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A day in the life: DIA Director Ashley

Imagine 16,500 people are looking to you to lead and guide the direction of their work. Imagine the entire Department of Defense and country rely on your everyday decisions – counting on your Agency’s ability to provide relevant and timely information.

How much time do you think that would take per day? Per week?

For DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., he said it takes a lifetime of preparation – or at least a career spanning 35 years.

His day-to-day operations feature approximately 17 actively engaged hours of work. That’s not time spent “chewing the fat” with co-workers or checking Facebook. Hard work and the daily grind keep the 17-hour day jampacked.

“I’m up a little after five every morning and into the office around six,” he said.

Nearly every minute of Ashley’s daily schedule is accounted for – in meetings, speaking engagements, briefs and prep. He rarely gets a moment to himself. However, when he does, he said, “I go to my happy place … home. I know my wife and kids love me. And that’s what matters most.”

When Ashley arrives to the building, you might not know he’s the director of DIA, unless you knew his face. Carrying a gym bag in one hand and a classified workbag in the other, he’s not hindered by the load as he pauses to say good morning to the workforce, before he makes his way to the office. As he enters the command suite, Ashley will pause a bit longer to absorb the key messages from his staff and then enter his office to put down his bags, change into his uniform and begin the day.

Meetings start promptly at 8 a.m. daily. He spends the time between his arrival and the first meeting checking emails and consuming as much information as possible to make the most educated decisions for the day.

As the meeting marathon begins, Ashley’s ability to move between subjects and topics is as artful and meticulous as a paint stroke in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – flowing effortlessly. From hour to hour, the subject of conversation varies greatly and, in his terms, “are like apples and rocks.”

From budget to technology, innovation to news media interviews, and training, manning, Congress …

So, how does he do it? How does he stay engaged without a wandering mind or heavy eyelids? How does he recall where the last conversation ended with a briefer or meeting attendee and the new conversation picks up?

“I am naturally and genuinely interested,” Ashley said, adding that he feels the magnitude, significance and importance of his role. “I’m responsible for it. … I want to do the best I can every day.

“And I pride myself on never being the one to fall asleep in a meeting, like you see others who do,” he added.

In the vehicle rides to and from off-site visits, events and engagements, he’s not texting or playing on his phone, listening to music or chatting with his driver. He’s thumbing through his read aheads, preparing for what comes next – more meetings.

“The people who put together the read aheads work really hard on them, so I’m going to spend the time to read the whole thing,” he said.

During his speaking events, he engages the audience with a calm and even paced speech. Sometimes, this requires cues from the back of the room to speed him up or end early. Sometimes the pregnant pauses are to rein in the emotion, which he attributes as an inheritance from his mother.

“I care about the stories that we share, the things that we do, our mission and future,” he said. “Our people matter and sometimes I just have to take a minute.”

Lunch is sometimes on the road. He may get a chance to eat while thumbing through the prep packets or on a conference call.

And, when the day is nearly over, he has a final wrap up every day at 5 p.m. – or at least close to it. The 30-minute daily session with DIA leadership concludes with a rundown of the next day’s agenda. After that, he heads back to his desk to address emails, sign documents and read more information.

“Then I go to the gym,” he said. “And then home for dinner with Barb, and I’ll play with the dog for a few minutes.”

After some coveted personal and family time, he’s back to work.

“I have a SCIF in my house,” he said of his secure compartmented information facility. “So I’ll check emails and read my prep books for the next day.”

Between 10 and 10:30 p.m., his day will finally end.

On the weekends, when most others are enjoying some downtime, Ashley is at work again.

“I’ll spend around five hours on Saturday and Sunday at my desk at home along with a trip to the gym,” he said.

Asked about his mental agility and minimal caffeine intake, he explained that throughout his career he’s learned to concentrate on the conversation. The cumulative experience has taught him to not focus solely on the technical pieces of a subject, which can be overly taxing. He added that during a career, judgement is shaped, improved and enhanced, and good judgment is based on exposure to and the understanding of things that are right and wrong. 

“It’s also self-discipline,” he said. “You just do it.”

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