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From the Marine Corps to DoD: Meet IWP alumnus Kipp McGuire

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Above: Kipp McGuire (center) with then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) and IWP President John Lenczowski (right) at IWP Commencement in May 2018. 

In this interview, we speak with IWP alumnus Kipp McGuire. Kipp is a prior enlisted Marine with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After his time in the Marine Corps, he completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Montana, worked for then-Congressman Ryan Zinke, and then began studying at IWP. He finished his Master’s degree early in December 2017 so that he could accept a job offer as an Advance Officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he is currently working.

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in security issues and international affairs?

Well, I grew up in very rural ranching communities. Needless to say, security issues and international affairs were not the topic of daily conversations. The real catalyst in my becoming interested in these matters was my time in the Marine Corps. I spent a year in Iraq doing Civil Affairs — Civil-Military operations — where we were trying to develop local governance and rebuild infrastructure. After that, I went to Afghanistan for a year, where I was part of an Embedded Training Team that partnered with the Afghan National Army — training and assisting them. So, I spent a decent amount of time working with foreign nationals and learning what issues looked like from their perspective, which was often drastically different from how I or the U.S. saw the matter. Since I had enlisted straight out of high school, this was really the world that I grew up in and is still one of the most defining experiences in my life, and it is also what inspired me to pursue a career in security and international affairs.

What drove your decision to serve in the military?

In hindsight, it was initially kind of a way for me to test myself. I was not a high achiever in high school, and I was certainly not overly motivated towards anything at the time. But I had a deep feeling that I was capable of more, and I had always had a fascination with the military. Then, once I started talking to the recruiter, he gave me the pitch that there were two kinds of people who wanted to join the military and neither type was wrong, but you needed to know which you were. He went on to explain the tangible and intangible benefits to joining, and when he listed the intangibles — honor, courage, and commitment — I was hooked. But initially, it was really to prove to myself that I had it in me.

What attracted you to IWP?

I really kind of went out on a limb with IWP. It was the only grad program I applied to, and I found out about it through a recommendation from a friend. This person was someone who was just in a different league, especially compared to most people I was around at the time. He told me he thought IWP was the ideal fit for me coming out of a smaller college as I had, but with military service and a desire to get back into the national and global scene. After looking at the website, the classes offered, and the faculty biographies, I was excited. There wasn’t a single class that didn’t sound like something of interest to me. But it was really because of the recommendation from a very highly respected person, initially.  

How did attending IWP change the lens with which you view the world?

I can honestly say it almost completely altered the lens with which I view the world. I was stuck in a very tactical, kind of small-minded mentality. I came to IWP thinking that people who sat around all day discussing issues and formulating policies were really good for nothing. It was the guys on the ground fighting and out in the world who were getting stuff done.

IWP broadened my field of vision drastically, though. I had the time and opportunity to sit down and read, really study, some of the things that were going on in Iraq and Afghanistan while I was there as an enlisted Marine. At the time, I thought I had a good handle on what was going on and what we were doing over there, but after IWP, I realized that I saw such a small portion of the picture that there was no way for me to really grasp the significance or global implications.

This really drove home one of the basic premises that IWP tries to get across — integrated strategic thinking. I understood my job and the missions that my team was executing very well, but I had no clue how those played into the larger picture and what was going on at the regional, national, and global levels during that time. So, I place a very high value on being able to see the world in much broader and strategic perspective post-IWP.

What was the most interesting thing you have learned at IWP? Did you take any classes that were particularly useful?

The most interesting thing I learned at IWP was how the national security apparatus works and interacts. Professor Tsagronis’ class on National Security Policy was fantastic on really giving students a broad understanding of all the different players in national security issues, how they interact, and the reality that personality drives a lot when you get to the national level — Deputy and Secretary levels of decision makers.

The class that was particularly useful was Professor Sano’s Writing for National Security Professionals. The concept that he drives home during the entire class is that the most important information should be up front and to learn to recognize and cut excessive and non-essential material. This is a vital skill to have: whether you are condensing information for a higher-up or communicating and coordinating with foreign contacts, it is vital you can communicate clearly and concisely. Prof. Sano does an excellent job of getting students to be conscious of this and practice it.

What is a piece of advice you would give to members of the IWP community interested in joining the national security field?

Be persistent and open minded. I moved to D.C. having my mind made up that I was 100% going into the intelligence community and that was my sole goal. But, two and half years later, I find myself in a job back at the Department of Defense, not related to intelligence at all, and loving life. I had no idea my current job even existed until a friend — from IWP — asked if she could submit my resume for an opening they had.

So, it’s definitely important to have goals in mind and make progress towards them, but be open minded and willing to explore other opportunities. I have failed to get a lot of jobs I really wanted, but I have continued to find new avenues and opportunities that allow me to still work towards the overall goals of being a professional in the national security arena and serving my country. And honestly, I feel like the combination of jobs and organizations I participate in is a far better fit and allows me way more flexibility than had my original plans actually worked out. So, don’t get discouraged because something doesn’t work out.

There are so many ways for people to contribute in the national security field, but the only way you will find them is to stay active and stay interested. — “If you want to be interesting, be interested.”

Do you have any particularly interesting stories that you could share about your current work? 

In 2009, I was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. After work one day, I was told to change into a clean uniform and take one of our trucks down to the flight line and that I would be driving some people around — pretty vague. So, I do what I’m told and am waiting at the flight line, when a group of guys jump in my truck, all wearing suits. My first thought was, “who are these jerks wearing suits in a combat theater?” Well, it turns out they were part of then Secretary of Defense Gates’ staff — he was doing a troop visit.

Now, fast forward to March of 2018: I am newly graduated from IWP with my Master’s, just started working at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and I am in Afghanistan to support a trip there. I jump in the back of a truck — wearing a suit — and the driver instantly says, “Sir, there is some water and energy drinks back there if you want one, help yourself.” I reply with, “First off, I’m not a Sir.” To which the driver replies, “You are absolutely a Sir.” And it was then that I had the realization that I was now one of the jerks wearing a suit in combat theater. So, be careful in how harshly you criticize others; you never know where you might be in a few years.

What do you feel are the most impactful actions/decisions you have made so far in your career?  

Just being able and willing to make decisions has really made me a more valuable person in my career. This is a theme I have seen leaders critique a lot lately. This last week – 6-12 Jan 2019 – there were two articles written by Gen. Stephen Townsend, and Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer; Townsend’s article was on the degraded capability of junior officers to make decisions, and Spencer’s was on managing instead of avoiding risk.

This is also a subject Prof. Sano mentioned in several of his classes — junior officers being unwilling to make a decision because they are so used to getting authorization first. The theme they all share is that it seems the younger generation is unwilling or incapable of making decisions — for many reasons.

One piece of positive feedback I was given by my supervisor is that I am willing to make decisions when there isn’t time for feedback. Or at very least, if I call for feedback, I don’t present just a problem, I usually have thought about possible solutions and offer those options up. There is a saying that, “If you present a problem without a solution, you are part of the problem.” This has really helped me stop and explore options rather than wait for someone else to give me an answer. Now, there is a fine line between making decisions that are a value add, and overstepping your authority. But that again is part of the decision-making paradigm — knowing your organization and what you should and should not be making decisions about.

What are your plans for the future?

You know, I took a psychological evaluation once that had me complete sentences, one of which read, “In the future I plan for…” My completed sentence read: “In the future I plan for world domination.” Needless to say, a psychologist and I had a long conversation about that, so I won’t give that answer here. But I honestly don’t know at this point and time. I’m a political appointee, so my current job has a shelf-life, but I’m not sure what will come after. I would like to eventually get into strategic planning and advising, but I don’t know if that will be with the military, political, or what. I know I will stay engaged with IWP and plan eventually to pursue a Doctoral degree, as well. 

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Above: Kipp (second from right) with fellow IWP alumni.