Air Force Installations Contracting Commander Brig. Gen. Alice Trevino cultivates infinitely patient change agents who can lead, follow, and bring along stakeholders.
The career journeys and perspectives of contract management executives offer lessons and insights for NCMA members at all levels in their careers. For this reason, Contract Management is conducting series of interviews with leaders from government and industry.
This month, we present NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad’s discussion with Brigadier General Alice W. “Ali” Trevino, Commander of the Air Force Installation Contracting Center (AFICC), part of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center within Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH. Gen. Trevino leads 750 operational acquisition professionals overseeing $55 billion in contracts at the Air Force’s center of excellence for contract management and market intelligence.
The interview, which occurred in April 2021, has been edited for length and clarity.
Kraig Conrad: Thinking about your career journey, which opportunities did you grab along the way, which ones just happened, and which ones were just pure luck?
Ali Trevino: Thanks, Kraig. First of all, I want to thank NCMA for having me. As I was thinking through this interview, I have to share that I have my first NCMA membership card. I've been a member since 1997. I think it leads into your question, because in 1996, I got to go to an NCMA educational forum on commercial item acquisition. I was a first lieutenant at the time. Ms. Becky Weirick—she was an Air Force captain at the time, and now she's deputy assistant secretary of the Army for procurement—encouraged me to go to this educational forum on commercial item procurement. Then, a year later, I decided to join.
Sometimes I think that opportunity knocks. Sometimes you open the door; sometimes you don't think it's knocking for you. I think it's preparation meets opportunity, perspiration, how resilient you are in trying to go after something.
We say around here, if you have a dream but you don't have a goal or a plan to meet it, it's just a dream. It's about being prepared where you can and then seeing where there's an opportunity potentially knocking on your door—or finding a door that you knock on, and if no one answers, you climb through the window!
KC: Those are great words. I think that as many folks in this profession look back on their careers, there certainly are things you can be prepared for, but you don't know what opportunity is going to avail itself at any given time. A lot of it is preparation and some of it is chance.
AT: I collect quotes and one of my favorites is by John Wayne. He said, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” Just moving forward. I loved watching Westerns with my dad growing up, so being courageous, being lucky, all of those rolled into one.
KC: I'd like to switch gears and jump into conversation about another of your favorite quotes, which is related to the now three-year-old National Defense Strategy (NDS).[i] That line is: “We must outthink, outmaneuver, outpartner, and out-innovate our adversaries.” You've said that this encapsulates what mission-focused business leaders do. Can you share some real-life examples of contracting folks outmaneuvering, outthinking, outpartnering?
AT: When the NDS came out in January 2018, I was working for Defense Secretary James Mattis and Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. My job, as a principal military assistant, was to read, synthesize, and prioritize all the paperwork for Secretary Shanahan’s review, signature, and approval. We got to read all the drafts of the NDS, the rough drafts and then of course the final version. The line that is my favorite. The outmaneuvering, outpartnering, outthinking, out-innovating, challenging us to do things that we haven't done before, being a change agent, that's where it started for me, with the NDS.
I would encourage all your readers, if they haven't read the NDS lately, to read it. It's a great document to read and to think through. It's about lethality and readiness, it's about our allies and partners, and it's about business reforms and changing the way that we operate and do acquisition. Outmaneuvering, outpartnering, out-innovating, and outthinking go with every single one of those lines of effort.
A great example has to do with COVID. We're always looking at how we have responded to that. I guarantee that most of your readers, if you had asked them a year ago, “Could you imagine the way we are using the innovating tools that we have at our disposal?” Not many of them would have said, "Oh, yeah, I could do that." Instead, we couldn't even find masks last March. But now you can go online, you can go into a store, and you can get cloth face coverings.
In May 2020, after we had been in COVID for a while, the Air Force 764th Enterprise Sourcing Squadron had an industry day planned for air-based air defense. At one time they were going to cancel it. Instead, they decided to do it virtually. And because they decided to do it virtually, they had over 70 attendees.
So, there's your first one: They outmaneuvered COVID. They didn't cancel; they pressed through.
I'll combine out-innovating and outthinking. In the past, for an industry day, you’d share your requirement. You're trying to get people interested, your vendors and your suppliers, or potential subcontractors, and invite large businesses, small businesses and medium-sized businesses to learn about that requirement. But the 764th gave out the performance work statement. They even provided their proposed acquisition strategy and evaluation methodology—how they were going to look at the requirements—and they got huge, candid feedback because of that. Open communications, collaboration, inviting people that would not have been able to even travel in some cases. The candid feedback alone that they were able to garner from that, is exactly what we need for all requirements, not just this one.
They had one-on-one meetings with over 46 small businesses and vendors that had counseling to ask more questions, get more in-depth information about the requirement and dialogue. That was the outpartnering piece. The outcome of it all was they really honed that requirement. So, instead of the typical way of putting out a request for proposal or even a request for information, hosting a virtual industry day allowed so much more potential. It was a resounding success.
That's one of my favorite examples.
KC: I want to transition now to how you prepare your teams. We know you're a huge proponent of education; you have many master’s degrees, including one in human resource development. With all of that, how do you help your staff develop and continuously hone the mission-focused business leader skills and behaviors that Maj. Gen. Holt [Air Force deputy secretary for contracting] so strongly promotes?
AT: I'm going to try to break down the knowledge, skills, and attributes (KSAs) that Maj. Gen. Holt developed under Level of Effort 1 for his Flight Plan,[ii] as a mission-focused business leader. You have mission focus, you have business acumen, you have relationship building, you have leadership, then you have technical skills, and lastly critical thinking.
When I think through that, I always try to zoom out and then zoom in. When I zoom out, I'm trying to think a little bit more strategically about what I'm trying to accomplish. Then I can zoom in and have or design a targeted plan that I can implement.
I think of myself as both a leader and a follower. And I think those go hand in hand. You have to be both; you can't be just one. Sometimes at the beginning of the day, you might be following someone else, and at the end of the day, you might be leading.
Great leaders follow first—a thought-provoking article written by Major General retired Michael Rothstein you can search for publically. If you can develop your followership skills, then you can help others through whatever it is. I consider myself a leader, a follower, a change agent. If you see something that you want to improve upon, you have to be a change agent. “Change agent” could mean lots of different things to different people: firestarter, igniter, disruptor, innovator, superhero.
KC: You mentioned being a change agent. What does a change agent actually do?
AT: That's a great question. I have been reflecting on change agents for my entire career. At the Air Force Academy, I was a management major—I loved business even back then—and one of my favorite classes was organizational behavior. We were introduced to the concept of change agents. It’s Lippitt, Watson, and Westley[iii] whose team is credited with identifying the seven phases of planned change that are experienced by change agents.
You have to identify that you have a problem. Then, you have to look at your resources and find somebody to help you who has the talent to help you solve that problem. They have to come up with a plan, then be able to implement it and then keep sharing it. If you don't share it, nobody knows what you're doing or what you're trying to achieve.
The change agent piece that comes along with this is that you have to be inexhaustibly patient; you have to be inexhaustibly curious, courageous, and positive. You have to be patient because some people aren't going to get it immediately. You have to know where you're going, and you have to be relentless or tireless about that and about sharing it with all stakeholders. People may not have been stakeholders yesterday, but they are today. Now you need them on your team because as the African proverb goes, alone, we can go fast, but together we can go far.
Patience is key. And a lot of people are not patient; we are, on average, very impatient. I'm impatient, but I force myself to be patient. It's going back and forth, knowing when you need to be patient and then knowing where sometimes maybe you need to be a little impatient. If you can't share the message and you can't explain the why, nobody wants to follow you. You may be leading, but without followers. A, that’s not much fun, and B, you're going there alone. That isn't the type of change that we're seeking.
Sometimes people ask, why are we doing it that way? It can’t be just “because I said so.” That's the easy answer. You have to explain it. So, cultivate curiosity in your team. That's where we go really far.
That and courage. One of my favorite books is Dare to Lead; the author, Brené Brown, talks about understanding what your priorities and values are. She has a lengthy long list of values in part two of the book and people typically circle 10 of them. But you can only have one to three priorities or values, otherwise nothing is important.
I worked for then Rear Adm. Mark Harnitchek when I was at U.S. Transportation Command. He retired as a vice admiral and director of the Defense Logistics Agency. When I worked for him, he always talked to us about “the three big rocks”, and did we know what the three big rocks were. The first time I heard that, I was like, what the heck is he talking about? But it has to do with your priorities. Brené Brown says, "You’ve got to understand your 1-2 values, the beliefs that are most important and dear to you," and Admiral Harnitchek called them the big rocks. Sometimes people call them “elephants”, which is a way to say they are large undertakings and you have to be tenacious much like how this impressive mammal is revered.
KC: The Air Force is now the Defense Department’s center of expertise for category management, which includes market intelligence, the theme of this issue. How can NCMA members expect to be affected by market intelligence, and how best can they take advantage of it?
AT: Here at AFICC we started in 2014 doing category management. We used to be the Enterprise Sourcing Group, and then we were Air Force Installations Contracting Agency, and all that time the team has been looking through the category management lens, which we learned from industry. We interviewed the Wal-Marts of the world, the FedExes of the world that did category management first. And we've learned from them. What's been fun about that journey is the dialogue. There is no perfect solution to what market intelligence is.
It's a growth industry for sure. If I'm talking to a very junior airman, or a very junior Copper Cap[iv] civilian, or a lieutenant in a unit, and I ask them the difference between category management and regular contracting and enterprise sourcing. I probably will get some big eyes and they don't know. So, I’ll try to zoom in and zoom out, and I'll say, “You know what market research is. We know how important market research is. And market research, no matter what requirement you buy, no matter what you end up procuring, you need market research in your file. It is mandatory.” I’ll say, “Here's business intelligence or market intelligence. It's a step up. If you read the category intelligence reports (CIRs) that we have, that we share, those are a deep dive into your analysis of spend.”
Let's say we're buying computers. Everybody buys computers, so with category management, there's huge potential if the federal government understands how we collectively buy computers, and if we share that information. We interview industry that sells computers. But we also interview suppliers and maybe ancillary industries that sell components that make the computers better. When you have a computer, you usually print something. We might look at printers too. We're looking at it as a system, but it's a commodity that we're all used to buying.
We're gathering information or data about the past, and we're looking at how we spend money on computers currently. Then we look to the future: How can we spend our money more wisely to get better bang for the buck? Because guess what? Any dollar I save, now I can buy more weapon systems or combat capability for the war fighter. It's a huge return on investment almost immediately. We're trying to get people to think about what we're buying, what we should be buying, and using that market intelligence in better ways.
I'll just say lastly that your readers can go out and Google the Government Accountability Office’s category management report that came out Nov. 30, 2020.[v] The recommendations that they make will inform your readers and give them a little bit more so they can do their own self study, which I think is the best way to learn. Or they can download The Contracting Experience podcast “Episode 7: What Business Intelligence Can do for You--Pete Herrmann” on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google to hear directly from one of our finest change agents.
KC: Please talk a little bit about how you see category management playing into or supporting innovation urgency.
AT: Mr. Rich Lombardi, our category management agency official likes to say, "We're on a journey and you have to bake it in." I think that how we bake category management in is where the untapped potential is, so it is part of our contracting DNA. And that has to do with culture.
That's again why being a change agent is so important to me because you can't just come in and sprinkle fairy dust over culture and say, "You're fixed, you're the way that I want you to be." It's fortitude, it's sweat, it's ingenuity, it's bringing in people who think differently than you do. And it's partnering again with industry, academia, asking lots of questions.
We have a category intelligence report (CIR) on land mobile radios (LMRs). The Air Force purchases them, the Army purchases them, the Navy purchases them. Lots of federal government agencies purchase them. Internally for the Air Force, we had an LMR CIR, and we looked at the data to see where we were spending our money. Interestingly enough, I can't just go out and say, how many LMRs do I purchase? Because they could be coded differently.
You have the product service codes (PSCs) and there is no funding line for LMRs. It's usually operations and maintenance, regular annual money that goes to a base. And the base says, I need LMRs. When our CIR team did this deep dive, they found 78 installations worldwide, and 78 different ways of buying LMRs.
The inherent gut sense is that we could probably be buying them a little bit more efficiently. And the LMR team found the substantive data. One of the recommendations that came out of that CIR was to stand up an Enterprise LMR product management office. Very recently, the Air Force signed out a letter that said, "Yes, this is important enough that we're going to establish a product management office, and we're going to be more involved, more proactive, and more strategic on how we purchase LMRs. And by achieving certain efficiencies and instilling them, baking them, into the culture of buying LMRs, you would reap this much in savings.”
So, that's a long-winded answer to say, here's a true-life example that the team worked on for over a year and a half. We had to talk to many stakeholders. Even if you have the best ideas, if you're not talking to the right people—Congress can and should be involved as well because they're the ones who give us our funding lines—it's a different way of communicating and sharing that information and making sure that people have the right information to make decisions. That's what I really like about category management.
We have to set and share expectations and explain why, they say, seven times seven, 49 times. You think that you're being really efficient and effective at communicating. But throughout COVID we learned that we could communicate better. I think that the strategy is overcommunicating, even though people might delete your e-mails. It’s finding different forums: video, blogs, Facebook. We use a lot of Facebook and even got into Facebook Live, which a year ago we were not tapping into at all. A special shout-out to Ms. Sylvia Becker, our leader in strategic communications, for getting us out of our comfort zone.
And I would say to readers, don't just get outside of your comfort zone, but expand your comfort zone. Getting outside of your comfort zone implies you're going to go back to where you were comfortable. But if you expand your comfort zone, you're a whole lot more comfortable than you ever were before you made that expansion.
KC: Now, onto our final question. What would you share with someone who's considering a job in the federal government and government contracting? Particularly, how would they be able to have an impact quickly in their careers?
AT: What I would tell the next generation is, come join us. There are lots of challenges out there, or what we sometimes call opportunities for improvement, and I would like you to be a part of solving those problems. It's not just about problem identification, it's about providing solutions and preventing problems. We need you on our team!
There's nothing worse than somebody sitting over to the side saying, “I knew that was going to happen.” Why didn't you speak up? We could have avoided this altogether. I fail every day, but that's because I'm experimenting and trying new things, and then I learn from my failures and try not to repeat them. Plus, I’m an optimist and am confident we can solve anything together.
For the future, the next generation of contracting operational acquisition, we need you—our nation needs you. We want you to be a part of the solution. Just finding that passion through acquisition and contracting, there are so many people who want to share their story with you. And we want you to be a part of the story as well.
KC: That's a great way to end this. General Trevino, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it. And thank you for your continued support of NCMA and of our global mission.
[i] Mattis, James, “National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” January 19, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf
[ii] “Air Force Contracting Flight Plan: Mission-Focused Business Leadership,” November 13, 2019, https://www.ncmahq.org/docs/defaulysource/awards/af-contracting-flight-plan-13nov19-ecopy.pdf
[iii] Ronald Lippitt, Jeanne Watson, and Bruce Westley, The Dynamics of Planned Change: A Comparative Study of Principles and Techniques. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958, https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.132936/2015.132936.The-Dynamics-Of-Planned-Change_djvu.txt
[iv] The Copper Cap Program is an Air Force-managed program designed to train college graduates and place civilians within the Air Force work environment as contract specialists. https://afciviliancareers.com/blog/the-copper-cap-internship-program-endless-possibilities/