Vice Adm. Norton Transforms Big Ideas to Innovation Gems
The outgoing DISA director reflects on leadership.
It is not necessary for a leader to be the most brilliant person in an organization but to foster innovation and ensure those with big ideas are given opportunities to succeed, according to Vice Adm. Nancy Norton, USN, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) director and the commander for the Joint Forces Headquarters-Department of Defense Information Network (JFHQ-DODIN).
“My job is to not be the smartest person in the room—or to ever think that I am the smartest person in the room—but to leverage the abilities of all of the people around me and to maximize their potential, to unleash the innovation in them, and then really to remove the barriers that would keep them from being able to deliver that innovation,” she says.
In 2017, President Donald Trump nominated then-Rear Adm. Norton to lead the agency commonly known as DISA and also endorsed her promotion to vice admiral. Her replacement, Maj. Gen. Robert Skinner, USAF, was confirmed by the Senate in October.
As the DISA director, Adm. Norton manages a global network and leads more than 8,000 military and civilian personnel who plan, develop, deliver and operate joint, interoperable command and control capabilities and defend an enterprise infrastructure in more than 42 countries, according to her official bio. Her office directly supports the president, secretary of defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, combatant commanders, Defense Department components and other mission partners across the spectrum of combat and combat support operations.
As the commander, JFHQ-DODIN, she also is charged with the direction and synchronization of defensive cyberspace activities, providing unity of command and unity of effort across the department. Additionally, she is responsible for organizing, training and equipping the military and civilian staff who secure, operate and defend the DODIN.
Adm. Norton claims no credit for being a creative thinker, but she emphasizes the importance of fostering the innovation in others. “I very much do consider myself a driver of innovation. I’m not the brilliant person to come up with the innovative ideas, but I’m always pushing for the right solutions.”
It’s not enough for a person to simply have a big idea. They also need a path for turning the idea into reality. “Coming up with innovative ideas is relatively easy, but figuring out how to actually do something with that idea is much, much harder. And then figuring out how to implement it and deliver it at scale is much more difficult,” she says.
She compares the transformation from big idea to real solution to the natural process of creating gems. “I like to think of myself as sometimes taking the carbon of those ideas and helping to turn it into diamonds. That sometimes requires heat and light and compression, and most senior leaders are pretty good at providing all of those. Pushing the requirements to support the warfighter and enable lethality really helps to provide that kind of pressure that can turn carbon into diamond.”
But leadership also requires recognizing when a big idea is not workable. “Sometimes that means recognizing that some of that carbon will never turn into a diamond, and we need to quickly recognize that and sweep it away while we focus on the things that are going to produce,” she says.
Adm. Norton cites the Cloud-Based Internet Isolation (CBII) system as one example of an innovative idea that she pushed hard for. The system uses a little technological sleight of hand to keep non-secure Internet browsing in the secure Amazon Web Services cloud rather than on the DODIN. “What comes back from the cloud is actually just a video-like representation of the webpage with no executable programs.
When users connect to any website, what they actually see is a replica of that website hosted in Amazon’s cloud. They still access the same content and interact in the same way, except that the defense network is isolated from those websites.
DISA developed the system using an “other transaction authority,” or OTA, contract vehicle, which allows for rapid prototyping and innovation. The system proved instrumental to a successful transition to teleworking when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “I pushed our workforce very hard to deliver on this Cloud-Based Internet Isolation. It started from a prototype OTA and has totally changed how the DOD browses the web,” she says.
Inspiring the DISA workforce is especially important given the agency’s mission. “I work to inspire our workforce for our mission and the warfighters that we support each day. Helping them to understand what their mission supports and what the warfighters actually need drives them to come up with these innovative ideas,” Adm. Norton states, adding that DISA personnel are both brilliant and talented. “The most important thing I can ever do is to lead them … and empower them to do their job effectively. And if they really understand the priorities of the warfighter and the nation and they’re empowered, then they will achieve great things.”
Adm. Norton made the comments during a one-on-one interview with SIGNAL Magazine that touched on a wide variety of topics, including the development of new cybersecurity tools enabled by artificial intelligence, the DOD 365 initiative and the next steps toward a Zero Trust weapons architecture. Other news and information from the interview will be published in the December issue.