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Posted 10/3/2014

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By Martie Cenkci
Southwestern Division


We all have that “tipping point” in life, that moment when circumstances converge to change our future direction forever. For graduating college senior Andrea Murdock in 1988, that point came as she was pursuing various options for post-college employment. On the one hand, she had already decided that she wanted to be a park ranger and had interviewed for a park ranger job with three different Army Corps of Engineers Districts—St. Louis, Huntington, and Mobile—at a job fair in El Paso. On the other, she had no real professional work history, and was considering joining the Peace Corps to get some solid experience on her resume prior to going for that federal government position.

“I was on the phone with the Peace Corps,” she said, “discussing where they would be sending me, when I got a call waiting notice. I put them on hold and it was the St. Louis District asking me when I would be available to start work!”

The rest, as they say, was history for the person who is now Andrea Murdock-McDaniel, the Chief of Operations and Regulatory for the Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“In a way, I did it for the money,” she explained. “The Peace Corps does not pay its volunteers a salary, but rather a stipend to cover living expenses. But the Corps of Engineers was going to give me a paycheck for doing what I wanted to do anyway!”

Doing what she had long aspired to do has brought her a long way from her days as a Park Ranger in the St. Louis District Natural Resource Management branch in their operation division.

Today, Murdock-McDaniel oversees the regulatory, navigation, hydropower, flood risk management, recreation, environmental stewardship, and water supply missions for the South­western Division, one of the nine regional divisions for the Army Corps of Engineers. The Division’s 2.3 million acres of public land and water in­cludes two major waterways (a 400-mile portion of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the 422-mile McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System), and the Division operates and maintains 18 hydropower plants and 90 lakes with the accompanying recreation and flood risk management missions.

Looking at it another way, if a lock is broken, she gets a call. If a hurricane renders a port not navigable, she gets a call. If a dam or levee fails and threatens to flood a town downstream, she gets a call. Of course, other people get a call too, and others have authority and responsibility, but she is the one they look to.

That’s a lot of responsibility resting on anyone’s shoulders, but Murdock-McDaniel has earned her “stripes” by steadily working her way up the ladder and making some smart choices on the way up.

In addition to her Park Ranger position, she has served as an assistant Operations Manager (Rend Lake Project Office, Benton, Ill.); an Operation Project Manager (Lake Shelbyville, Ill.); a District deputy Chief of Operations (St. Louis and Little Rock Districts); and a District Chief of Operations (Little Rock District). Along the way, she learned some important lessons about giving a job her all, as well as building the career trajectory that has taken her where she is today.

Follow the money

“About six months into my career, I got thrown into working on the budget,” she said. “When a budget analyst was out on an extended leave, I was asked to take it on a temporary assignment—I was new to the office, but one of the few who could operate the computer and do spreadsheets! This temporary assignment taught me all aspects of the budget, from development, defense and execution for Operation and Maintenance, Construction General, Mississippi River and Tributaries, General Investigations, and Special Recreation Use Fees. I had to update and project 2101 and manpower reports, and many other activities that were important in making management and senior level decisions.

“From that day on, I was asked to be involved in one way or another in developing, prioritizing, instructing or monitoring the budget. This helped me develop the expertise to be considered for management assignments and developmental assignments at the Corps of Engineers Headquarters in Washington, D.C, and at Division and District level. I always advise those new the Corps to learn more than how to execute funds but also about how, where, and why money is allocated as it is. That understanding will help you better understand the Corps of Engineers overall, with its unique funding system, and also help you to advance within the Corps.”

The secrets to her success

Other factors and choices have equally contributed to what is by any measure a highly successful career.

“Personally, I have to credit my parents for instilling in me the value of hard work,” Murdock-McDaniel said. “Everyone in Operations understands that they don’t have a 9-to-5 job. It can definitely be a 24/7 job though! That’s what makes it exciting and challenging.

“Professionally, I believe that being mobile, willing to move to learn new things and accept new challenges, is a major factor. When I signed on with the Corps, I had to sign a mobility agreement that stated I would be moved to the first GS-09 park ranger position that opened up in the St. Louis District. That has made me more resilient and more accepting of change, because I know what it is to “start over.” Multiple times! This mobility has also allowed me to take advantage of developmental and career opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I had not been willing to move.”

Opportunities don’t always have to be a formal developmental assignment though.

Murdock-McDaniel recalled taking a temporary detail to the Civil Works Integration Division at Headquarters as the Senior Area Program Manager for SWD when she worked as a Lake Manager for the St. Louis District. It broadened her expertise and perspective immensely.

“I was able to participate in all stages of the budget development for all the various appropriations as well as meetings with the Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, White House, Congressional members and staff,” she recalled. “I had to prepare the USACE commanding general for his testimony to Congress. It was a great opportunity to learn about the Corps’ total Civil Works program beyond the world of Operation and Maintenance.”

But the biggest secret to success? She believes it is self-motivation.

“Education, training, special assignments---all contribute towards a successful career,” she said, “but you might have to motivate yourself to attain them. I was lucky enough to have a good mentor, but many people don’t have one—or even worse, have a bad one. In the end, your career is your responsibility, and you must take ownership of it.”

Simply the best

After years of building knowledge and experience and making sacrifices as well as smart choices, Murdock-McDaniel absolutely loves her job as the SWD Chief of Operations and Regulatory. But what does she love about it the most?

“It is a tie between being able to get out and meet our workforce and see what they are doing on the ground” she said, “and having the ability to influence the policy of the Corps’ Civil Works and Operation and Maintenance program.

“I believe it is important to get out and see and talk to folks on the ground and find out what barriers they are encountering, then take that information back and try and influence changes in policy that will make it easier for them to execute the mission.

As for her favorite Corps of Engineers job:

“There is no doubt in my mind that the best job in the Corps of Engineers is a GS-11 Park Ranger assigned to the Natural Resource Management Program,” she said.” It is the right balance between the ability to make key decisions related to your program area and not having to deal too much with all the political headaches of being the Operations Project Manager. It’s simply the best.”

Ironically, that’s a description that many believe fits her.

On a personal note:

Editor’s Note: Andrea Murdock-McDaniel is no cookie-cutter civil servant. Whether in her handmade western boots and driving her big pickup truck, or powerfully making her point in a decision briefing, you know that she is a woman who works and lives by her core values. Here’s a brief personal vignette:

“I'm a certified Wildlife Biologist, and one of my favorite pastimes is working on my properties in Hays and Lee counties that I manage for wildlife conservation. I'm an avid hunter, and I look forward to getting the properties ready for hunting season. I also have a hunting lease in Kansas and Arkansas so it all keeps me (and my husband) very busy. My husband has two children, ages 13 and 21. We took his 13-year old daughter hunting two years ago, and she took her first deer—a 10 point! When I lived in Illinois, I was a member of the Women in the Outdoors organization and taught hunter safety. So it is great to share the love of the outdoors with her and teach her to be a steward of our natural resources as well as the ethics of hunting.”

Park Ranger Southwestern division