McMahon named Middle Georgian of the Year

wcrenshaw@macon.comDecember 30, 2012 

  • Retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon

    Born: July 25, 1956
    Family: Wife, Hope; daughter Erin Black, Hampton, Va.; son Bobby McMahon, Arlington, Va.
    Education: Bachelor of Science in international affairs, Air Force Academy, 1978; Master of Science in maintenance management, Air Force Institute of Technology, 1986
    Occupation: President and chief executive officer of the 21st Century Partnership
    Experience: Thirty-four years in the Air Force, former commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center
    Favorite book: “Good to Great” by Jim Collins
    Leaders he admires: Abraham Lincoln and Robert F. Kennedy
    Interests: NASCAR, golf

WARNER ROBINS -- As commander of the 78th Air Base Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Col. Mitchel Butikofer has lost sleep only twice.

Both times he knew that the next day he would have to deliver bad news to Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon.

“It wasn’t because I was scared of him,” Butikofer said. “It was because I didn’t want to disappoint him. He was that kind of leader where you just didn’t want to disappoint him because of his expectations and the way he treated you and the way he treated your people.”

McMahon became commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center on Nov. 19, 2010, when it was at a low point. The center faced 39 citations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and was finishing less than half of its aircraft on time.

When he retired 20 months later, the base had a near perfect on-time delivery rate, and every OSHA violation had been resolved.

He came to the base with high demands, but presented them in an engaging way that made people respond, according to those who worked for him. His openness and willingness to interact with the community made him instantly popular with local leaders.

For guiding the turnaround at the economic engine of the midstate, The Telegraph has named McMahon its first Middle Georgian of the Year.

A career that almost wasn’t

As a sophomore at the Air Force Academy, McMahon faced a decision that could have taken his career on an entirely different path from the one that landed him at Robins.

Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, he was drawn to the Air Force from the time he was a child. His father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, but mostly he was influenced by his uncle who worked on fighter planes in the Ohio Air National Guard. When McMahon was a child, his uncle took him to the base and he got his first close up look at a fighter jet.

From that day, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

“I just thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” he said. “From about the time I was 4 or 5, the only thing I wanted to do was be a fighter pilot and fly fast airplanes and do cool things that fast airplanes could do.”

He went to the academy with every intention to become a fighter pilot. However, he had a physical in his sophomore year, and doctors found an issue with his heart that meant he could not fly. He could have dropped out, but once he made the decision to enter his junior year he would be committed to the Air Force.

“I can remember sweating it out literally hours before the deadline hit on whether I was going to quit or not,” he said. “I think I finally decided that I reached a point that I didn’t know of anything else I wanted to do.”

He has never regretted it.

“If I had done something else, I would have never known how much I missed by not doing what I did,” he said. “I’m sure there would have been some level of satisfaction, but I can’t believe that I would have ever gotten the level of satisfaction of being part of a very special organization, of being able to contribute and give back to the country.”

Boots on the ground

In the year before he came here, McMahon held a job that in many ways was even more complex than managing a major logistics center, and it gave him extra passion for righting the ship at Robins.

From December 2009 to August 2010, he served in Kuwait as director of Central Command’s Deployment and Distribution Operations Center. He coordinated the flow of personnel and supplies into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It involved every form of transportation from military and commercial ships and planes to rickety jingle trucks puttering over dirt roads.

“The integration of all this was absolutely remarkable in trying to make all of this flow,” he said. “If you were to pick the most difficult place in the world to support a war from, if Afghanistan wasn’t the most difficult place, it would certainly be in your top three, and yet we did it.”

It all happened during a critical period when a drawdown was occurring in Iraq and a buildup in Afghanistan. He spent some time in Iraq and a lot of time on the ground in Afghanistan, including visiting the critical and dangerous border crossing with Pakistan that was a vital supply route.

He didn’t put an estimate on how many hours he worked a week, but he and his small staff basically did only four things.

“You worked, you ate, you slept and you exercised,” he said, adding that motivation was not a problem. “We knew what we did was vitally important.”

Through that job, he knew perhaps as well as any other person the reason why it was important for aircraft to be completed on time on the other side of the world at Robins Air Force Base. Planes that were sitting on the flight line here weren’t over there to deliver everything from ammunition to toilet paper to troops in the field.

And equally as troubling to McMahon was when war-weary troops were standing by expecting to board a plane to go home but told they couldn’t because no plane was available.

“The fact that I had just spent eight months in Southwest Asia leading this effort that was heavily reliant on airlift, and I was coming to the Air Force’s airlift center, I had a tremendous sense of how important our mission was,” he said.

Telling it like it is

Butikofer called McMahon “a nice guy and a gentleman.”

That doesn’t mean, however, he has any hesitation about telling people things they don’t want to hear.

In his first commander’s call with enlisted airmen at Robins, McMahon said of the three logistics centers in the Air Force, he considered Robins to rank third in performance.

He also called a meeting of top leaders around the base and asked them to put a grade on the center’s performance.

The first offer was an A.

“My answer was, ‘That’s bull,’” McMahon said.

Then someone said “F.” He thought that was more like it, at least when it came to the base’s most critical mission. After further discussion, and accounting for some things the base was doing well, they settled on a C.

Marian Fraley, who retired as deputy director of aerospace sustainment earlier this year, was at that meeting and remembers it vividly.

She said it was a turning point and forced base leaders to face reality.

“When you really do a self-assessment, there is an honesty to that and integrity to that,” she said. “We had to really look hard at ourselves, and we saw that we just weren’t hitting the goals.”

Another important McMahon initiative she said, was when he started holding a weekly “mission control” meeting done in an unusual format. Top leaders would gather in an empty room with charts surrounding the walls. Each chart represented different areas of the center and spelled out the latest figures on that area’s performance. At the top of each one was a photo of the person in charge.

They would discuss problems holding back performance and how they could work together to solve each other’s issues.

“It held people accountable,” Fraley said. “It was a great opportunity to see how we touched each other in some way. That’s how we turned it around.”

Aside from his wife, Hope, there is probably no one locally who knows McMahon better than retired Maj. Gen. Ron Smith. Smith came to know McMahon when Smith was commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center and McMahon was stationed at the Pentagon.

The two became friends and have been so for more than 15 years. Smith said McMahon’s public persona is not an act.

“What you see is what you get,” he said. “If you see him off duty, he’s the same all the time. That’s what makes him a great leader and great friend. He’s a fun guy, and he loves to have a good time.”

One of McMahon’s passions away from work is NASCAR, although for much of his life he never paid it much attention. As he rose through the ranks, however, he started attending races due to Air Force’s involvement with the sport as a recruiting tool.

He was impressed with the fans’ patriotism and support of the military and quickly became enthralled with it.

Prior to a race he would often conduct swearing-in ceremonies for new recruits. It was not typically done in front of the stands, where there was already an audience, yet hundreds of people would show up to watch it.

“I don’t think there’s any other sport that supports the military like NASCAR,” he said.

Still contributing

McMahon guided the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center through an Air Force Materiel Command reorganization, and was its last commander. Shortly after he retired in June, the center was dissolved and the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex created.

The week after his retirement, McMahon accepted a job as leader of the 21st Century Partnership, a community organization that works to support the base and defend it in the event of a Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Six months ago he commanded 16,000 people. Today he commands exactly one, an executive assistant.

At the base, his large, posh office was a beehive of activity. The partnership office is hidden away in an office park in Warner Robins, and McMahon is there alone much of the time.

He spends a lot of his day on the phone raising funds, trying to build up a war chest to prepare for the BRAC likely to come in the next three to five years. At least two or three times a week, he attends various community events to communicate the importance of the base and the challenges ahead to protect it.

He believes many people don’t know how much the work done at Robins means to military operations or how important it is to the local economy.

One day in December, he drove his new Ford F-150 crew cab, a retirement gift from his wife, to Perry, where he spoke at the annual State of the Community Luncheon. Later that day, he was in Macon to talk to the Middle Georgia Clean Air Coalition about how important air quality is to bringing new missions to the base and defending it during a BRAC.

He has relearned forgotten skills like keeping his own appointment calendar. But the transition, he said, hasn’t been that difficult.

“It’s in a way doing what I’ve always done, which is supporting our nation, in the sense that we exist to enhance the military value of Robins Air Force Base,” he said. “So our efforts go to contributing to national defense, which is what I’ve done my entire life. What’s necessary to make that happen is a little bit different.”

McMahon on leadership

Asked about his philosophy of leadership, McMahon walks to the dry erase board in his office and draws a triangle.

In the traditional model of the leadership, he explains, the leader is at the top of the triangle and the rest of the organization makes up the lower part.

He, however, adheres to the servant leadership model. He draws an upside-down triangle to represent that. It puts the leader at the bottom and everyone else on top.

Which is why he didn’t come to Robins thinking he needed to whip people into shape.

“It’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “My job is to serve them, to remove the impediments that keep them from reaching the goal.”

Leaders who fail, he said, tend to think it’s all about them.

“They don’t create a clear vision of where they want to go,” he said. “They don’t say this is the hill we want to go take, and they don’t understand they are there to serve others.”

The way Butikofer and others told it, that philosophy isn’t just words to McMahon.

“He could connect to the lowest employee all the way up to a general officer,” Butikofer said. “He took time and went out and spent time on the flight line, spent time with my firemen, spent time with the (civil engineering) crew. He took the time to let people know he cared. They knew he cared about them and in return people responded. That’s what happened out there.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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