It’s All in the Family Tree
Passing down the untold secret to contracting career success.
By Grace Rhodes
"Every day you're interviewing for your next job." – Soraya Correa
The worst-kept secret in contract management is the central role that professional family trees play in career success.
An augmentation of networking and mentorship, the benefits of professional families are often untold and unspoken. Experience, growing expertise, certification, and continuing professional education all play important roles, too. But they are lauded and dissected in books, conference presentations, and classes.
This article explores and illuminates the less palpable and under-explored power of “family” ties in the connections between leaders and rising leaders in contract management. Their stories offer rich and varied visions of how contracting careers are built in government and in industry.
The following represents just one family tree story gathered and shared here as an example of the power of our community and to inspire you to define and celebrate your own tree.
When you walk into a room, Soraya Correa is focused on you – how you sit, how you pay attention, and most importantly, how you treat those around you. The irony is, she’s the one who immediately draws your attention when you walk in.
Fierce, unapologetically strong, and, above all, caring, Correa has cultivated an extensive family tree during her 43-year career in contracting – most notably as the Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Now retired from government, Correa continues to leave a lasting mark with her grace and skillful guidance as Executive Director of NCMA’s Contract Management Institute (CMI).
Like other contracting career matriarchs and patriarchs, her influence in the field is vast, but informal.
Who is she connected with? How has she influenced their careers? Is she the only one who has influenced them in this way? What is a “contracting family tree?”
Over the course of six months, I interviewed Correa and many of her protégés to learn how they got to where they are today and the role their relationships with each other played in their career success.
That’s how I mapped their extensive family tree. The result illustrates branches that stretch far and wide across many federal agencies.
The Making of a Matriarch
Correa’s first great mentor was her father. After high school, she worked as a bank teller mulling her future. It was her father, a long-term federal employee, who encouraged her to take the civil service exam and enter the government workforce.
For the first year and a half, Correa worked in a contracting office as a clerk typist. On a whim, she applied to a program office job announcement for a contracting professional. Though she didn’t have the requisite job title, Correa aced the interview and, with diligence that became her trademark, went home and wrote the interviewer a white paper about an issue he raised during their conversation.
On that pivotal day, Correa’s technical skills shone. But Correa’s character and the way she conducted herself – her soft skills – are what won her a second interview and, ultimately, the job. Correa still remembers who interviewed her: the first of many people in her career to take a chance on her.
Her father and that interviewer are two of many in Correa’s “Generation Zero” who helped her arrive where she is today. Elaine Duke, Ashley Lewis, Chip Fulghum, and many others influenced who she is and what she has become. The mentors in Correa’s career family tree branch beyond direct supervisors. Correa was the CPO at DHS and Victoria (Vicky) Short worked for her as the Head of Contracting Activity (HCA) for the Office of Procurement Operations (OPO) at DHS, but it was Short’s difference in style and approach that taught Correa how to be a better leader.
Some members of Correa’s Generation Zero provided a single piece of advice or action to model so impactful that she adopted it as part of her life philosophy.
“[My] boss had a mirror on his desk, and one day I said ‘Dude, come on. Are you that vain that you have to look at yourself every day?’ thinking he would laugh,” she recalls. “He said, ‘No, look at my mirror.’ He had a little note on the mirror, and it said, ‘Whenever some-thing goes wrong or there’s a problem, look here first.’ ‘Look at yourself, start with you. That’s the one thing you can fix and change,’” he told me. That lesson stayed with me forever.”
Correa’s career has been built on hard work, intelligence, dedication, and passion for the mission, but her ability to learn about and to connect with those around her made her a renowned leader and matriarch of an extensive contracting family.
Passing It On
The stories of “who” Correa has influenced and “how” vary greatly. Her connections are not limited by age, or restricted by years of experience, location, or employer.
William (Will) Randolph currently serves as Founder and CEO of Think Acquisition. He met Correa when they were peer senior executives at DHS. As Randolph describes it, “Every now and then our paths would cross … we found ourselves in each other’s orbits.”
A few years later, when he was selected to serve as the Head of Contracting Activity at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), he reached out to her for advice. Correa, then working as the HCA at OPO, had previously served in the same role. Though they were only casual acquaintances, Randolph took the initiative to reach out.
“I was going into my fact-finding phase to understand what I was getting myself into and looking for any of the cheat codes, if you will,” Randolph explains. “I wanted to learn from her experiences. That’s when we first started connecting. I was trying to learn and understand the culture in anticipation of joining. And then I became her peer because I was the HCA at ICE and she was the HCA at OPO. Once again, we were in each other’s atmosphere and orbit, and I greatly appreciated her thinking.”
Through their continued conversations, he also discovered their shared origins at the Naval Sea Systems Command. What started as Randolph asking for advice turned into a long-term co-mentoring relationship.
When a position opened for the Assistant Director of Mission Support at ICE, Randolph went directly to Correa for her opinion on the position, since she had made the jump from the contracting to the program office side. He was interested in whether the move would help his career. Before the full question had even left his mouth, Correa said, “Yes, go for it!”
To this day, Randolph credits it as one of the best pieces of advice he has ever received.
Nina Ferraro is a career civil servant, like her father before her. When the Navy held interviews at her college for a procurement agent position, she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to work for the federal government. “I took the position not really knowing it was going to become a whole 40-year career,” she said. “I just hit my 40-year mark in August . Very quickly, I fell in love with the work, with being a civil servant.”
Through her early years in contracting, Ferraro’s father served as a career mentor and guide. Beyond family, she looked to supervisors and senior peers for help solving problems, answering questions, and learning. Ferraro’s belief in mentorship solidified during her time in the Women’s Executive Leadership Program offered by Graduate School USA, then called Graduate School USDA. Her greatest lesson came in how she was inspired to apply.
“Believe it or not, it wasn’t a mentor, coach, or a supervisor. It was a coworker. A coworker of mine came over to me and just said, ‘You should apply for this program, you would be so good at this.’ And at the time, she was a peer so she could have applied for it herself. I remember asking, ‘Why aren’t you applying for it?’
She replied, ‘I don’t know that it’s for me, but I see this in you.’ It was an ‘aha’ moment for me. It emphasized having your ears open for what others are seeing in you. It doesn’t have to be a senior leader. It doesn’t have to be your boss. I was getting good feedback on my performance in traditional ways, but that was one of the first times I remember someone just saying, ‘I see these qualities in you, and you would be really good at this.’”
By the time Ferraro met Correa, she was well into her career. For a few years, they stayed in one another’s orbits until Correa came into a new role at OPO overseeing Ferraro’s position. Even though Ferraro was remoting in from Philadelphia at a time before teleworking took off, Correa made her feel as valuable as the members of the in-person team in Washington, D.C.
Correa quickly became a true friend and mentor to Ferraro. She still is today, but one moment stands out to both of them as the true test of their mentorship relationship. When Ferraro left DHS to serve as the Senior Procurement Executive at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the agency had just experienced a massive data breach.
“My relationship with her and people like her were invaluable to me because I was a brand-new senior executive going through a public crisis in an agency that involved procurement that I inherited,” Ferraro said. “I walked into the dumpster fire … I reached back to Soraya, and she helped me through those years. I stayed there for three years, and she was a true friend, colleague, and mentor who helped me navigate challenges.”
On her end, Correa speaks highly of Ferraro’s successes at OPM, including Ferraro’s first congressional testimony. Before Ferraro left DHS, Correa told her “The day you decide you’re tired of that job, call me up. Do not accept any job with anybody else. You call me up and let’s see what we can work on.”
While Ferraro chuckled at the time, she did call Correa when she was thinking of leaving OPM. Correa, then Chief Procurement Officer at DHS, directed Ferraro to a position as Executive Director of the DHS Strategic Programs Division. Eventually, Correa fulfilled her own vision and hired Ferraro as her Deputy Director of Procurement.
If you ask Paul Courtney whether the skills he learned as a criminal justice major applied to his career in procurement, he’ll tell you the truth, “No, not at all.”
Shortly after Courtney graduated from college, his brother told him about an open position as a van pool driver for the procurement executive at the agency where he worked. Through the van pool, Courtney networked with other procurement professionals. He lever-aged his connections to earn his first job in the field. It came with the unexpected bonus of a cubemate by the name of Kevin Boshears.
A talented duo, they both found great success in the profession. Boshears went on to become the Director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization at DHS. When Boshears was nearing retirement, Courtney was the Head of Contracting for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Then, the FBI decided to move its contracting activity to Huntsville, Alabama.
Confronted with the possibility of moving, Courtney was worried, not for himself but for his staffers who did not want to, or could not, move. Turning to his longtime friend, Boshears, Courtney asked whether DHS needed any contracting professionals. Boshears asked for resumes and promised to pass them along to a colleague for help finding positions. That colleague was none other than Soraya Correa.
At the same time as Correa was helping place Courtney’s colleagues, she was looking for a new deputy. She had Courtney in her sights.
“I was happy to meet her and have a conversation with her as I kept putting resumes in front of her to find homes for people within DHS,” Courtney remembered. “Then she asked me about the deputy job, and I talked to her and Nina [Ferraro] at the same time. Nina was the Acting Deputy Chief Procurement Officer. It went well, we had a great conversation, and then Soraya subsequently offered me the job.”
“I turned her down.”
Correa describes this as the “interesting part” of the story:
“Some would say I used my tactics to get him mired, but what I did was talk him through his career in government, what he had left to accomplish, and whether it would be more beneficial to stay in or to go out to industry and then come back. That’s what we talked through, along with the benefits of the position. That’s where the mentoring came in. I influenced his decisions about his career, helped him understand what some of the benefits might be.”
After their conversation, Courtney told his family, “Yep, I’m going to go work for DHS.
For the next two and a half years, Courtney excelled. When Correa retired in the summer of 2021, he was selected to replace her as the Chief Procurement Officer of DHS, a role he continues in today.
Polly Hall is proof that not everyone in the civil service started off there.
For the first part of her career she worked in the academic sector, focused on strategic management and public policy. When she and her husband made the decision to relocate their family to Washington, D.C., Hall felt a strong call to federal service. A few years had passed since 9/11 and her husband was serving in the Navy Reserves. Hall’s question became, “How do I break into a federal career without starting over?”
Hall’s husband’s good friend and mentor from the Navy, Donna Jenkins, was working in federal acquisition.
“He connected me to Donna, who I knew as a friend of the family. We talked a lot about how to enter federal service, the work of the contract management professional, and the federal acquisition community’s important role in mission delivery. It was a really good fit for me. With Donna’s stewardship and mentorship, I ended up applying to the DHS acquisition professional career program and that’s how I entered federal service. Even from day one – or day zero – it was being recognized by others in the field who helped show me the path.”
Hall started her transition into federal service at Customs and Border Protection (CBP). She clearly recalls introducing herself to Cor-rea. They were at an industry event and Hall was immediately taken with Correa’s “visionary leadership approach, big ideas for the federal acquisition workforce, and evident passion in that first discussion.”
Though Hall doubted Correa would remember that first interaction, Correa did and recalled how Hall had impressed her with her “cheerful personality, great disposition, and go-getter attitude” from the moment they met.
Eric Cho, then-head of the DHS Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL) formally introduced Hall and Correa. He and Correa were confident that Hall would make an extraordinary contribution to the lab, so they hired her as strategy lead. She would go on to replace Cho as the second Executive Director of the PIL.
Many DHS experiences stand out to Hall, but above all she remembers how Correa enabled her and her team to truly influence and support the contracting workforce.
“[There was] this idea of failure as an option because we need to fail in order to learn. Soraya, no matter what, would have your back. The leadership commitment for us to do that was pretty atypical, right?”
That support continued even as Correa was retiring.
“When I left, and they were looking for a Senior Advisor to replace Nina – who became the Deputy Chief Procurement Officer – we talked about it. I said, ‘I would certainly recommend Polly for that position. If not, you’re going to lose her.’ Sure enough, that’s how Polly ended up in that job.”
Hall and Correa stay in touch, and Hall is committed to fostering a supportive and empowering environment for her teams, just as Correa did for her.
Harrison Smith is candid about being intimidated by Correa when they first met. It might have had something to do with her “synergy of passion,” to quote Hall, or the topic of their first conversations after Correa became DHS Chief Procurement Officer.
“I asked him, ‘How long have you been doing this job (Industry Liaison)?’ and he replied, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing it about a year and a half,’” Correa recalls. “I said, ‘You probably don’t want to do this much more than another year. Then you have to get back into operations if you really want to be successful and become an SES (Senior Executive Service member), because this is going to dead-end you.”
In the end he listened, of course. Smith said the time he spent working with Correa was fundamental to who he has become today.
A few integral lessons stick out to him. Smith remembers frequently being questioned by Correa, but not because she doubted him.
“She asked questions to teach me to argue my position with conviction and to [have] confidence in myself as an expert. She gave me leeway to talk to leaders, and foreign governments – latitude when she knew that I knew what she was looking for. There was trust and a safe space to talk through and learn from mistakes. Soraya is funny and she cares a lot about the people around her. You always knew you mattered.”
When Smith told Correa he had accepted a job as Deputy Chief Procurement Officer at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), she was thrilled for him. He joked that she was ready to be rid of him, but she reminded him the move demonstrated his growth and development – something to celebrate, even if it meant he was leaving DHS.
Smith has since left and returned to the IRS. He is currently the Director of the Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management Office. He has incorporated much of what he learned from Correa into his leadership philosophy. For Smith, having a network is the same as having friends – the connections are so genuine that you don’t notice the difference. He emphasizes looking deeper and having honest conversations about what drives people. He knows it’s okay to ask others, “What do you think?”
The first time he leads a new team, Smith intentionally says something wrong. He will continue to casually insert his incorrect statement until someone in the meeting has to correct him. It’s an exercise in building comfort so the team will feel more open to expressing their ideas and opinions. The best part is they have no idea he does it on purpose.
Smith says that Correa taught him that “the most important relationships are the ones away from the norm.”
The Next Generation
As with any family tree, the generations in Correa’s contracting family tree continue to multiply. Mentoring, being mentored, and making connections all are dynamic processes. Now, Correa’s protégés are mentoring yet another generation.
Randolph acknowledges the mentors throughout his career who believed in him. He carries this influence forward by championing others, such as Cheri Tyner, Chief Executive Officer of Acquisition Catalyst, and David Sanders, Director of the Washington Headquarters Service Acquisition Directorate. Ferraro has stayed close with Jennifer Seaman, Director of the Federal Protective Service Acquisitions Division, who has left and returned to DHS. She is working to connect Seaman with others in the acquisition community and guide her as she decides what she wants to do in the next phase of her career. Ferraro and Hall have a co-mentoring relationship. Hall looked to Ferraro for guidance when she took Ferraro’s old job, and Hall brings an outside perspective to Ferraro as she performs the Deputy Chief Procurement Officer role.
Hall, in turn, is thrilled to have played a role in the career success of her former colleagues, Scott Simpson, Digital Transformation Lead at PIL; Trevor Wagner, Director of The Lab at the U.S. Department of Commerce; and Catherine Mass, Financial Professional at DHS. The career of Sarah Todd, Executive Director of Acquisition Policy and Legislation at DHS, has benefited from Courtney’s support, as have those of everyone he helped place at DHS when the FBI was moving. Then, there are the unsuspecting IRS employees who are acquiring new anecdotes for their career philosophies when Smith makes deliberate mistakes to increase their comfort levels.
If you picked up this article looking for a step-by-step guide for joining a contracting family tree, I’m sad to inform you there is no single recipe. However, the stories of the “who” in Correa’s family tree make the “how” clearer.
For Will Randolph, a light foundation of professional interaction with Correa formed the basis of ongoing reciprocal mentoring. Nina Ferraro and Harrison Smith met Correa through the natural course of their careers, while Polly Hall and Paul Courtney were introduced to her by mutual friends. Though family-tree connections like these cannot be forced, Correa has a few suggestions to make them easier:
1. Remember to be authentic and genuine. Who you are matters most. If you let other people know you, they can adapt to your character.
2. Set goals for where you want to be in three to five years. Setting goals keeps you on a path to grow and achieve them, but if you aim beyond five years, you will drive yourself crazy.
3. Do not be afraid to reach out to people to connect or ask for advice. If they say no, it’s a reflection on them, not on you.
4. Build your technical and soft skills. Career advancement requires a mixture of both.
5. Communicate what you do, who you are, and why you’re qualified for the next job.
6. Listen to and watch those around you. Everything is a learning moment.
7. You can learn as much from weak leadership as you can from good leadership.
The human condition makes us excellent at recognizing what we excel at and what we don’t. But in those moments where we are struggling to excel, we’re fortunate to have a community to fall back on for guidance.
So, if you are looking for a step-by-step guide to making career-altering connections, I’m pleased to inform you that you already know how to do it. After all, it is contract management’s worst-kept secret. CM
Grace Rhodes has served on the publication team for Contract Management magazine for a year and a half. She earned her Bachelor of Science from The George Washington University, where she graduated in the top 1% of her class. She previously received the distinction of Enosinian Scholar from the George Washington University Honors’ Program for her research on altruism in non-biological families.