When James Thompson began his career in the federal government as an air conditioning student trainee, he never thought he would be running the whole show as the top civilian at Public Works Department South Potomac, Indian Head. And definitely not after just 10 years into his career. While his story of early-life hardship may be all too common, Thompson’s perseverance is not. Today, he is recognized as a model leader and is putting in the work to help his teammates below him at Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Washington climb up the career ladder too.
Thompson serves NAVFAC Washington as the deputy public works officer for Naval Support Activity South Potomac, Indian Head. He attacks each day, waking at three o’clock in the morning to meditate and pray, work out, and do some reading and journaling. His routine is strict, and he models it for his four children to impart his “work now, play later” philosophy.
“I try to instill not just a work ethic, but uplift and empower my children as well,” said Thompson. “I do affirmations with them like, ‘Who can stop you? Only you.’ They see me meditate and I try and lead by example. The same way I carry myself at work.”
Thompson is just 33 years-old and was born and raised in Prince George’s County Maryland right outside of the District of Columbia. He experienced a difficult childhood he now credits for both his ambition and sense of humility.
“You can call it a beautiful blessing now, but it was a rough upbringing,” he said. “Homeless shelters. No place to stay. Kind of bouncing around,” he said. “My wife helped show me something different.”
He met his wife, Denise, in 2008. She’s very extroverted. He’s not. At least not in his private life. Opposites attract.
She was a student at Marymount University, building the foundation for her future. He was bouncing around from one dead end job to another.
She graduated and had a plan. He did not. But he knew he had to get one, and fast, if he wanted to stay with her.
“Basically, I was at the crossroads of life in 2011,” he said. “No situation of stable living, working for minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant as a means of getting to tomorrow.”
His rough upbringing left him feeling that he was only destined for dark days. Things changed when he was introduced to the HVAC trade by a mentor who saw something special in him.
Building From the Ground Up
Thompson took the initiative and enrolled in trade school for HVAC at the College of Southern Maryland. During his introductory course, NAVFAC recruiters came to the college to interview students for a possible apprenticeship with the command.
“I had no high expectations, but Denise strongly encouraged me to at least think positively and give it a try,” said Thompson. “I know I don’t look like the ideal person who would come work for the government, but I poured my heart out. I basically expressed if they give me an opportunity, I’ll give them a return on their investment.”
Soon after, he received a call and was offered a job with NAVFAC Washington at NSASP, Dahlgren as an air conditioning student trainee.
The apprenticeship was a four-year program consisting of classroom courses and on-the-job training with mentors working in the production division at Dahlgren. Proving to be an exceptional student, the college soon made him an instructor. At one point, he was taking HVAC courses two nights a week as a student while teaching introductory classes on two different nights.
“The biggest ticket was the opportunity to teach,” he said. “To be in the position to give back when before I didn’t even see myself being alive by that point in my life. Having that opportunity alone was a great blessing.”
This young man from a humble background was inducted into the National Technical Honor Society, obtained his master HVAC license, and after graduating from the apprenticeship program, was promoted to wage grade air conditioning (AC) mechanic in October 2015. Less than six months later, he was promoted again to AC work leader and was serving directly under the supervisor of the HVAC shop at Dahlgren.
Climbing the NAVFAC Ladder
Thompson was just getting started. He continued to take a variety of training courses both on and off the job and pursued mentorship for his personal and career development. He also attended several NAVFAC process-driven training sessions and leadership courses.
“The best training was the newly developed leadership program,” Thompson said. “It was tremendously helpful in my transition to a leadership role within NAVFAC. The Myers-Briggs assessment, book reports, group projects, 360-self-assessment, discussion about conflict resolution and more were amazing.”
Yet he wasn’t just acquiring all the knowledge he could consume, but building the foundation for his future. “After listening to (NAVFAC Chief Engineer) Mr. David Curfman's speech describing his own career path, I set a career goal for myself to achieve a [Senior Executive Service] position with NAVFAC.”
He took his next step toward that goal in 2017, when he was promoted to HVAC supervisor.
Established in a leadership role, Thompson managed the largest work center within the production division. He would remain in the position for three years, except for a three-month rotation in 2019, in which he took on a temporary duty assignment to serve as facility branch head. His success as a supervisor and the experience gained as acting facility branch head paved the way for his promotion to production division director at Public Works Department South Potomac, Indian Head, in 2020.
One year later, Thompson interviewed for the deputy public works officer job and beat out a competitive field to become the top civilian in his public works department.
Still Under Construction
“I like the ‘Amazon review,’” said Thompson. “So, I would always bother my superiors and ask what was going on in terms of my performance.”
Bill Windus served in uniform as the public works officer at NSASP when Thompson was still taking his first steps at NAVFAC Washington.
“James was incredibly sharp, professional, and was recognized for his leadership potential,” said Windus. “Every time we gave him more responsibility, he met and exceeded the challenge.”
While Thompson wakes up every day at three o’clock in the morning, he is also prone to send out work emails at 11 o’clock at night. Work-life balance was a recurring theme of the Amazon-style reviews he received from supervisors, mentors, and peers.
“They let me know, ‘Hey, James, you have to be balanced,’” Thompson said. “They all know I’m trying to be successful but finding that balance is real success.” Thompson could not help but laugh. “I’m still working on it.”
Thompson and Windus, now a civilian and the deputy public works officer at Dahlgren, work together as peers.
“I think we complement each other very well, me with my active-duty background and James with his background coming up through the shops in production division,” Windus said. “He is a fantastic leader for Indian Head, and the quintessential example for our production division workforce of how you can move up in the public works department organization through hard work and perseverance.”
Thompson is focused on change, both for his team at Indian Head and for the NAVFAC Washington mission at NSASP. After all, he has experience.
“For me, there was no amount of money you could pay me that would equal the satisfaction I get from one person saying I helped them, or if we fix up a facility, or make an impact in some other way to support the mission.” Thompson said. “It’s a feeling of joy. Like achieving nirvana, in a way.”
To facilitate change, Thompson uses multiple strategies. He hosts team lunches for wage grade employees and subordinates, both to field questions and to share his story. He fosters relationships, from the first in-brief with new staff members to out-briefs with those leaving the program. Not that there are many. He wants the Amazon review – good, bad, and ugly – and wants to know “what did we do well, what could we do better, and what would make them come back.” He also spends a lot of his early morning personal time reading reports from the field.
“I ask a lot of questions when I talk to the team,” Thompson said. “I don’t try to micromanage them but show that I’ve been actively reading their reports and try to help them come up with innovative ways to get around their challenges.”
An open-door policy type of leader, he goes on walkabouts on base and looks for opportunities to talk to his team in their work environments. It helps that most of them already know him well.
How does a leader make a lasting impact on their workplace? For Thompson, it all starts with making the lives of his people better.
“James makes Indian Head feel like a home,” said Samuel Che, laborer at Indian Head, who worked with Thompson when he was the production division director and still serves with him today.
“He set standards and told everyone what he expected from them and stuck to it,” said James Day, performance assessment representative, who worked directly under Thompson when he was the AC work leader at PWD South Potomac, Dahlgren. “He turned the shop around while he was in that office, and from what I see, he’s making a difference at Indian Head as well.”
“It has honestly been a pleasure watching James grow from an apprentice to where he is now,” said Crystal Saunders, supervisory management analyst at Dahlgren, who has known Thompson from his first days at NAVFAC Washington and watched him grow on the job. “The employees look up to him, young and old.”
Thompson is not afraid to share both his story and blueprint for success with those who will listen. He seamlessly comes across as positive and focused, but most importantly, he is genuinely someone who has been there and done that and now serves as a model and motivator.
“James is younger than me and I know his story how he came up in life,” said Day. “I looked up to him because he is a great motivator. When you’re down, he knows how to bring you back up. He encouraged me to succeed, and he still does to this day. He is always checking in on me or asking if I need guidance on anything. If I had to select a team, he would be the first teammate I choose. If I need something, he always answers the call.”
These days, Thompson is focused on the here-and-now, working to grow in his role as DPWO at Indian Head. Recently, he spearheaded a vocational career fair at his alma mater, connecting a new crop of young jobseekers with opportunities to serve at NAVFAC Washington. He also happily continues to serve as a mentor and motivational speaker, on and off the job. Long-term, he aims to continue climbing the NAVFAC ladder through service to others.
“My ‘why’ is: before I depart from this Earth, not focusing on what I can receive, but instead what I can give,” said Thompson. “I feel like anyone can be a boss or a supervisor and bark orders, but not everyone can be a leader and inspire change. It takes sacrifice, discipline, planning and self-accountability, but no matter your background or external obstacles, anything is possible.”
A tentpole of NAVFAC’s strategic plan is to grow as a learning organization and develop the workforce for the challenges of the future. Thompson’s efforts to capitalize on opportunities provided by NAVFAC Washington have not gone unnoticed, and he is recognized as a leader and a model for the entire NAVFAC workforce.
Finally, Thompson said, “NAVFAC saved and changed my life.”