A Lifetime of Excellence

The Story of Embracing the Twists and Turns of Contract Management

Editors’ Note: A journey is a story waiting to be told, and whether it is a contract or a career, understanding the path is pivotal to growing and learning. It is for this reason that NCMA’s highest award is the Lifetime Achievement Award. Presented annually, NCMA recognizes a renowned and distinguished NCMA member who has made a significant contribution to contract management and the association. By reflecting on their exceptional achievements during their remarkable career journey, we can apply lessons learned to our own path as we, too, drive toward excellence.

NCMA is proud to recognize Charlie E. Williams, Jr., President, Procurement & Acquisition Center of Excellence (PACE) LLC as the recipient of the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award. Beginning his career as a civilian member of the United States Air Force (USAF) acquisition community, Williams rose to the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary Contracting, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition (SAF/AQ).

A trailblazer in contract management, Williams served as the Director of the Defense Contract Management Agency, leading more than 12,000 civilian and military personnel worldwide. In 2014 he established CWilliams LLC to leverage his experiences as a strategic consultant in all matters of acquisition planning, contract formation, and general contract management processes. As of February 2024, Williams assumed the role of President at PACE LLC to lead the company’s efforts in the pursuit of providing effective and efficient acquisition outcomes for its customers.

In this special feature, NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad, CAE, CTP, interviewed Williams to learn more about his journey and how he has answered the call to create change and lead a new generation of contract professionals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kraig Conrad (KC): Charlie, congratulations on receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. How do you feel about this recognition and what does it mean to you?

Charlie Williams (CW): It is an honor to have the opportunity to be recognized by your peers. I joined a group of icons who have received it, and unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), because of my age, I know a lot of them. The fact is there are some tremendous folks who’ve received this award, and I’m just proud and honored to be able to stand with them as a recipient of this award.

I appreciate NCMA continuing to recognize professionals in our community because that’s so important. We don’t do enough of that. I’m honored to continue to serve and be recognized for what I’ve done throughout my life experience.

KC: Looking back at your illustrious career, can you share some pivotal moments or experiences that have shaped your journey in contract management?

CW: Well, there are quite a few. I’ll start by looking back at how I got to where I am. Some time ago, when I was working in the Air Force as a young contracting officer, there was a process that was required for large contracts – they had to come to the Pentagon for a clearance review. My role offered me my first opportunity to come to the Pentagon. Those visits to the Pentagon helped to shape my career in terms
of where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.

At that point I had not yet decided that I wanted to stay in government contracting. And then I went to the Pentagon to do one of those clearance reviews, and I met a gentleman named Ira Kemp. He was a phenomenal giant in our business, a professional with a good sense of humor. Even though my contract clearance did not go well that day, Ira was professional enough to help me appreciate what I needed to do and how I needed to grow. That experience with Ira and the magic of being around professionals in the Pentagon during that time shaped me and helped me think more about what I might be able to achieve in my career. Those were foundational experiences for me.

Another foundational experience was gained from my work for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Allied Air Command (NATO) – I was a U.S. representative to the NATO AWACs program – and that was formative in terms of learning how to work across boundaries. As you know, with all NATO countries, we all have our different views and perspectives. If you wanted to achieve anything, you had to learn how to compromise and work across boundaries. That was shaping.

KC: You’ve had many influential roles, from Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Air Force to President of the NCMA Board of Directors from 2018 to 2019, and currently the Chair of the Standards Consensus Body (SCB) that oversees the Contract Management Standard™. (1) Could you highlight a few achievements or initiatives of which you are particularly proud?

CW: Don’t forget the Director of the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA). My colleagues at DCMA would never let me live that down if I didn’t say something about DCMA! In fact, my time there is one of the experiences that I want to call out. One of my proudest achievements was the establishment of a civilian capability, both in the Air Force and in DCMA, to deploy to support our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. When that war kicked off in the early 2000s, there just weren’t a lot of military assets and capability to fulfill the mission requirements, and we needed to rely on civilians.

So, both in the Air Force and in DCMA, we had to grow and learn how to deploy civilians. Not that they weren’t smart in the field of contracting, but how do you deliver and send folks to the front lines in a very hostile, very austere environment? How do you safely send civilians into that world and expect and anticipate that they will be successful?

So, we established a capability. I can’t help but call out the Air Force enlisted community who were just yeomen when it came to taking care of that capability as well, but they needed civilian counterparts. We made that happen in the Air Force, we made that happen in DCMA, and I’m so proud of that accomplishment. We didn’t get everything right, but we delivered capability, and that made a difference for the warfighter. It made a difference for the mission that was being accomplished over in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hold that probably as high as just about anything else I did in my career. It made a difference when a difference was needed.

KC: Incredible impact, certainly; lives on the line and freedom on the line. A great story. You mentioned in your career journey that early on, you started to see an interest in shaping the workforce and having an impact on policy. Our community is undoubtedly grateful and has benefited from your leadership. How has the community impacted your own professional growth and development?

CW: That’s a good question. I’ll say that I would find it very hard to meet a contracting professional who was not dedicated and committed to the work. One of the Air Force’s core values is service before self and excellence in all we do. Contracting professionals believe in service before self, whether it be in a theater of Afghanistan and Iraq or just here at home. The dedication and commitment of those professionals were outstanding.

That passion just kept me charged up. It energized me to be able to keep going during the hard days, to do the travel because I wanted to get out and meet folks and hear what people have to say. That travel was tough, but I didn’t want to pass it up because that’s where I got energy, where I knew these people were dedicated. If they’re going to be dedicated, you have to be dedicated too.

And thinking about NCMA, that was so much a part of my foundational learning. I met a lot of folks through NCMA. So again, there’s a dedication and commitment of contracting professionals like no other. I don’t want to disparage my friends in program management and other career fields, but the contracting folks do it right.

KC: I agree. It’s one reason why I love this community so much – their dedication. It comes through in everything they do. So, with this ability to have impact, knowing this is a community of people who care tremendously about the missions that they serve, what advice would you offer to newcomers in our field, especially those who are aspiring to reach the level of success and recognition you’ve achieved?

CW: What I used to tell folks I mentored in the Air Force and DCMA is to focus on development and growth will come in time. All too often, folks are trying to get to the next level, to the next grade too fast. In doing that, they miss out on critical opportunities to learn and gain experiences they need that will be valuable as they grow through their careers and eventually into the leadership rank.

Some professionals think they can go from job to job in short order. Unfortunately that approach to learning and development results in gaps in learning opportunities and experiences; those gaps become very apparent over time. Our leaders need to have a broad set of experiences and understand that learning is continuous – don’t forget that, and don’t rush through your career. You’ll have plenty of time to get where you need to go, but if you rush through it, where you want to go may not be where you end up.

KC: Sage advice. Going back a little bit to policy, you’ve certainly had many opportunities to influence it and therefore drive innovation through codes and other things we set. Can you share an example of a significant policy change or innovation you’ve championed that has positively impacted the profession?

CW: There are probably people who will think differently about this, but one of the policy areas that I worked on early in my days in DCMA was around business systems – the systems used by contractors to stay compliant with the practices and policies required by the Department of Defense. I thought that was important at the time. Congress was beating us up, telling us that we had some gaps, and I think they were right. In response, we collectively came up with this business system policy. It’s not perfect, but it is better than what we had.

Now I have to note that with all things, just because a little of something is good, doesn’t mean a lot of it is better! In this case, I now think the over application of business systems requirements is causing challenges to the expansion of companies in the marketplace that is desperately needed. But at the time, it was the right thing to do. We needed to have certain controls – we needed to get a message out to industry about what is important and what we value. So that policy set is important. It has tremendous impact on cost, schedule, and performance across the business that we do; I was really excited about that.

One of the other policy areas that I was excited about, and I’m still excited about, is how we changed the way we think about professionals in the Air Force as we started to look at development teams and setting up the structure to ensure that individuals knew what they needed to achieve to grow through the profession. We laid out a whole series of experiences and learning that was necessary to reshape how people think about their career.

KC: Very good. A lot to draw on. When you think about how you were able to come to this highest honor within NCMA – our Lifetime Achievement Award – can you share some of the mentors who have inspired and guided you in your journey, and how that influenced and shaped your career?

CW: Yes! I had a wonderful set of mentors, some of whom have won this award before – folks like Darryl Scott, Larry Trowel, and Elliot Branch. They are some of the icons who were instrumental in my growth and my learning. Tim Beyland is another name that comes to mind as well as my friend and colleague, Terry Rainey.

There is one name that stands out and a story goes along with it – that’s Major General John Slinkard, United States Air Force, now deceased. John was one of the first general officers who I worked directly for. If you ask anybody who knew General Slinkard, they would say he was one of the toughest generals you could find in contracting because he was instrumental in writing the Federal Acquisition Regulation. There was not anything you could tell him that he did not already know. He challenged individuals for perfection and made sure you could not sleep through your career from an education and learning perspective.

General Slinkard was one of those individuals who would let you know quite clearly where you had gaps. He was instrumental in my growth and learning. It was people like him who helped shape how I think about the world of acquisition today. People would look at General Slinkard and say, “Well, General Slinkard couldn’t survive in today’s world.” I am not so sure I would agree. I would say that General Slinkard understood the world he lived in, but he was very adaptable to change.

I will call out Major General John Slinkard as a true icon and a great mentor.

KC: A great story. Well, given that experience and all the experiences we have heard about, what do you see as the most significant challenges and opportunities facing the contract management community today in this environment and in the future?

CW: I will give you two. The first one is talent acquisition. I do not know if we have figured out yet exactly what we want in the future from a talent perspective. We must move away from the traditional thinking we’ve always had. I know you are working on it here at NCMA and other organizations are too, and that is wonderful, but it is an area where I think there is still a risk and gap for us to fill. And I hope we do, because talent acquisition is a challenge for a lot of professions, and I think for us, it is very, very important.

The other one is innovation in practice. We are not adapting our policy and procedures fast enough to address what my friend Cameron Holt (Major General, retired) talks about as the near-peer competitor and threat across the ocean. We, in fact, must figure out how to adapt our practices to be more agile and much more responsive to warfighter, national security, and domestic security needs. We must be better at visioning and adapting to changes in technology. We are simply too slow today and that represents a threat.

KC: They go hand in hand. Folks that know their way around the system can be agile and flexible to get there.

CW: The work that NCMA is doing to adapt and bring the commercial perspective into contracting is crucial to that. It becomes very, very important for us to think from more than just our federal lens and to bring those two communities together. The federal and the commercial markets will benefit from each other as we think about practice in the future.

KC: We know you’ve been dedicated to NCMA. You’ve served many years and we’re very grateful. How has your involvement with NCMA contributed to your growth? And what role do you see professional organizations playing in the development of young professionals?

CW: I’ve been a member of NCMA and involved in NCMA for more than 35 years. From the very beginning, I wasn’t sure whether or not there was value, or whether I was getting something out of it. As I reflect back now, many of those folks that I talked about as icons, I connected with in NCMA, and we still talk today. Much of the learning I gained early on came “right out of the NCMA library.” I owe a great deal of gratitude to what NCMA, as a professional association, did for me and for the people who worked for me or with me.

Those kinds of things are valuable, and you do not know it until you know it. If you had asked me this question 15 or 20 years ago, I would have said, “Okay, it’s good. I’m doing okay, I’m doing great.” But then, as you continue to grow, you start to realize, “Hey, almost everything I learned came right out of the halls of World Congresses and Government Contract Management Symposiums and all those chapter events NCMA hosted.” So, it was very important.

Of course, receiving the opportunity to be the President of NCMA was an awesome achievement. I had the opportunity to help shape the future of the association for the better. It was important, and I believe it’s still important. But, like everything else, the association must adapt to the future, and I know you have a lot going on designed around the future, so I wish you success. If I can be involved in that, I’m looking forward to continuing to support the SCB and your new commercial activities. Whatever I can do, I want to help.

KC: Fantastic. I love how, during your journey in leadership, you drew on the experiences of your daughter as she comes into our profession to continue to have impact as you did.

CW: I keep working on her!

KC: Young people experience things differently, they engage differently, and our journey is how we can continue to bring them in. Because they have the same needs as everyone else, but they just engage and consume things like NCMA so differently.

As you continue having an impact through the Standards Consensus Body and other things that you’ve been involved in, what are your future goals and aspirations? How do you plan to stay engaged in the community in the years to come?

CW: Well, even at this point in my career, I still have aspirations and goals; one of those is to always give back. I look for ways to do that because I got so much out of the profession. That’s why I continue to support NCMA and serve as a Director on the Procurement Roundtable. Professionally, I’ve recently joined PACE LLC as their President, so I have truly failed to figure out how to retire. And as the year progresses, we will see what more is in store.

One thing is certain, I’m going to continue to support you in NCMA on the SCB, as you take your venture into the Contract Management Institute, and everything else. (2) So, if I can help, let me know.

KC: Charlie, thank you for your service to our country and to NCMA. Your impact has been well-felt and the impact on the future generation is something that we all care about.

CW: Thank you, Kraig, for what you are continuing to do at NCMA. CM

1 The Contract Management Standard™ is an ANSI-Approved Standard that describes contract management in terms of the processes created through the integration and interaction of
job tasks and skills and the purposes they serve. For more information, visit ncmahq.org/cms
2 The Contract Management Institute is the research arm of NCMA. Its mission is to advance the contract management profession and its nexus with related acquisition communities
through research to elevate engagement, standards, and professional development. For more information, visit ncmahq.org/cm