Navy Capt. Ken Barrett started his career on all-male ships in the early 1980s. He remembers when the first women officers came on board.
“Naysayers said they wouldn’t perform well. It was exactly the opposite,” he said. “They typically outperformed their male counterparts.”
That didn’t surprise him.
“I had a strong mother and I saw what she brought to the table,” he said. “I didn’t come in thinking that they wouldn’t perform well.”
An open attitude helped Barrett several decades later when the Navy asked him to be its diversity director in 2006.
“Probably my only limitation was my own thinking about this—being a white guy and taking on the diversity lead role,” he said. Then a supervisor went through a long chronology of what white men, such as President John F. Kennedy, had done for civil rights.
“After all, white guys are diverse too,” Barrett said. “Not only did I feel empowered, but I was charged up and ready to go after having that discussion.”
Under Barrett’s leadership, the Navy saw record levels of minority and women officer accessions and it introduced family-friendly benefits to retain them.
Barrett’s final assignment was as acting director of the Defense Department’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity. He retired in March, after 28 years of military service. He has taken a new job as General Motors’ first chief diversity officer.
THE KEN BARRETT FILE: Length of military service: 28 years Last position:Acting director of the Undersecretary of Defense’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity.
Why did you enter the military?
I was looking for a way to pay for college and applied for the Navy’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. I went to the College of the Holy Cross in Wooster, Mass. on a Navy ROTC scholarship. I thought I’d spend my four years in and then get out. Twenty-eight years later, I’ve made it a full career. What kept you in the military for so long?
I had already traveled the world by my late 20s. Then I had the opportunity to go into fields that interested me. I was the Navy advisor to then-UN Ambassador Bill Richardson. It was a great opportunity to work in an international environment. I really looked at it and said, “Hey, this is the right fit for me.
You spent most of the first 20 years of your career on ships. How did you then become the Navy’s director of diversity?
I had more and more responsibility until I had 300 people reporting to me. And I was anticipating my next assignment would be command of a ship. But I got screened for a recruiting district instead — Navy Recruiting District San Diego. It was a sprawled-out command from Los Angeles down to the border, and pretty much all of Nevada and a big chunk of Arizona. I had to fundamentally change how I looked at my career and decide, ‘Do I stay or do I go?’
You stayed. Why?
When I was in college, I did a bit of direct sales. I had that sense of putting yourself out there. Certainly military recruiting is a more difficult task, but I was a natural at it. I could go to an individual station and know instantly the problems they were having and give them good support. We were probably 15 or 16 in the nation. Within a year, we became number one. And we remained at the top for three years. That got my name out there.
The Navy asked you to apply those recruiting skills to its diversity initiative. What was your strategy?
It starts with outreach. You have to be out in those markets to seek the talent you want to bring in. I learned from my recruiting days, it wasn’t that people were saying ‘no’ to the military. They just did not know. That was the bottom line—making that connection, showing them the opportunity, and seeing if there was a fit for those individuals. So the first piece is outreach, but there’s so much more.
What was your proudest achievement?
From Task Force Life Work, we came up with three or four innovative things that made a difference to the Navy, and really all the services. First, the career intermission pilot program gave people up to three years off of active duty, when they could start a family, spend time with a loved one, and basically keep their medical and dental benefits and come back for a full-up round. That had a big, big impact on retention for the entire service, but certainly for women. Also all new dads got 10 days of administrative leave to build a healthy family. And finally, prior to our change, after four months of giving birth, you could deploy overseas. We listened to the medical advice on the time women need to breastfeed and bond with their new child. We took the most aggressive approach and extended it from four to 12 months. Now women can choose not to be deployed within the first year after giving birth.
Why are you retiring now?
Mandatory retirement age is 30, so I had just a few years left. I’ve had friends tell me, ‘You’ll know when it’s the right time,’ and it’s the right time to take the uniform off. I’ve enjoyed many aspects of my career but I certainly think there’s an opportunity for me to do other things. I wanted something else to challenge me, and take it to the next level, if you will.
Has the transition to civilian life been hard?
The military is the only thing I know. Moving on to another job, I’ve got to think about what I’m going to wear. Now I’ve got to be more savvy even about what I’m going to wear. It’s been easy for me to put that uniform on. I have to become more savvy on what the new uniform is for me. But I’m looking forward to new opportunities. I think the military has great core values and I hope to take that with me.
What about your new job are you most looking forward to?
I’ve had the opportunity to look at all facets of diversity for the military and now I have the chance to do it on a global front. I’m all up for the challenge. I want to be in a place where I can make a difference.