“Be Curious, Be Brave, and Be Committed”: An Interview with IRS Chief Procurement Officer Shanna Webbers The IRS CPO shares her thoughts on stepping out of your comfort zone, career mapping and professional development tips, and the critical importance of providing top cover as a leader.

 

“Be Curious, Be Brave, and Be Committed”: An Interview with IRS Chief Procurement Officer Shanna Webbers

The IRS CPO shares her thoughts on stepping out of your comfort zone, career mapping and professional development tips, and the critical importance of providing top cover as a leader.

The career journeys of contract management executives offer lessons and insights for NCMA members at all levels in their careers. For this reason, Contract Management has begun a new series of interviews with leaders from government and industry. In a sense, it began in our January 2021 issue, which led with NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad interviewing Dr. Michael Wooten, the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), about his career and his legacy at OFPP.

This month, we present Conrad’s discussion with IRS Chief Procurement Officer Shanna Webbers, in which she speaks about her career of stepping out of her comfort zone, especially during a tour in Afghanistan; offers tips, such as ticking off jobs on a career roadmap of personal interests; and shares her thoughts about the importance of providing top cover as a leader, her team’s procurement ’bot factory, and the patent application that has come out of it.

The interview, which occurred in December 2020, has been edited for length and clarity.

Kraig Conrad To be sitting in this role of chief procurement officer (CPO) at IRS, you must’ve done really amazing things and great things along the way. We’d love to hear about your journey to CPO.

Many who come into our profession had planned it, others just sort of ended up in it and grabbed opportunities as they came along the way. How would you describe your path to where you are today?

Shanna Webbers I started my career as an 1102 contract specialist back in the early 1990s, and I came to that path from the Outstanding Scholars Program. At the time, I really didn’t know what procurement was, but I was just so thrilled to get a job within the federal government—it was really exciting. For the first two weeks, they had me read the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). At that point, I thought that maybe my decision wasn’t the best… But it has really turned out to be a fabulous career.

Early on in my career, I created an informal career roadmap to follow, which was more like a list of the types of jobs or opportunities that I was interested in. I always felt that I would do better if I had interest in the subject area that I was working in. I would also periodically scan USAJobs.gov just to see what kind of jobs were being advertised or what skillsets were being sought—just to make sure I was marketable and remained relevant.

I also took opportunities to step outside of my comfort zone many times in my career because I do truly believe in the importance of walking a mile in the shoes of others. I felt that if I understood those who worked alongside my right and alongside my left, I could do my job so much better.

There were instances where it was really scary for me to step outside of my comfort zone, but they were so impactful on my ability to do my job better. I would really encourage people to just consider doing things like that.

As an example, when I was a GS-9 1102 contract specialist, I accepted a one-year detail assignment working with one of our largest customers. Because I was working on the customer side, as opposed to the actual procurement side of the house, I learned pretty quickly what they needed and what they wanted, and I learned how much they did not fully understand about procurement. When I returned after that year, I had such a different outlook on my job; how I supported my customers, how I explained the procurement process to my customers—it was really impactful. I was much more successful as a contract specialist, and later as a contracting officer, because I had that hands-on experience, walking a mile in the shoes of our customers and seeing firsthand what their experiences were working with procurement professionals.

By having my informal roadmap, I was able to quickly seize on opportunities because I had that insight on what I wanted to do. As an example, when I was a GS-15, I had just accepted a position elsewhere, but then my current boss asked me what it would it take for me to stay on for one more year to finish up the project that I had been working on. I knew exactly what I wanted at that point in my career, because I had already identified it. My boss supported my application to the National Defense University, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF), now the Eisenhower School.

Who wouldn’t want to go to school for a year and get paid your regular salary? But it was also an opportunity for me to engage with the inter-agency community. I really wanted to be exposed to different agencies to see whether they had the same challenges, different ones, or had already discovered solutions. How did they solve some of those issues that I had dealt with or in positions that I was considering? I was very focused at that point on the United States and what was happening within the U.S. space only and it made me realize the broader global implications of the Department of Defense (DOD) and what was happening with our international partners.

When I came out of ICAF, I sought out a position at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. At that point, I moved into that global aspect of supporting contingency operations. I was the operational contract specialist defining policy for DOD for contractors supporting overseas contingencies, such as the Global War on Terrorism. It was such a pivotal steppingstone, again, for me, going from a myopic view of just U.S.-focused to that global view.

I did deploy two times to Afghanistan in that assignment, and I will say it was the most challenging and the most rewarding time in my professional career. When I came back from those instances, I felt like I had a lot of street cred because I’d “been there, done that” and had a T-shirt to prove it. That was another opportunity where I just continued to step outside of my comfort zone. I had never deployed, being a career civil servant, but it just changed my view, working with NATO partners. As I moved into the ranks of the Senior Executive Service, having that broad perspective really allowed me to think more strategically.

 

KC Tell us about your current role. What are some of the favorite moments you’ve had as CPO? Was there anything that may have been surprising along the way?


SW I love working at the IRS, and that has been surprising to me. I talked about my roadmap—I’d update it constantly throughout my career. I spent the first 25 years of my career working in various organizations across DOD and I must admit that working at the IRS was not listed on my roadmap, but it has been so rewarding.

My favorite moments are when the staff are doing things and I hear about it after the fact. I’m consistently encouraging team members to feel bold and empowered because I’ve got their back.

As they are out there making great things happen, some that I’m not even aware of, I see that we are really moving from a risk-averse culture to one that embraces innovation and agility. Because I’ve set the strategic vision, I’ve identified the commander’s intent of what I want them to do, I feel that I have earned their trust. I’ve spent the last five years trying to demonstrate that I’ve got their back—that we’re all in this together.

You may have heard me say before that the perfect contract is one modification away. What I tell my team is, there’s probably nothing that we can’t fix. Even if we have to start over, there’s nothing that we can’t fix. It’s just a matter of understanding what we’re doing while we’re doing it and being able to defend our position. It doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with us.

Giving staff that empowerment where they feel that they can go forward and do things that are different without asking for permission, that is so rewarding and the best compliment that I could ever get from being a leader in the IRS.

 

KC The concept of giving top cover is really important. We’ve heard that across many of our conversations. Was there any example of someone who just ran with the ball, or a project that you weren’t seeing because you had given authority, and then, “Surprise!” here’s this amazing thing that was presented to you?

SW I think that one example would be a recent research partnership. The staff identified the importance of bringing academia in with industry to help our data analytics efforts. It was based on an internship with an organization called Coding it Forward, where we had a couple of college students that came in and helped us with some machine learning initiatives. The staff recognized the importance of allowing university students to understand how rich procurement data is; it’s such a big dataset across the federal government, and it allows them to have real case studies.

So, the staff created a requirement, and we awarded a contract with a small business that has a partnership with a couple of universities. Students will be using some of our case studies as part of their projects to help us come up with new solutions that we probably would not have come up with ourselves. I was so impressed and so amazed when I saw that the staff had just taken that initiative and run with it. It’s novel in the federal government today, I don’t know if there are many instances of this type of partnership, but I think it’s going to be game changing.

How do we bring new generations of individuals who understand procurement when they arrive and are not necessarily just starting from day one (like I did) with, “Here’s the FAR, start reading it.” It was Greek to me at that time. But here we’re cultivating that relationship. They understand procurement when they come in, and they are very data literate.

KC What made providing top cover important for you as a leader?

SW I try to just be the leader that I would want. I loved being fairly autonomous when my bosses knew that they could count on me to make something happen, and they let me go forward and do things. Where I did not have top cover, how disappointed I was. I felt like my leadership didn’t stand up for me doing what I thought was right. I do believe that every person has good intentions. I believe every decision people make is a good decision to them; people don’t intentionally make bad decisions.

So, they’re genuinely making a decision that they feel is the best decision. Hindsight is 20-20 and we can always look back and say, “Well, based on new information that we have today, we could have maybe pivoted our path a little bit this way or that way.” That’s the place where I’m coming from when I say I have their back: They’re doing what they think is right, so why would I not support their position?

That being said, however, it is important that we reflect on the circumstances at the time that drove those decisions, so we can continue to hone our decision-making and allow those lessons that we’ve reflected on to influence future decisions.

At the IRS, we’ve been talking about the difference between lessons learned and lessons observed. Lessons learned are where we’ve identified something we would do differently going forward and we’re going to try to employ that in our decision processes; whereas a lesson observed is one where we don’t necessarily have to do anything other than acknowledge that it may not have worked the way we wanted it to work.

I don’t think every lesson needs to be learned and acted upon. I don’t want the staff to carry a heaviness that they have to continuously be so focused on learning and doing something different. It can be something as simple as a lesson observed, which is really powerful, but they don’t have the heaviness of having to always do something different.

KC There’s a truism about procurement, which is that there’s always too much work, everybody’s always too busy, and there’s always a big pile of files on the desk. Why does this persist for what seems to be decades? What are we doing wrong that this continues?

SW I think procurement is a very stressful profession. There’s a lot of responsibility on the procurement staff. Because of that, I try to add a lot of levity throughout the day and things that we do to have fun. Laughter is good for the soul and it’s music to my emotional wellbeing. And so, recognizing that it is very stressful profession ensures we bring levity into the workplace.

In my experience, it’s just always a lot of work. You just move from one procurement to the next. I think it’s important that we identify what are those root causes in that.

I think that defining a requirement is really hard. I am remodeling my kitchen and my requirement keeps changing as I learn what’s available out there in industry, what is the newest and greatest and latest, and I see pictures—all this pushes my requirement to continuously change. It’s not easy to define a work requirement. So, how do we help the front end of that process so that when the package gets to procurement, we can go through that process in a more streamlined fashion?

Sometimes, I think we over-engineer it as well on the procurement side. Are we forcing the customer to come up with detailed requirements when we could potentially have more of a statement of objectives of what we’re trying to accomplish? That’s really hard to do. We’re trying to help with that. Within our game-changing transformation, we’re trying to tackle those big, hard issues.

We’ve created an organization that will help the customer, even with their market research, to help them understand what is out in the marketplace and to have those conversations earlier on and to help shape and craft their requirement with input from the procurement specialists. We have another team that is dedicated to trying to help the customer understand how to do their job better—for example, creating a Contracting Officer Representative (COR) Community of Practice. I think there are instances where we say, “Go take some online training, take what’s in the FAR, and go forth and write a requirement.” It’s really not that simple, or that easy.

So, how do we create a community of interest that allows them to understand what their roles are, to have a responsive and supportive network where they can ask questions and get them answered, to learn from the best of the best, and to interact with each other more cohesively across the organization? How do you connect all those dots?

We are trying to earn the trust of our customers so they will allow us to be involved earlier on in shaping acquisition strategies. We need to have a seat at the table early on, but to do that, we have to gain their trust. How do we do that? Focus on the partnership that we need to create with our customers. What does that person need and what are they trying to achieve? Not just with this one, single procurement, but more holistically. And so, with that in mind, we’ve also created an acquisition portfolio management organization.

Traditionally, we get one requirement at a time, we look at that one requirement, we come up with a strategy for that one, and we move on to the next one. But—if we understand more holistically all of the procurements, or at least a large set of the procurements that are needed to implement a program, we can make program-level acquisition strategies and decisions that are much better than a single strategy at a time. That helps us influence and make better decisions at an enterprise level as opposed to one procurement as it comes across a desk, which may be a different contract specialist or contracting officer each individual time.

We are focused on professional development and trying to change how we are looking at training. Instead of focusing so much on getting your continuous learning points—focusing 80% of training on the technical aspects of our jobs—change that to at least a 50-50 mix. How do we create contracting officers and contract specialists who are data literate? I need data literacy training for the contract specialist. How do we get that?

We’re working with industry on crafting the niche training we need to do our job better—the critical thinking and those communication and leadership skills that also help us gain credibility and trust with our customers.

KC At NCMA’s Government Contract Management Symposium (GCMS) on December 3 and 5, there was a lot of conversation about your robotic process automation (RPA) initiatives. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how those are advancing and whether there is anything else progressing to try to take care of those piles of files on the desks?

SW OK, I'm going to start quoting that. “Piles of files,” I love it!

Well, in the past, we focused on buying technology solutions to help our customers and we really did not have time, or did not take the time, to look to see what type of procurement-related solutions were available. But that has all changed, I can tell you. As part of our transformation, we created a data analytics and technology division and they’re responsible for managing our ’bot factory, where innovation and automation ideas are cultivated.

We have a couple of ’bots we’re currently using. One is a contractor responsibility determination ’bot. That was one of our first opportunities to really delve into a process that is repetitive, and the ’bot makes it simple and quick, reduces some data errors, and also increases compliance with our contract file documentation.

Additionally, we have a contract clause review tool. Sometimes, when I look at our internal processes and operations, I think, “How can it take us so long in the review process?” I don’t want people focused on asking, “Have you got all the right clauses?” I want them to be critically looking at our strategies and our approaches. We can automate looking at the clauses and even if that tool is only 80% accurate, it’s 80% less time we have to spend on looking at those clauses.

Again, that’s an opportunity where we can allow our staff to have time to actually think. I think it’s important to have time to think. There are instances where I ask my executive assistant, Valerie, to block some time off my calendar so I can think as opposed to just reacting. We feel that tools such as the contract clause review tool will allow that space for people to think and not just look at clauses.

The ’bot factory, where we can cultivate innovation and automation ideas, will help us expand our aperture on what we’re doing. During the last year, they introduced artificial intelligence through machine learning in our procurement process.

In fact, one of our procurement employees is working with IRS counsel today to apply for a patent based on one of his ideas for using machine learning to inform better buying decisions. It’s something that will not only help us within procurement, but I think it could prove to be game-changing governmentwide. I’m very excited for him and I think this will be one of many patents that come out of IRS procurement going forward.

KC Can you tell us more about it?

SW Well, I don’t want to go too far into the process. But as you are aware, Dr. Wooten, the administrator of OFPP, just released a memo recently talking about the importance of the AbilityOne Program and supporting individuals with disabilities. This machine learning opportunity would help us potentially identify other areas and other opportunities where we can look at utilizing various socioeconomic programs—whether that’s small, disadvantaged businesses; whether that’s veterans; whether that’s AbilityOne. It will help us be more targeted in finding those opportunities.

KC Speaking of Dr. Wooten, a big part of GCMS included the frictionless acquisition conversation and the Cross Agency Priority (CAP) Goals. What are your thoughts? What are you seeing across agencies, and how do you think this type of sharing will affect what you’re doing at IRS?

SW The frictionless acquisition initiative, that CAP goal—it specifically says that the federal government will deliver commercial items at the same speed as the marketplace, and will manage customers’ delivery expectations for acquisitions of noncommercial items by breaking down barriers to entry using modern business practices and technologies. A pretty big mouthful, right? That partnership with industry and academia that we created this year? That is specifically targeted to how we take big data across the federal government and identify how to buy things faster. What are the roadblocks that are impeding our ability to purchase at the same speed as the marketplace? To understand what those barriers are, we need to look beyond just what we’re doing in the IRS procurement environment. So, that partnership is analyzing data across the federal government, the acquisition data that’s publicly available.

I’m confident that this partnership will be game-changing. We are on the cusp of delving into this area, but I think that through this partnership over the next year, when we come out of this year’s worth of work of examining what the data’s saying and highlighting areas where we wouldn’t traditionally know to look, this is going to give us many insights and initiatives going forward starting next fiscal year.

KC With all the changes that we’ve had over the course of last year, and that are still yet to come, what advice do you have for the acquisition workforce as we look into the future?

SW My advice would be to be curious, be brave, and be committed to giving your best every day. Your best is not the same every day. Some days you don’t have as much to give, but be committed to give what your best is every single day. Get away from the cut-and-paste culture, where you use templates and checklists. Really focus on your business acumen skills; critical thinking, data literacy, communication, leadership—those are the things that are really going to set you above and set you apart from others in the acquisition field.

And—be aware of opportunities! There are so many different opportunities. I love acquisition because it offers myriad things that you can work on. It’s not the same every single day.

So, again—be curious, be brave, and be committed to giving your best every day.

CM

 

Shanna Webbers        Chief Procurement Officer, U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

The statements expressed in this article are solely the views of the interviewee and should not be considered the official positions of the U.S. federal government. This interview was conducted in December 2020. This article summarizes the full interview; it has been edited for length and clarity.