Air Force Reserve Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Greene almost had to pinch himself.
To be sure, it was a lot to take in: the plush wall-to-wall red carpet, massive crystal chandeliers, at every turn priceless works of art. And, tonight of all nights, stars mingling thicker than the midnight sky back in Afghanistan.
What a day to start your new job. A new job, no less, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on one of the iconic center's most important nights. And here was Greene showing the man of the hour — comedic legend Eddie Murphy, with his entourage in tow — up to the VIP box in the main concert hall.
Murphy was getting the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor while Greene was trying to come to terms with "the magnitude of my new position."
"It was a baptism of fire," says Greene of his start as Kennedy Center's chief of safety last year. "Hundreds of people doing their jobs and there I was, trying to ask questions, introducing myself, and wondering what I just got myself into."
What he'd gotten himself into was nothing less than the busiest performing arts center in the country.
With some 2,000 performances entertaining more than 2 million visitors every year, the Kennedy Center is the national stage in the heart of the nation's capital. Indeed, in addition to its grand foyer lobby — considered one of the longest rooms in the world, big enough to fit the Washington Monument on its side — the center is home to three major stages, as well as about a half-dozen smaller venues inside its massive walls overlooking the Potomac River.
For someone who'd gotten his start in the Air Force three decades ago as a jet engine mechanic turning wrenches on cargo planes, this was all "a pretty big culture shock," says Greene.
Since 1998, Greene worked as a safety expert both as a part-timer in the Reserve and, not long after, as a full-time Air Force civilian in the field.
Among his most recent assignments was a yearlong tour in Afghanistan where he was a safety manager at Kandahar Airfield.
It was the diversity of his jobs in the military that kept things interesting, with a hand in everything from small units to top headquarters, from flight-line maintenance to heavy construction, from risk assessments to accident investigations.
And while safety specialists are often considered the fun and expediency suckers of the military, tapping at the rules and regs like over-anxious recess monitors, Greene says he learned early the importance of collaboration rather than confrontation.
"My motto is safety through teamwork. You can't go around poking people in the eye with the rule books and think they'll buy in to what you're talking about," he says. "It's about gathering humility and asking 'what can we do to work together to get mission done.' "
It was that flexibility — and love of diversity — that he hoped would translate into the high-paced, show-must-go-on world of performing arts in general, and the Kennedy Center in particular.
"And it really does," he says. "And it's why I love working here. It is very difficult to predict from day to day what the next adventure is going to be. We are dynamic and crazy diverse. We go from having skateboarders and hip-hop shows to ballet and opera."
"Literally, every single day, new acts are coming and going.
"One day, we'll have seven tractor-trailers to set up a show. And then thousands of people coming to see that show. And then loading it back up again before another round of trucks come in to off load for the next event."
That constant turnover means he's constantly on his feet.
"I walk about half a marathon every week. I'm always looking for ways to embed myself — and safety — into people's thinking."
Kevin Greene, an Air Force reservist, is the fire, safety & occupational health manager at the John. F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff
Getting the job
While Green was confident he had the skills and right mindset for the job, he wasn't as sure about his ability to communicate that during the hiring process.
To get the job, he was interviewed by about dozen people over the course of three hourlong sessions.
"First level of interviews were tactical and technical — what did I know? How did I know it? Second round were more supervisory and strategic — what would do in this case or that case? How would I handle such and such? The last round was a more holistic point of view — what is your standpoint? What is your theory? Why us, why you, why now?"
The help prepare for all that, he reached out to a small group of trusted friends and colleagues.
"One mentor in particular was actually an old friend from high school I used to play soccer with."
He'd also gone into the military but was now working for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a civilian.
"He's got great military-to-corporate and -civilian perspective. He really coached me on how things worked two and three levels up, how I could answer questions, and also what questions to ask them," says Greene.
Greene says it's still hard not to pinch himself sometimes. A few weeks ago, he was working at an event honoring George Lucas. Celebrities in attendance and performing included Miranda Lambert, Aretha Franklin, Stephen Colbert and Steven Spielberg.
But he insists the only time he's actually gotten a little star struck is when he found himself working alongside one pair in particular.
"Yeah, it was R2-D2 and C-3PO. That was like, wow, this is pretty cool."