Lessons Learned from the Nation’s Front Office
This is DODReads second article from Cadet Jeffery Reffert. Jeff is a prolific writer and able to observe the leaders around him, formulate those observations into his own leadership philosophy and then clearly convey those concepts to others.
My favorite part of this interview was his inclusive leadership story where his supervisor cleared a seat at the table giving Jeff and his interns a chance to contribute.
Hope you get massive value from Jeff’s Experience.
“Our country is very divided, and a significant portion of the American citizenry is worried about the future of our great country. However, I hope my story will give people hope, as there are so many amazing up-and-coming people that crush the millennial stigma we hear so much about. These include the amazing people I call my West Point classmates, as well as my colleagues at the White House. America has so much to be proud of, but most of her people don’t even realize it because the 1,700 people that work at the White House and my nearly 1,200 classmates at West Point are truly crown jewels yet to be discovered.
Cadet Jeffrey A. Reffert was born in Kovrov, Russia, on August 15th, 1996. He was later adopted by Gary and Janice Reffert in 1997, and was raised in Ohio. In January 2014, as a junior in High School, he enlisted in the United States Army Reserves. He attended U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, SC the following summer between his junior and senior years and served as a Private to Private First Class in the 2d Psychological Operations Group. Cadet Reffert was appointed to attend West Point by President Barack H. Obama, and will graduate with the Class of 2020.
In March of 2019, Cadet Reffert worked as an intern at the White House Historical Association in Washington D.C., where he helped the White House conduct and publish historical research. In the Summer of 2019, Cadet Reffert served as an intern in the Executive Office of the President where he was tasked with assisting in overseeing the general administration of the entire Executive Office in the Office of Administration. The Office of Administration provides administrative services to all entities of the Executive Office of the President, including direct support services to the President of the United States.
First give use a bit of a background on how you got this internship? and what your responsibilities were.
“Networking, networking, networking. It is such an underappreciated and under-taught skill within government service and the public sector, as well as in the commercial sector as I am coming to discover. A life-heroine of mine, General Ann Dunwoody once said, “…Sometimes people will open the door for you, sometimes you will have to open the door [to opportunities], and other times—you’ll have to kick down the door.” The experience of making this internship come to be had a little of each piece of that. I opened the door myself through making connections over the years through LinkedIn. One of my connections on LinkedIn worked at the White House and noticed I had worked at United States Central Command over the summer of 2018 for General Votel and Major General Ed Dorman. He had been following my posts and I followed his for a year or so and in a conversation. In November 2018, he asked if I would ever consider doing an internship at the White House. At the time I said that I had not, but it peaked my interest. He provided me with a list of half a dozen or so people to reach out to ask about the opportunity to do so. So, I did. I found most of them on LinkedIn and reached out. I wrote them each a note that basically said: “Hello, this is who I am, I attend West Point, I saw you worked at the White House and I am looking to do an internship there and thought maybe you could be of help, or at least point me in the right direction?” Many responded but were unsuccessful in being able to accommodate, and I then continued to try it with more people on the list. I got down to the end of the list and the last individual said, “I bet we can help you out, give me a call!” Seven months later, I was walking into the White House gates for the internship.”
“While I cannot get into too much detail of what I did at the White House, I can give a broad explanation. I had the privilege of serving in the Executive Office of the President’s Office of Administration (EOP/OA). The Office of Administration’s mission is to provide administrative services to all entities of the Executive Office of the President, including direct support services to the President of the United States. The services include financial management and information technology support, human resources management, library and research assistance, facilities management, procurement, printing and graphics support, security, and the Office of White House mail and messenger operations. The Director of the OA oversees the submission of the annual budget Request and represents the organization before congressional funding panels.”
While working in the White House you worked with people who were at the top of their professional game. What were some traits and habits that you noticed working in this environment?
“When I first arrived at the White House, I made it abundantly clear that I was there to serve the office, not the man himself to maintain a completely a-political stance while working there. Being a-political was extremely important to me as even though I was wearing a suit every day to work, I was still a soldier at heart and army officer-to-be. I came to discover quickly, that was the genuine sentiment of everyone working there up and down the chain of command. It was also clear that this positive and service-driven sentiment had to of started at the top with the President himself and trickled down through the leadership over time. This idea of serving the office, which indeed was so much bigger than any one person, was something I noticed in people that are closest to the President, those on permanent staff who had been there for twenty-plus years, all the way down to even the newest of interns.
Another trait that I noticed in every single person I met was respect. Everyone and their opinion were respected and noted. In fact, dissent was not only welcomed—but also was encouraged in many cases. The open environment of respect led to better decisions being made in my tenure there because everyone felt comfortable to voice their opinions and ideas.
In the army doctrine, we have what is called Mission Command. This concept was born from the need to evolve out of command and control doctrine to meet the demands of a complex and demanding battlefield by pushing authority (not responsibility!) down to the lowest level. Within the doctrine, there is the key component of disciplined initiative. Disciplined initiative is basically allowing subordinates to make decisions knowing they have the trust and confidence of their superior and have no need to come to them for approval of every decision the subordinate makes. In the Executive Office of the President, even as an intern, I was able to make decisions and take prudent risks when making recommendations to my superior’s knowing I had their trust which was garnered through the respect I mentioned previously. Being allowed to take disciplined initiative was an extremely powerful leadership characteristic I saw throughout the leadership there. They let me set the left and right limits on certain projects and trusted my judgment in setting said limits, and took my recommendations seriously. The act of allowing and thus practicing disciplined initiative was a win-win for all parties. Trust was continuously nurtured and grown, I was excited to be involved because I knew I was treated as an invaluable member of the team, which then led to me wanting to show up to work early and work ten times harder each day. It was hugely powerful and something I hope to be able to replicate when I eventually take my first command after graduating in May.”
What would you recommend to someone wanting to be selected for a White House Internship?
“This is actually an easy question for me, as my brother is now in the process of setting up an internship within a different office in the Executive Office of the President. He has a very similar story as I do, as he too was adopted from Russia as a baby and raised the same way I was, though he opted to serve in healthcare and not in the military. When he expressed interest in serving there as well, I was able to open the door for him through a great colleague of mine at the White House. When the door was opened, he asked a similar question, and my response to him was that I recommended taking serious time to reflect on what national service means to him and what an honor and privilege it is to be asked to serve in such an incredible place like the White House (particularly as immigrants) and the trust from our adopted country that comes with that. However, this goes for anyone as well. Take the time to stop and reflect every day when you are walking into those gates to go to work, while you are working, and then reflect again when you get done with work.”
What about your internship was a complete surprise?
“I was stunned, and still am quite frankly, at the quality of citizen each person was that I worked with at the White House. I must admit, I used to subconsciously look down on my peers who chose not to serve in the military while we are in a time of national conflict. In my family, when your country is in conflict, you serve. That is how it has been for many generations and that’s how I believed it ought to have been. However, what blew my mind wide open, were the people I worked with there. 99% of them had never spent a day in a military uniform, yet they were some of the most absolutely incredible Americans I have ever met, bar none. Every day, my fellow interns and I had talked at lunch about the feeling that we had knowing we were a part of something so much greater than ourselves, and the awe-inspiring aura that surrounded us every day we worked at the White House. Take for example Graziana Mangione, a fellow intern of mine there who also recently finished up her internship. She is the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, and we often talked at lunch outside the West Wing about what it meant to us that we live in a country where a baby born in Russia could end up one day working at the White House, and what her grandparents would say about their granddaughter doing the same. It was really breathtaking. Those I worked with particularly closely, including John Chapman, Colton Haffey, Ali Witt, and Bianca Bouzas all relished in what an incredible honor it was to be there each day, and what an amazing privilege it was to serve the Office of the Presidency. These folks taught me that the military is one of many way to serve, and that it was national service that I have been so driven toward, not specifically military service as I had thought for so many years. I got as much fulfillment out of working there as I have been getting while being in uniform for the last six years.”
The most important question someone could ask, is “Who was your inspiration? Who keeps you going?”
“The answer to that is simple. West Point didn’t make me a leader. I showed up to West Point and West Point gave me the chance to test and make minor changes to my leadership style, as well as practice flexibility in using different styles of leadership. For that, you can thank my family. My brother Cody, my mom Janice, and my dad Gary. These amazing people gave me the most amazing upbringing any kid ever had, and much of what I know about leadership came from that. For this, I love them and am eternally grateful.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Nathalie Camacho. Nathalie is actually an incredible midshipman I am beyond blessed to have in my life from the US Naval Academy’s Class of 2020. While we go to rival schools, she has kept me going on so many hard days and nights in the last year that I have had her, and she is arguably responsible for my survival at West Point in the last year. Nathalie seems to have a sixth sense for knowing what I need at any given time. She knows when I need a “Suck it up, soldier,” or most importantly when I need someone to remind me I am not alone and am loved. She has outright refused to give up on me, even when I have nearly given up on myself. For this and so much more, she is loved by my family and I beyond words. Arguably, there is no one in the world that knows me better. The more time goes on, the more I realize that my success has so much more to do with other people, particularly my family and Nathalie.”
What it was like to take a four week “pause” from the military.
It was wonderful! It gave me the chance to really stop and reflect and evaluate where I was in my professional development and allowed me to take time to conduct some serious self-reflection revolving about who I am as a person. Am I a soldier? Of course! But I realized during this time that there is much more to who Jeff Reffert is than just that. He is a soldier, yes, but he is also a conversationalist, a diplomat, an emotional-thinker, a consummate learner in all aspects of national strategy, and a servant-leader to his adopted country. I also took time to self-discover some insecurities about myself.
For example, I realized that due to the nature of my birth in Russia I live with an innate fear of being considered un-American, or not really an American. Somehow over the years I have managed to channel the emotion and energy surrounding that insecurity, while realizing it is truly irrational, for the greater good. That insecurity is arguably what has driven me to survive West Point, and what makes me constantly seek these opportunities to serve as a way to somehow prove my worthiness as a citizen. Again, while I know it is irrational, I cannot help the fact that it still exists, even after all I have done in and out of uniform. How I managed to channel that is still a mystery, though hopefully I can think on it further to help others channel their own insecurities for the better good as well. Fingers crossed on that one for now!
What were some things you did to become mentally prepared for this internship?
” I took time to think and write about what this opportunity meant to me and why it meant so much to me and now I sit and talk with you and reflect why it still does mean so much even weeks later. Agreeing to do interviews such as this one is a great way to dedicate time to think out my feelings about it, and for that I am grateful. I also took the time to appreciate the history of the White House, watching documentaries on the different presidents and the house itself.”
Were there any books you read, or would recommend reading prior to an internship?
“I read The White House: An Historic Guide published by the White House Historical Association at least twice, if not three times. This wonderful book tells the history of every room of the White House and as I walked through the house itself, I remembered a lot of the history and it really was almost overwhelming when I was able to better grasp its history. I would highly recommend that or anything on the extensive history of the White House, as it gives one the ability to appreciate his or her surroundings every day more.”
How did this internship change, or focus, your leadership philosophy?
“Another leadership aspect I saw throughout the Executive Office of the President was inclusive leadership. I first heard about inclusive leadership from General Marty Dempsey, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when I spent time with him up at West Point in the spring of my sophomore year. He talked about the power of the idea in his recent book, Radical Inclusion. This idea he lays out is that if you give everyone a seat at the table, and invite everyone at that table to contribute, people begin to feel like they belong, and the sense of belonging makes people eager to buy into the organization and work ten times harder.
One moment I will never forget, is when one of my supervisors literally cleared space to give us interns room at a conference table during a meeting and said to us, “I do not want you guys sitting in the back, I want you to always have a seat at the table and to contribute. You are valuable to us!” I don’t think he realized it, but that was immensely powerful to me and it is a moment I will never forget. Even after speaking with General Dempsey about inclusive leadership, reading his book, and talking about it many times since, this was the first time I was on the receiving end of that leadership principle. That moment will forever stick with me as one of the most important leadership lessons I learned from my time at the White House and arguably in my entire professional career, it was truly that powerful to me.”
What books have you enjoyed, and have had the most impact on your personal and professional development?
The books that immediately come to mind are Radical Inclusion by General Marty Dempsey (as previously mentioned), as well as American Generalship by Edgar Puryear and The Art of War by Sun Tzu. I am currently working on Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy which thus far I have
Can you tell me about a failure or mistake, and how you learned through that failure and became better individual?
“Again, I am not at liberty to discuss the intimate details of this internship. However, I will say there were very few mistakes because of the cohesive team we had built between the handful of us interns. We were constantly looking out for one another and helping each other. We had each other’s back and that really paid dividends.”
You have a great career ahead of you. What is next?
“Right now, my next 50-meter target as we call it in the army is branch night where I will pick the branch or specialty I will commission into when I graduate from West Point in May. My hope is either Armored Cavalry or Field Artillery. I have loved my time with each of those branches. I selected them based off of my passion for their mission, and my positive interactions with the soldiers, NCO’s, and officers within those branches over the summer training’s I have had in recent years, and where I think I can best take care of soldiers. I find myself leaning more on my NCO mentors more and more as graduation approaches which from what I’ve been told is a good idea. People often ask where I would like to get stationed, and in all honesty, I have no idea yet. That is one of those questions that when asked I immediately respond with “honestly, I don’t know…I didn’t really expect to make it this far!” My 100-meter target is to complete an internship in the U.S Department of State in March over my spring leave. There is nothing in this world more incredible than representing our amazing country in a diplomatic character on the international stage and am grateful to have had the opportunity to do so many times at West Point. My 150-meter target is graduation from West Point in May of 2020”
Cadet Jeffrey A. Reffert was born in Kovrov, Russia, on August 15 th , 1996. He was adopted by Gary and Janice Reffert in January 1997, and was raised in North Ridgeville, OH. Growing up in North Ridgeville, Cadet Reffert developed a deep sense of gratitude for all the blessings his adopted country that had provided him a life, a family, and a home. In January 2014, as a junior at North Ridgeville High School, Cadet Reffert enlisted in the United States Army Reserves. He attended U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, SC the following summer between his junior
and senior years and served as a Private to Private First Class in the 2d Psychological Operations Group. During his senior year of high school, Cadet Reffert was nominated by the 21st Secretary of the United States Army, John M. McHugh to attend the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School’s Class of 2016 at West Point. Upon completion of a year at the
Preparatory School, Cadet Reffert was appointed to attend West Point by the 44 th President of the United States, Barack H. Obama, and will graduate with the Class of 2020. Currently, Cadet Reffert is a Defense and Strategic Studies major with a focus in Grand Strategy and Generalship and is entering his last year at West Point. He belongs to the West Point Fishing Club, which many prominent former graduates such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General Norman H. Schwarzkopf had once belonged. Cadet Reffert also is a member of the International Affairs Forum, as well as the Domestic Affairs Forum. He belongs to the Cadet Ambassador Program and gives many tours of West Point to multitudes of people, including American and foreign VIPs such as presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers, generals, congressmen, and many foreign heads of state. Cadet Reffert is the recipient of many foreign honors including the Order of Bernardo de Galvez from the Kingdom of Spain, and the Order of Prince Danilo I from the Kingdom of Montenegro. West Point also has afforded Cadet Reffert many unique opportunities to serve.