Senior executives share management lessons gained in Iraq

Lawyers in Washington take affidavits as a matter of practice, but according to recently retired Justice Department attorney John Euler, you haven't lived until you've taken one in Iraq while holding a gun, using an Arabic translator and "trying to look like you know what you're doing."

Euler's experience was similar to that of hundreds of civil servants who worked in Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was established by the United States and other countries after the invasion of Iraq until civilian rule resumed in June 2004. Those civil servants helped to form the infrastructure of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

While in the country, Euler said, he honed his management skills. For example, for years he had been told in training sessions to make sure the constituency he was serving was part of the process. But he said it wasn't until he helped Iraqis rebuild their country that he actually learned how critical that concept is.

It was very important to bring them "in at the ground level and help them to be a major force in developing their own country," Euler said.

After returning from Iraq, Euler, who was working on litigation involving vaccines, said he made certain, for example, that the parents of children who had problems with vaccines were made a central part of the process.

Four career executives, including Euler, recounted their experiences in Iraq during a forum Thursday hosted by the Senior Executives Association. Euler serves as chairman of SEA's board of directors.

John W. Vardaman, another panelist, acted as the CPA's federal liaison during the process of locating and repatriating the assets of Saddam and the former Iraqi regime, which were frozen abroad by a United Nations mandate.

Vardaman said he found himself taking cover in the basement of the palace on his first night in Iraq, wearing a "flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, thinking this was the worst decision I ever made." The Treasury Department attorney helped recover about $3 billion for the new government, money that he said was "immediately injected into the country for reconstruction."

Once he returned to the states, Vardaman said his overall attitude toward work changed. "You just sort of learn to trust your instinct a little bit more," he said. "Now that I'm back, in some ways it makes making a decision here a little bit easier, because you'll never be making a decision where the stakes are higher than you did" in Iraq.

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