Regardless of your rank, humility and acknowledgment of the expertise from years of civilian service is important. Avoid the “overconfidence effect,” Non-uniformed experts have much to add to your knowledge.[2]  Seek out Army civilians not only for their wisdom but also for their mentorship. The sooner you develop strong connections with civilian experts, the faster you can be effective in managing your own career and helping lead Soldiers in your command.

Purple is the new green

The other day I thought I saluted an Army officer, but closer inspection revealed he was an Air Force Officer. The Air Force, Army, and the Navy now share similar operational camouflage pattern uniforms, and this is just one simple example of how services are integrating. As bases create efficiencies and missions overlap across the military, sister services will work more closely together in a “purple environment” or joint environment. When working with sister services, the language, culture, and customs might be similar but can be incredibly nuanced.  Each service is familiar with its own ranks, acronyms, and tactics, which do vary from the Army’s.  The “curse of knowledge bias” occurs when an individual unknowingly assumes that others have the background to understand.[3] It is important to proactively communicate and ask clarifying questions about their capabilities, mission sets, and administrative processes to avoid assumptions and friction.

A joint environment is also an opportunity to network and learn from servicemembers whose careers might parallel your own, but who have a unique perspective outside the Army. Each of the services offer assignments, education, and training that might enable you to think creatively about how to work with servicemembers in your command and incentivize them in their own careers.

 Each service in its own way has a distinct personality born from their history. As Army officers are well versed in our military history, comrades in other services are also ambassadors who can teach us about the value of land, sea, and air power from a historical perspective of their service. Take advantage of working with servicemembers whose training is different from those you previously worked alongside.

Partnering with partners

If you are deployed, the person providing your food on the Forward Operating Base might be a government contractor, the staff hosting a USO event might be courtesy of a non profit or public-private partnership, and country briefings might be developed in support from an interagency partner like the State Department or USAID. During my deployment as a junior military office, I interacted with government contractors, representatives from non-profits and public-private partnerships, and interagency civilians without ever consciously reflecting on how I could engage them most effectively.

Outsiders see your unit and organization with a fresh perspective and often work with multiple units simultaneously. Avoid “status quo bias” and embrace change. Ask their thoughts on what they see working in and out of your unit and if they have suggestions on how your unit might mirror best practices from high performing units they have encountered in their careers.[4] Figure out their competitive advantage as each of these partners offers an expertise that is not necessarily available in your unit. Try to understand what is driving the behavior of the contractors, representatives from public private partnerships, and interagency relationships. Are they on deadlines? Are they resource constrained? What are their cultural norms? How are they measured? Understanding what drives them will help you partner faster, more efficiently, and help remove roadblocks in working together. As the military continues to embrace missions without expanding capacity, the need for more dependency on outsourcing and partnering with continue.

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Laura Keenan is a Lieutenant Colonel in the District of Columbia Army National Guard. She is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and is currently studying national security strategy at the National War College.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the Army National Guard and the National War College.


U.S. National Guard photo by A.J. Coyne


[1] “Army Civilian Careers,”, accessed February 16, 2021, careers.html#:~:text=With%20more%20than%20330%2C000%20civilian,preservation%20of%20the%20United%20States.

[2] “The Overconfidence Effect,” Psychology Today (Sussex Publishers, June 11, 2013),

[3] “The Curse of Knowledge,” Harvard Business Review, August 1, 2014,

[4] “Status Quo Bias – Biases & Heuristics,” The Decision Lab, January 22, 2021,