Leveraging Experience Yields Future Success
Michael Congero doesn’t let grass grow under his feet. He spent 15 years in the United States Air Force as an aircraft electrician, signing up for service one month before 9/11. “I needed a way to get on my feet. I was 19 years old, and the Air Force was the best fit for me,” he said. His service took him to New Mexico, Korea, England, and South Korea. He separated from the Air Force as a Staff Sergeant (E-5).
The Air Force trained Congero as an aircraft technician, and he worked on seven different types of airframes, picking up skills in wires, power, oxygen and pressurization systems. During that time, he also completed his bachelor’s degree in business at American International University, and frequently leveraged his background in management and maintenance as he worked toward certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP). “So much associated with aircraft maintenance is the very definition of project management,” he said. “For example, leading a team that’s tasked with rebuilding a jet engine in three weeks takes those kinds of skills.”
Congero’ s last maintenance role in the Air Force was in management as the lead aircraft electrician in an overseas fighter unit, with 6-8 direct reports and up to 240 indirect reports. While managing others, he discovered that he had a knack for getting underperformers to shine. “There was one guy who worked for me who had a bad reputation for never getting his work done or not getting it done right. I took him aside and talked to him: I told him exactly what I expected from him and asked what he expected of me. I want to know what makes people tick and what motivates them. For this guy, it was sports. I think most of the time people are just looking for clarity in what is expected of them, and to be treated with respect. They also want someone to level with them and work with them, not just direct them,” Congero said.
He continued, “I eventually got him on my side and kept him there through open communication. I was later told that I was the first person in three years to get this particular airman to perform satisfactorily. We are still in touch today,” he continued. “That taught me not to pre-judge anyone based on what I may have heard about them. I tried to give everyone who worked for me a fresh start at the beginning of our working relationship.”
Prepping for Civilian Life
Congero prepared aggressively and early for his next act outside of the Air Force. “About six years before I got out, I started looking at job descriptions that interested me. I examined all the required and preferred qualifications and made a list of the ones I had and the ones I did not. Then I put myself in role to be able to check each of them off my list,” he said. “I volunteered in my off hours to do things that qualified me and got as much project management experience as I possibly could.”
Congero volunteered his time as a unit deployment manager where he handled the logistics of sending equipment and people all over the world. He worked as a vehicle NCO and gained experience maintaining and managing a fleet of 42 vehicles. He also went outside his unit to volunteer at the wing level, taking on volunteer roles that taught him about civil engineering, IT, and process improvements. “All of it went hand-in-hand with the degree I was earning at the same time,” he said.
Congero’s PMP application approval required 4,500 hours of project management within 36 months which then had to be submitted for review to a board within PMI. Because of his volunteer work across so many fields, he was pre-approved for his certification exam. He listed “approved for PMP test” on his resume, a qualification that is instantly recognizable to recruiters. “I’ve already got the hardest part done,” he said.
Congero spent his final Air Force assignment in England. Although he had multiple job offers, he let his family decide where to settle down. He accepted a job with AECOM in Las Vegas as a Deployment Coordinator II. In this position, he serves the ‘button’ for all international movement of employees to company locations all over the world. His role is similar to a military unit deployment manager. His hours of volunteering for diverse roles during his service paid off once again. His vast experience allowed him to begin his new job one level higher.
The best way to lead and manage:
“Communication is key. Make your expectations clear and give detailed instructions, but know when to allow your team space to complete a task. Build rapport and trust with your team. Let them know that you’re there to help them, not attack them.”
Advice to fellow veterans:
“Know who you are and what you stand for. If you know yourself going into an interview, everything else falls into place.” One of Congero’s answers was deemed by a recruiter as the best he’d ever heard. “It was the inevitable ‘What are some of your weaknesses?’ question,” he said. “I responded with, ‘That’s a hard question and here’s why. I don’t aspect of my abilities and life as a weakness – I see something as an area to improve. I don’t sit on it – I do it. Once mitigated and improved upon, I no longer view it as a weakness, but a potential strength,’” he said.