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It is my pleasure to introduce Soraya Correa, who served as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Chief Procurement Officer and Senior Procurement Executive, whereby she was responsible for  implementation of the acquisition policies, regulations, and standards of the agency. Her work included direct oversight of all procurement operations, including the work of more than 1500 procurement professionals assigned to the 10 heads of contracting activities that provided contracting services to DHS components, organizations, and offices. Under her watch, the DHS procurement portfolio exceeded $25 billion per year, and consisted of the acquisition of the necessary spectrum of services and products.


Ms. Correa is a recognized transformational leader who designed several groundbreaking programs, including the Procurement Innovation Lab at DHS which was adopted by other federal agencies to improve business processes. 


Today, Ms. Correa runs an independent consulting firm, providing advice and assistance to professional associations, industry, and academia on procurement matters. Ms. Correa is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, a senior advisor to the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory, and serves on the board of advisors of the National Contract Management Association. 


Soraya, welcome to the podcast.


Ms. Correa:  

Tim, thank you for that kind introduction and warm welcome. I'm excited to be here and have the opportunity to chat with you.



Soraya, as you are well aware, we have antiquated policies of budgeting and controls that are seen by many leaders as a national security problem for our country and warfighters. From your point of view, where does the solution to this problem start?




Ms. Correa:  

So, first of all, I share the concern. I really do. I often talk about the fact that we have got to get this right because those who would do harm to us are not governed by Federal Acquisition Regulations. They do not have GAO or Congress that look over their shoulders. They do not have transparency and do not comply with the ethics that we have in this country. And I 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 ourselves to the concerns that we have. So to me, it has always started with leadership. It has to be leadership. It has to start from the top. Leaders have to understand the threats that we face.




Ms. Correa:  

They have 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, then we all feel the urgency. We understand the importance.



One of the things in our previous conversations we talked in depth about, was the support that you garnered, and the culture that you built. It started with the ability to be able to “manage up, manage down, and manage all around,” in your words. Talk to us in terms of a big project, because we're approaching a huge issue that's going to take a big team to really affect change going forward. But how do you pull all that together as a good leader? 




Ms. Correa:  

First, you have to look at yourself and make sure that you're the right leader, that you're doing the right things, and working with your teams and your counterparts and your leadership in the right way. You have to be thoroughly engaged. 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 my role and responsibilities. And that I made sure that I educated my workforce on what those roles and responsibilities were, and how they impacted team roles.





Ms. Correa:  

And then I made sure that my leadership understood that I understood the importance of that teamwork, that camaraderie—that partnership that is the CXO community. What I would say, is 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. 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 I said,” I want somebody who wants to be a change agent. And I went to my policy shop to pull up a change agent.”



Ms. Correa:  

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 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 they have 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 take a 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.” They came up with the name Procurement Innovation Lab, even though they give me a lot of credit, because I said, “Take a pill if you’ve got a headache with procurement.”  <laugh>


Ms. Correa:  

I will tell you the story about the little blue pill another time. But anyway, the point was, I challenged them to create an environment where people 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. It's their idea. I want them to implement. What we're going to do is help guide them and coach them through the process and work with them to make sure that the folks that are 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.




Ms. Correa:  

They're going to get all the awards and accolades, everything. But if they fail, I own that—Soraya Correa, 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 that.



Because here's the thing:  In government, we're always afraid to fail. 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, then you can create a very strong team and a strong body. People believed in me because, unfortunately, I had the good fortune, I guess, to fail early and fail fast, right?



Ms. Correa:

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 did our industry engagement was completely different from anything we'd ever done before. Very successful. Where we kind of fell apart: It was a multiple-award procurement, $1.2 billion. Where things kind of got off the rails was in the actual evaluation and the documentation that we developed. 


So long story short, we said we would award 8 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 got protested again—I'm giving you the very short version of this (laugh).  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.”




Ms. Correa:  

And so, that 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. And I stood up and I said, “Yes, I canceled the procurement. But you know what, the team that worked on that procurement is going to get a lot of awards because they deserve a lot of credit for the 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.  <laugh>. 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, right?


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 didn't think this one fully through.”




Ms. Correa:  

My point in telling you all that: One of the biggest surprises was that eight of the companies that won awards—who 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 take years, right? And the team, the contracting officer, hosted her own webinar. We had let them host webinars to talk about lessons learned, that kind of stuff. She talked about that. She talked about the confidence in leadership and the support and what it meant to her and 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. 


And you know, you and I talked about the fact that you can go to a lot of fancy schools and stuff. My leadership training came from the school of hard knocks coming up. I started out as a clerk typist, became a contract specialist, and I stubbed my toe once or twice, okay? And I learned. But one of the most important things I learned was the value of leadership, of taking care of your people, supporting them, having their backs all the time, and making sure that they know you exist. And that's a really important part of it. Making sure they know you exist and that you understand what they do. 



If I can just jump in. We're going to talk in a second here about some solutions, that, from your point of view, will help us take the next steps. You're so pragmatic in your approach, and I really appreciate it. For our listeners: If this is all you heard in terms of this podcast, and what Soraya has to say about leadership and understanding how to create a culture where your team is for you, instead of against you, this show would have been worth your time.


The approach goes against our grain. And for you, Soraya, to come up and say, “You know what, you're going to own the successes and I'm going to own the failures on it, I'm going to protect you.” And, in a space where people intuitively want to cover themselves, right? This is different and it's new! If we stopped here – it was worth it!


And it sounds simple, but implementing it is not. And so, I really commend you on it. And really the thought of leadership, I don't care what your background is, if you're able to implement that going forward it will help anyone's career go to the next level.


Well, let's go to the next step. Obviously, we've got this national security issue, and many have talked about it. We've got this threat looming in 2027. We've got great upheavals going on in our world right now. You have been in the middle and have experienced lots of emergencies. You've watched our government, our contractors, and our departments work through them in peacetime and wartime. From your point of view, for us to go back and create a team, a team of industry experts— kind of unpack your thoughts of where do we start? What are those next steps down on the tarmac level that we should approach to really affect change and move forward, with the right individuals?



Ms. Correa:  

So first and foremost: We've got to define the problem. We've got to create that problem statement. And we have to speak in a common language, right? We have to make sure that everyone understands the problem the same way. But most importantly, we got to assemble a team of passionate leaders that understand what leadership means. 


Unfortunately, there are too many leaders out there that still think that when they become a leader, it's about them. It's actually about the team you lead; they will take care of you. You will have greatness because they were great. So, you focus on your team and enable them to understand the problem definition, what we're trying to solve, and what are the goals that we're trying to achieve. What is that hill we're going to charge? As I used to say to my staff, and I still say it, “My job is not to tell you how; you tell me how you're going to do it. I'm just going to 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.




We need to pull together a team of real leaders that understand this, that bring a passion for this commitment, and that get the true role of leadership, so we can guide others on how we make changes. The other thing that we have to do is we have to communicate a sense of urgency. I don't want to be critical of all these 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, right? <laugh>. You need people at my level who are practical.



What can we do in 30 days and 60 days and 90 days? This was the whole idea behind The Pill, by the way. It sounds so simple, but it works so effectively. 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. 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.”



Ms. Correa:  

It's 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, right? 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 you are good with the things that we are going to do. And here are the measures of success.


We're going to have to be willing to accept when we're not successful in some areas, right? We're going to 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 course-correct.


I gave you the example of Flash. In another agency at another place in time with another boss, we probably would still be working on the freaking Flash procurement <laugh>. No, really, I'm serious. Me? I'm like, that's not practical. Seven, nine months into it, I'm like, “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.”



You've hit on some really key issues. Number one, starting with the problem statement. We've got an issue here, right? The idea is to actually get short-term goals, where, as a team, we can see that there's movement. We're not just getting ready to get ready if you will. You shared in the past about what it takes to get up and go, but on the backside of this, we have ideas, and everybody comes from their own point of view. 


You also talked about creating the same language. All of us are from different parts of the government or industry.  One word or term would mean this, to someone. Another would mean something different, just because of the experience they have. Getting that common language together with the problem statement. And then we develop the solutions.


Certainly as a facilitator of this issue, and bringing leaders together, I'm impressed by the long-term relationships that have been developed with leaders over the years— strong leaders like yourself. It’s quite something to actually get in a room and get on the same page. But it can be done through the trust that's been built in those relationships over the years. And I believe in that. I know that's your experience too.




Ms. Correa:  

Yes, I've always said that the role of leadership is to build relationships. It really is. As you go into an organization, the job is really 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.




I think of the pandemic, and I think of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. I went down to Puerto Rico to support the mission. We were successful in many areas. Despite what others might think, we were successful in some areas because I was able to quickly assemble teams to solve problems.


I was able to pick up the phone and call my CFO, my CIO, the Chief Readiness Support Officer, and the Chief Security Officer, and say, “Guys, we have a problem. Here's what I'm trying to do. Where's your play in this? Does this affect you? How can I help you.”


Sometimes I was calling them to say, “I understand this is coming down the pipe. What do you need from me? What are you thinking about? Do we need to be writing a contract in advance or researching schedules?” My point is that, if you really understand those around you, what that support team is, and you've built those relationships, you can move quickly in an emergency. 


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. The problem is that in the moment of urgency, we know how to come together and make it happen.





Ms. Correa:

And then all of a sudden, we fall apart after the urgency's over. And every now and then they write little books about lessons learned and they become shelfware. They don't become the real-life example. But we know how to do this. Think of all that we've been through in this country and how well we've done it both within our country and while working with other countries.





So, we don't need big, broad commissions. We need to get the right people in the room with that passion, that commitment, that 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.” And we're going to work on my four-letter words. You know, I was going to throw out my little four-letter words, <laugh>. Because we seem to be afraid of four-letter words. They are “work,” “ test”, “plan,” “risk”, “fail,” and “fear.”



Ms. Correa:  

We have got to get the 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. Right? How do we help them? How do we not scare them away from doing this?




Ms. Correa:  

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. It is a little scary. But you’ve got to take that fear out of the equation. You’ve got to remind people that when we do big things and great stuff, we become heroes. And let's do this because our government deserves this. Our country deserves this. Our citizens deserve this. So, I sound a little pollyannish, but I’ve got to tell you, I look back and think, historically, we came out of all these crises. We did it. And then what happens is that afterward we fall apart, right? We forget what we did.



Well, here's the thing. That positive approach though is what we all love. And, as you said, we all want to do great things and our teams want to do great things. So, the lessons in leadership, as we bring this to a close. 


The next steps, Soraya, are number one the lessons in leadership that you've unpacked. I don't care what industry you're in, if you're listening to this, those are lessons that Soraya was able to bubble up to the top in her career because she followed them, and she believed in them. And to be able to create a culture inside your organization where people knew you cared about them first—well,  then, they started to care about what your initiatives were because they understood you cared. And you certainly implemented that. But when it comes to this problem of our national security interest, your pragmatic next steps: Write out the problem statement, and as we go forward, make sure that we get the team to speak the same language.


All those team players need to understand there's a sense of urgency. And we're talking urgency in peacetime, instead of waiting until it’s wartime for us to produce. Because we know that we can. But the team needs to be doers. They need to be passionate about this problem. And they need to be diverse, and from different parts. Going forward, as you've explained: Don’t create solutions that we bring to The Hill that take a huge commission, take many years, and 80 or 90 solutions. Let's put together some achievable 30-, 60-, and 90-day next steps along with some long-range goals so that everybody knows that we're moving in the right direction.




Ms. Correa:  

So, when we talk about the diversity of the team, it's about the diversity of the disciplines that they represent. But it's also the diversity of the cultures. Because it's not just that people come from different areas, business areas, but it's also different ways of thinking and seeing and perceiving problems. The different experiences that we've had, the experiences that I've had as a female growing up 40 years in government, are very different from the experience of a female 40 years growing up in industry, right?


As a minority, as a white person, as an Indian, somebody who studied abroad perhaps, and worked abroad initially. My point is that diversity has to go across everything because sometimes we focus on the diversity of disciplines and not the diversity of people's thinking. And that's an extremely important point that I always try to make: Let's get all those cool people, that have done different things. Let's get them all in the room. Bring me an astronaut or two that I can talk to. Right?



Well, you have heard it from an individual that has certainly had success in the industry and has great ideas. And from my point of view, I think the best is yet to come from Soraya. For our listeners, as you've heard these steps, you can see and hear her experience. I want to thank you on behalf of the podcast. This is great information, and we look forward to having you come back, and share more of your insights to help this initiative move forward.


Ms. Correa:  

Well, Tim, it's my pleasure. It's a privilege to have the opportunity to chat with everyone and I continue to fight the good fight because I believe that we can make this better. I really do.



Excellent. Thank you so much.

Ms. Correa served as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Chief Procurement Officer and Senior Procurement Executive, whereby she was responsible for implementation of the acquisition policies, regulations, and standards of the agency. Her work included direct oversight of all procurement operations, including the work of more than 1500 procurement professionals assigned to the 10 heads of contracting activities that provided contracting services to DHS components, organizations, and offices. Under her watch, the DHS procurement portfolio exceeded $25 billion per year, and consisted of the acquisition of the necessary spectrum of services and products.
 Ms. Correa is a recognized transformational leader who designed several groundbreaking programs, including the Procurement Innovation Lab at DHS which was adopted by other federal agencies to improve business processes. 
Today, Ms. Correa runs an independent consulting firm, providing advice and assistance to professional associations, industry, and academia on procurement matters. Ms. Correa is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, a senior advisor to the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory, and serves on the board of advisors of the National Contract Management Association. 

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