In an enlightening Speed to Contract, Speed to Market podcast episode, host Tim Templeton talks with Soraya Correa, former Department of Homeland Security Chief Procurement Officer, about several contracting dichotomies: that failure is necessary to succeed, that even though problem definition may be multi-dimensional, all need to speak a common language, and most importantly, that it’s critical to act with a sense of urgency in both peacetime and wartime.
Below are excerpts from the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Solutions start with our leaders at the top
I often talk about the fact that we have to get the speed-to-contract issue right because those who would harm us are not governed by Federal Acquisition Regulations. They do not have GAO or Congress looking over their shoulders. They do not have transparency and do not comply with the ethics that we have in this country. Yet I do think all those things are necessary for our system.
So, we have to find a way to continue to do those things but do them more efficiently, more expertly so that we can address our concerns as a nation. To me, it has always started with leadership. It has to start from the top. Leaders have to understand the threats we face.
To create urgency, include mission in all you talk about
Top leadership has to understand the parameters within which we have to work. They have to understand the rules, and they have to be able to guide, lead, direct, and mentor the people that work for them on how to navigate those rules and still be efficient, still be productive.
For myself, I incorporated the word “mission” in everything I talked to my staff about. I reminded them why they were there every day. I never talked about a contracting community that wrote contracts. I talked about a contracting community that enables the delivery of the mission. Because if you put it in that context, we all feel the urgency.
The most important facet of leadership? Engagement
First, you have to look at yourself and make sure you're working with your teams, counterparts, and leadership in the right way. The most important part of leadership is really being engaged, not only with the people that work for you and the people that you work for, but those around you, those that impact you. Whether it was the Chief Financial Officer or the Chief Information Officer, I made sure that I had connections and relationships with those individuals and that I understood their roles and responsibilities and how they affected mine. And I made sure that I educated my workforce on what those roles and responsibilities were and how they impacted team roles.
Figure out what the problem is and write a statement
Then I made sure my leadership understood that I understood the importance of that teamwork, that camaraderie—that partnership that is the C-level officer community. I would say that whenever you're confronting a big issue, the first thing you’ve got to do is figure out exactly what the issue is. What's the problem? Write down a problem statement. I always tell people, “If you write it down, you'll be far more invested in it than if you just keep it inside your head.” And I seriously mean that.
Case study: The Procurement Innovation Lab
When I stood up the Procurement Innovation Lab—I'll use that as an example—I didn't walk in with a big binder of ideas. No. I walked in and said,” I want to collaborate with somebody who wants to be a change agent.” And I went to my policy shop to pull up that change agent.
Think about that. I went to my policy shop and said, “Here's what I want to do. I want to create a safe space for agency people to bring me their very good ideas. And I'm talking about the people who bang on the keyboard—the user, the contracting officer, and the contract specialists—not their bosses.
I want them to bring me any good ideas on how we can do our work better. What are the steps that we can cut down on? How can we be more efficient, more practical, and more innovative in how we buy? And I want us to look at their ideas, make sure that there are no problems with those ideas, and that they're not violating any regulations—because we’ve got to stay within the four corners of the law. And then let's cultivate those ideas. We're going to call this thing some kind of “innovation hub.” My people came up with the name Procurement Innovation Lab.
I challenged my people to create an environment in this Lab where their agency counterparts could come and have a conversation with them and try to solve a problem. And what I reminded my team was, “You do not do the procurement. They do the procurement. What we're going to do is help guide them, coach them through the process, and work with them to make sure that the folks on their team also understand the importance of what they're trying to do and how they're trying to do it.” And then I told my team–and here's the promise and the commitment that we make to the family: “If you succeed, you get to go out and tell everybody what you did.”
If they succeed, they get accolades. If they fail, I own that
If they win, my people will get all the accolades, everything. But if they fail, I own that—not anyone else. Me. I will stand there and take the hit for them. And I will make sure that people understand what they did, why they did it, and what the learning was that came from it.
We’re all afraid to fail, but success comes from failure
Here's the thing: In government, we're always afraid to fail. And anybody who knows anything about success knows the first rule of success is that you will have failures. And you learn from those failures. And if you learn from those failures, you can create a very strong team and body. So people believed in me because, unfortunately, I had the good fortune, I guess, to fail early and fail fast.
Case study - Flash: Learning from failure
We did a major procurement, called Flash, for the CIO's office. And my CIO counterpart was phenomenal in working with us. We came up with some really smart ideas about how to streamline procurement.
Even how we executed our industry engagement was completely different from anything we'd ever done. So in that respect, the project was very successful. It was a multiple-award procurement, $1.2 billion. But unfortunately, things got off the rails in the evaluation and the documentation we developed.
So long story short, we said we would award eight to 15 contracts. We ended up awarding, I think it was like 12 or 13 contracts that ended up getting protested. We took corrective action and were protested again. By the second protest, I said,” Done, finished, we're not doing this. Because I'm very adamant that I will not be strong-armed into making additional contract awards.”
A leader’s ‘right’ way to own failure
The opportunity to gain additional awards was the goal of the protest, in my opinion. So we decided to cancel the procurement after a conference with the CIO and others. I said, “We're not going to put our team through this. We're going to cancel the procurement.” So, we did, and we happened to cancel it on a Monday, and on Tuesday, my boss and I were at a conference speaking, and somebody raised their hand and asked us a question about the procurement. I stood up and said, “Yes, I canceled the procurement. But you know what? The team that worked on that procurement will get many awards because they deserve a lot of credit for the innovative work they did. And my boss, who was standing right next to me, said, “And I own this with her.” At that moment, we sealed the promise that I had made to our people.
And we followed through on it; we stood with that procurement. And by the way, look at me now—my head is still attached to my shoulders. A $1.2 billion procurement. Of course, it's an IDIQ multiple award. But I had also done my work. I had been out talking to people about the procurement.
I had been out selling the concept of the Procurement Innovation Lab and trying things differently. And when we issued the solicitation, I said, “This is an experiment.” And as a result, people accepted that there could be failure. And then, when I acknowledged the failure, I wasn't secretive about it. And I didn't blame anyone. I just said, “Hey, things got off the rails. Here's where they got off the rails. Was it anybody's fault? No. We just didn't think this through fully.”
Learnings from the Flash failure
My point in telling you all of this: One of the biggest surprises was that eight of the companies that won awards—which then actually lost the awards because I canceled—sent a letter to me thanking me for doing the experiment and saying, “Keep doing what you're doing.”
The experience was worth it because we sped up the process. We did in three months, what would normally take years. And then, the contracting officer and her team hosted their own webinar. (We had let them host webinars to talk about lessons learned.) She talked about the confidence in leadership and the support and what it meant to her, why they were comfortable working on this, and why they were comfortable acknowledging the failure. And it was because leadership was with them. Leadership matters. It really does.
Coming up, I got my leadership training from the school of hard knocks. I started as a clerk typist, became a contract specialist, and stubbed my toe once or twice, okay? And I learned. But one of the most important things I learned was the value of leaders taking care of their people, supporting them, having their backs all the time, and making sure they know you exist. And that's a crucial part of it. Making sure they know you exist and that you understand what they do.
Create a problem statement using a common language
To undertake a massive initiative, we must speak a common language. We have to make sure that everyone understands the problem the same way. But most importantly, we have to assemble a team of passionate leaders that understand what leadership means.
Unfortunately, too many leaders out there still think that when they become a leader, it's about them. It's actually about the team you lead. If you believe that, your team will take care of you.
You focus on your team and enable them to understand the problem definition, what you're trying to solve, and what goals you’re trying to achieve. What is that hill you're going to charge? I used to say to my staff, “My job is not to tell you how. I will tell you where we're trying to get to, right? You're going to get me from point A to point Z, and you’re going to tell me how you’ll get there.”
And along the way, we're going to have a conversation. We're going to keep talking so that I understand the steps that you're taking, and I can help you course-correct, or I can run interference. Because that's the job of leadership.
Pull together a team of leaders who have passion
We need to assemble a team of real leaders who understand the speed-to-contract concept. A team that brings passion to this commitment and gets the true role of leadership to guide others in making changes. We also have to communicate a sense of urgency. I don't want to be critical of panels because they do a lot of great work, but we put together these big behemoth panels with a lot of star names. I'm not a star name; I'm just Soraya. You need people at my level who are practical.
What can we achieve in 30, 60, & 90 days?
What can we do in 30 days and 60 days, and 90 days? It sounds so simple but works so effectively. So I said, “What are we going to do now? I don't want to talk about regulation changes. I don't have time for that. Those processes take a long time. Yes, you could expedite them, but everybody's not going to be invested in expediting. So let's focus on what we can do with the here and now. And let's come up with our short-term goals and our long-term goals. And let's make sure that we're constantly revisiting those goals and that we treat the plan as what it is.”
When you bump into obstacles, course-correct
A plan is a plan. And when we bump into an obstacle, we course-correct, adjust the plan and keep going. Right? But we have to have a sense of urgency, and we have to all be listening to the same playlist. We all have to agree, “This is the problem. This is how we're going to communicate the problem. This is how we're going to pull together our plan.” And here are the measures of success.
We will have to be willing to accept when we're not successful in some areas. We will have to be willing to say, “This one's not going down the right path. Let's abandon that. Let's move over here.” Because all too often, folks become invested in what they're doing. And they're not willing to shift.
I gave you the example of Flash. In another agency at another place in time, and had I had another boss, we would still be working on the Flash procurement. No, really, I'm serious. Me? I'm like, “That's not practical.” Seven or nine months into it, I said: “Done. Let's go. Let's move on. Let's go find the next solution. Because it doesn't make sense to beat a dead horse.” In fact, I used to have a great boss that said, “When the horse is dead, dismount.”
The role of leadership? To build relationships
If you enter an organization in a leadership role, the job is about relationships. It's making sure that you have all the right relationships built as early as possible so that when the problem comes, you can pull together.
And by the way, let me say this and apologize if I come across as forceful: In this country, this government, we have always been able to pull it off. Always. Think 9/11, think the Pandemic, think all the hurricanes—we know how to do this. In a moment of urgency, we know how to come together and make it happen.
We have a history of falling apart once the urgency is over
And then all of a sudden, we fall apart after the urgency's over. We don't need big, broad commissions. We must get the right people in the room with passion, commitment, and understanding to say, “Here's the problem. Here's how we're going to solve it. Here are the steps we're going to take.” This is where I bring out my 4-letter words to live by. They are ‘work,’ ‘test,’ ‘plan,’ ‘risk,’ and ‘fail.’
Take fear out of the equation
We have got to get fear out of the equation. We have got to stop scaring people away from doing big things, important things. One of the things that I credit my success with at DHS with the Procurement Innovation Lab is I wasn't scared. I was eligible for retirement. Seriously. I was like, “Let's go do some risky things.” But I also tried to remove the fear from my people by saying to them, “Don't be afraid. I'll give you cover. I will block the people that are going to try to stop you. I'm here to help you.” One of the things I did was I talked to my leadership team about making sure they understood what their people needed to be successful. How do we not scare them away from doing critical things?
Our government, country, & citizens deserve the effort
Protests are scary. Congressional hearings are scary. Front-page articles that trash the government are scary. They are. And these days, the media has everybody's names, so they publish them. But you’ve got to remind people that when we do big things and great stuff, we become heroes. And let's do speed to contract because our government deserves this. Our country deserves this. Our citizens deserve this. So, I sound a little Pollyannaish, but I’ve got to tell you, I look back and think, historically, we came out of so many crises. We did it. And then, unfortunately, at times, we forget what we did.
Diversity includes different ways of perceiving problems
When we talk about the diversity of a team, it's about the diversity of the disciplines they represent. But it's also the diversity of their cultures. Because it's not just that people come from different business areas, but also different ways of thinking and seeing and perceiving problems. The experiences I've had as a female of color growing up 40 years in government are very different from the experience of a female serving 40 years in industry.
My point is that diversity has to go across everything. Because sometimes we focus on the diversity of disciplines rather than the diversity of people's thinking. And the combination of the two is what will help us bring speed to contract to life.
Government Contracting Pricing Summit: Achieving Pricing Excellence During Uncertain Times
Discover the latest trends in government contracting and learn from industry leaders at the upcoming Government Contract Pricing Summit. Whether you attend in person or virtually, you’ll gain a wealth of contract pricing information.
See fascinating keynote sessions and a live-panel discussion on Speed to Contract, Speed to Market with Soraya Correa; David Drabkin, former DoD and GSA official; David Cade, VP of Government Business Transformation - Boeing; and Joy White, Executive Director - Space Systems Command, USSF.
Take advantage of this opportunity to expand your network and knowledge. Join us from June 20-22 in San Diego, CA, or online. Register now to secure your spot.