The Curiosity to Explore, The Humility to Learn, The Boldness to Act
It’s hard not to like Hondo Geurts.
He supplies a new
tune to start every workday via LinkedIn. It’s a generous gesture. If
you follow him, you’re bound to discover some great new bands. Often,
what he picks sets a rocking tone for the day. What’s more, he
accompanies each song with a brief background on the music makers and a
quick homily on the leadership lessons of those artists’ journeys.
of his readers probably suspect that he has some staff help in keeping
the project going for more than a year now, but it would be just like
him to do it all himself.
You can’t miss Hondo when he
enters a room or appears on your Zoom screen (as he has on mine on
several occasions during the past year). He is a big man. He is wont to
refer to his 18-inch neck. I admit that I feel safer knowing he is on
our side and on the watch for the Navy.
Hondo is both a
student and a practitioner of innovation. His self-study of innovators
of yore led him to his belief in creating spaces for serendipitous
collisions among folks with expertise in widely varying fields. Both at
Special Operations Command and at the Navy, he has created specialized
environments designed to encourage these collisions. Crazy stuff—and
needed capabilities—have ensued.
Hondo is a man in a hurry.
He wants to outpace our adversaries with agility and speed. He doesn’t
care so much about getting a given capability first, but he is dead set
on adapting to it fastest. Pivot speed, he believes, will save us from
the fate of the dinosaurs. He isn’t much for pride of ownership, his or
yours: He’ll happily rip off and deploy your idea. It’s his version of
R&D. Even if you’ve honed and polished it to a fare-thee-well, he’ll
examine and happily toss it aside if he can’t use it.
if he does junk your plan, you’ll likely try even harder on the next
one. He’s just that inspiring. And you’ll pull in an even more diverse
team for even more outlandish collisions. When your team’s brainchild
clicks for him, hang on. He will be blocking for you and you’ll be
drawing on his energy all the way down the field.
The Curiosity to Explore, The Humility to Learn, The Boldness to Act
“Hondo” Geurts was tapped as temporary Navy undersecretary by President
Biden in February. He believes acquisition is a tool of war.
Geurts once again is proving himself a maverick. It is not common for a
Senate-confirmed political appointee from one presidential
administration to be tapped to serve in the next one.
Hondo Geurts—as just about everyone calls him—back in the middle of it
all again. He served as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary
of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition before President
Biden appointed him as temporary undersecretary of the Navy on February
4. Geurts is thus performing the duties of the Navy’s number two
civilian leader. One senses that he is far from unhappy about it: It is
in his nature to be in the fight. “I can’t tell if I look for trouble or
trouble follows me,” he told the America’s Future Defense Innovation
Summit in October.[i]
won the call sign “Hondo” in the Air Force, which he joined in 1987. He
served for 22 years that were marked by the shock and awe of U.S.
airpower during the Persian Gulf War. He retired as a colonel in 2009,
having managed intercontinental ballistic missiles, surveillance,
tactical fighter aircraft, advanced avionics, stealth cruise missiles,
training, and manned and unmanned special operations aircraft programs.
Geurts left the Air Force, he became a federal executive at Special
Operations Command (SOCOM), where in 2013 he was named acquisition
executive overseeing an $8 billion buying budget. Once again, he was at
the center of the action—after the 9/11 attacks, special forces deployed
more than any other U.S. forces.
Since December 2017, Geurts has
been a Navy man, running a much bigger yearly acquisition budget—more
than $100 billion—for a service at the red-hot core of tension between
the United States and China. “One reason I was very interested in
joining the Department of the Navy is that I think it will be one of the
many things that will be critical to our future ability to compete and
win at global scale. There’s a competitive fight going on right now for
influence and dominance on the seas,” he told the October summit. “The
Navy is a forward-deployed force with our Marine Corps counterparts.
They’re out there operating every day and if you just watch the news,
you can see they’re not out there operating without being confronted or
“Our overall mission continues to be put the best
equipment in their hands, support that equipment, and give them the best
tools to compete and win,” he said. “We talk sometimes of acquisition,
procurement, maintenance as combat support. It’s absolutely a tool of
war. We should think of our entire national security infrastructure that
Tools of War
Geurts has been thinking about
acquisition tools of war his whole career. Famously, he created SOFWERX.
In 2015, with $2 million, Geurts used a little-known section of
commerce and trade law to strike a partnership intermediary agreement
with a nonprofit to, in his words, “create a mosh pit where people are
bouncing in, people are bouncing out, some stay for a while, some go.”[ii]
It was the physical manifestation—in a former tattoo parlor and
telephone book factory in Tampa—of Geurts’ belief that “most of our big
jumps in innovation were when two people got together who had no other
natural reason to get together, but were in a place which was
comfortable for them to share ideas. And when you get people who don’t
naturally mix and force them to mix, we start seeing what I call return
on collisions.”[iii] It ultimately kicked off a series of military WERX organizations.[iv]
has carried his belief in the power of diversity and behavior change to
improve acquisition with him since SOFWERX. “Organizations are like big
pieces of plastic. You can apply management heat, and they'll bend
around,” he told Contract Management in a late 2020 interview.
“But as soon as that heat leaves, as soon as the person leaves … then
the organization magically snaps back to where it was. The only way to
get after that is changing at the molecular level, where we value
diversity, we value curiosity, we value learning, we value boldness. If
we can change at the molecular level, we’ll adapt whatever tool or
processes invented out there with much more speed.”[v]
molecular-level change produces a particular species of acquisition
professional, in Geurts’ view, one with strong and varied individual
skills and a team mindset. “I would say the ultimate contracting manager
is 70% contracting, 20% program management, and 10% finance. The
ultimate program manager is 70% program management, 20% contracting, and
10% finance.”[vi] No matter their roles, however, the members Geurts wants on his teams share a set of specific characteristics.
best team member in whatever role, whether it's contracting, program,
finance, whatever, has three traits. They've got the curiosity to
explore, the humility to learn, and the boldness to act,” he said. “So,
if we can get the culture and the behaviors right, where we value
curiosity and learning and bold action, and then free up the resources
that allow people to act with those attributes, then I think we’ve
fundamentally changed the game, much more so than any single process or
any piece of legislation or reducing something in the FAR will do. That is enduring and adaptable, whereas just a process change I don't think will have the same effect.”[vii]
refers himself as an organizational pulling guard. It’s in his LinkedIn
profile and closes the note he left his team in January, when he
thought his time as a Navy appointee was up. It is a football term and a
particularly self-aware description, especially coming from a guy who
claims to prefer solitary endurance sports like Ironman races and
marathons. In football, when an offensive guard pulls, he leaves his
position and drives behind the line of scrimmage toward the opposite
side of the field to surprise a defender and provide an extra blocker.
Sprinting ahead of the running back, he engages a defensive player to
create space for the back to gain yardage. “I really see myself as a
pulling guard. Big guy with a big neck, loves to make holes for teams to
run through and then watch them hit the end zone,” Geurts said.[viii]
clears running room for his team by empowering them down to the lowest
capable level and making sure they have time and space to use new tools
and exercise curiosity, humility and boldness. This entails getting rid
of “stupid.” “Part of what we're trying to do is get rid of
low-value-added work, or ‘stupid,’ but as we get rid of that, not having
it replaced with more stupid. My personal goal is to give everybody an
hour a day back a year. If I can do that by reducing bureaucracy, and
creating better processes, and getting the culture right, then I think
I'm doing an okay job here as a leader,” he said. “If we don't free up
enough resources so that people have time to be curious and time to
learn, then they're never going to get the new tools which with they can
act boldly and change the game.[ix]
issue is freeing up time with things that are low value-added so we can
get after some of those higher value-added things like other
transaction authority (OTA) deals.”[x]
In 2020, pandemic and all, the Navy increased its use of OTAs by 260
percent. Geurts credits freed-up time in part for that expansion.
Another OTA enabler was NavalX, the Navy version of SOFWERX that he
created in 2019.
“We’re kicking off an effort I’m calling NavalX,
Naval Expeditions,” Geurts told the U.S. Naval Institute-AFCEA West
2019 conference. “‘Expedition’ is an arduous task where you’ve got to
bring technology and courage and all your MacGyver skills, all that
together in one place.”[xi]
describes itself as a “super-connector” focused on scaling isolated
pockets of innovation across the service and beyond. It has stood up 15
Tech Bridges, collaboration spaces to enhance collaboration among the
Navy, Naval labs, industry, academia, state and local governments, and
DoD to speed up delivery of dual use technology and services to sailors.
To spread high-impact knowledge and skills across the Sea Service,
NavalX publishes playbooks: basic explanations of tools and methods.
- Implementing Agile Scrum,
- Standing Up an Analytics Cell,
- Cloud Migration,
- Navy International Programs Office (NIPO), and
- Private Sector Financing (PSF).
More topics are in the works.
Speed of Learning
views NavalX and its OTA and other playbooks as part of his campaign to
speed Naval learning. “You didn't have to learn everything from
scratch, you could find the best examples that we had—tons of different
examples to pull from,” Geurts said of the OTA guide. “If I want to
speed up learning, creating those resources where a contracting officer
can learn from everybody who's already gone the first 50 yards and start
on the 50-yard line means they don't have to start on the goal line.
And that way, we get transformation at scale. The real key to
transformation at scale is speed of learning.”[xii]
is especially proud of the speed and amount of learning that helped
Navy acquisition pivot to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19
pandemic. “If you look at what we were able to accomplish in FY20 in the
middle of COVID, we awarded 21% more contracts than the previous year,
$140 billion of contracts. We did it with about 11% fewer contracted
actions. We broke every record we had for small business participation.
Our learning rates were higher than they've ever been in terms of
He said those achievements came as the result of organizational
learning about the need to differentiate work and nurture the Navy’s
vast supply chain.
On differentiating work, Geurts said, “I don't
want to spend the same amount of contracting assets to award a $100,000
SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research contract) as a $100 million
modification to a weapon system or a $500 million IT services contract.
But our process, left to its own devices, will view all of those as the
same thing. And then we'll misallocate resources. We'll have too many
resources on the things that don’t have much risk and that will starve
the things that actually have a lot of risk. We've got a good
contracting program management team that can work together to illuminate
where we can balance the resources of the risk better and put the
assets where they can have the most impact.”[xiv]
the beginning of the pandemic, the Navy was able to put funding assets
where they had the most impact in its supply chain due to work Geurts
kicked off in 2017. “When I first got here, I was a little surprised
that we were not where we needed to be in understanding supply chain if
we had to go to war and mobilize,” said Geurts. “Luckily, our effort in
trying to solve that problem positioned us well to pivot hard when COVID
hit, because the tools we have put in place were tools that we could
use in the COVID environment.”[xv]
Not only did the Navy map its supply chain down to 900 spare and repair
part commercial suppliers, but it also surveyed them all—at 1,500
sites—about COVID’s impact and pushed out $600 million in early payments
to get cash in their tills.
Once again, Geurts looks to
acquisition teams, not individuals, to assimilate and act on the Navy’s
growing supply chain insight. “We're trying to efficiently generate the
knowledge of what's in the supply base, where the risks are, where’s the
fragility so that each team isn't individually trying to do that. The
contract manager’s role in that is as part of that team, understanding
the implications to strategy—whether it's an acquisition strategy, or a
contract strategy, or an incentive strategy—then, likewise understanding
all the other tools that are available to get after that problem.”[xvi]
“Like a T-Rex”
Geurts is above all a seaman’s, airman’s, special operator’s, and even
civilian employee’s leader. This is not just because of his many
Hondo-isms—for example, “rip off and deploy” for R&D, or “the only
person that likes change is a baby with a wet diaper,” or his many
references to Sgt. “Bagadonuts” out in the field. Geurts also is ready,
willing, even eager, to mix it up with the folks on the line. He is an
avid music buff. So much so that he often walks onstage to speak
accompanied by the Black Crowes or another driving beat. And every day,
he posts on LinkedIn an R&B, hard rock, or funk song with background
on the artist and the tune, along with a leadership lesson drawn from
the lyrics or what the players went through to make the track. He has
even been photographed wearing a rainbow mohawk wig for a Zoom
conference as an homage to Matt “Mohawk Denny,” bureaucracy hacker,
“voice of the workforce,” and podcaster at NavalX.
You never quite know what Geurts will say or do, and that’s the point. He models the agility he’s trying to instill in the team.
outside world is changing very fast, whether it's because of technology
opportunities, your competitor, or other external factors. Your only
real escape is a diverse team with lots of skills that that can adapt
quickly,” Geurts said. “So, if we get too functionally stove-piped, if
we get too process-centric, if we get too comfortable with the status
quo, the world will change faster than we are, and then we will be
extinct. It's just a matter of time. I used to say at SOCOM, ‘You're
like a T-Rex on top of the world . . . until you're irrelevant.’”[xvii]
Defense Innovation Summit, America’s Future Series, October 27, 2020,
[ii] Herman Leonard, Mitchell Weiss, Jin Hyun Paik, and Kerry Herman, "SOFWERX: Innovation at U.S. Special Operations Command," Harvard
Business School Case 819-004, July 2018 (Revised December 2018),
Subsequently, the Air Force created AFWERX, MGMWERX, STRIKEWERX, and
SPACEWERX; the Marine Corps created I-WERX (Installation WERX); the Army
Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center created
[v] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[vi] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[vii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[ix] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[x] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xi] Eckstein, Megan, “Navy Rolls Out NavalX Agility Office to Connect Innovators With Support, Tools,” USNI News, February 14, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2019/02/14/navy-rolls-navalx-agility-office-connect-innovators-support-tools.
[xii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xiii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xiv] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xv] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xvi] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021
[xvii] Interview with Contract Management Magazine, 2021