WELCOME TO PEO EIS – Smith, center, and Brendan Burke, center right, deputy PEO, hosted a full-day newcomers orientation on Sept. 15. Smith and her leadership team have taken steps to strengthen the transition for newly hired employees from training for their jobs to doing the job, by reinforcing the fundamentals of acquisition and program management. (U.S. Army photo by Scott Weaver, PEO EIS)
PEO EIS goes back to basics, such as technical training and practical applications, for acquisition talent management.
by Ellen Summey
“Sight the enemy. Duck and cover. Protect your fallen comrade. Provide aid only after you stop taking fire. When we’re training Soldiers and preparing them for battle, it’s all about the basics. Repetition, repetition, repetition.” Chérie Smith routinely refers to those foundational lessons in her role as program executive officer for Enterprise Information Systems (EIS).
“We drill our Soldiers on the fundamentals in the operational side of the Army. We build on those fundamentals, putting our troops in more and more stressful environments, allowing them to apply those basics as individuals, as well as small teams. We send them out to a combat training center, where they learn to work as part of a larger team,” she said.
“We should apply this approach to training our acquisition professionals. Limit critical classroom time on things like earned value management and the ‘Gold Card,’ which many program managers will never use. Remove classes on special interest topics like team personality traits and offer them outside of the core curriculum.”
Since Smith assumed the role of program executive officer in 2018, she and her leadership team have worked to bring those training fundamentals into focus. “We observed that our new folks were coming in directly from training and still didn’t understand how to apply the things they had learned,” Smith explained. “We try to take it to the next level. We use experts from Defense Acquisition University and from our own organization to show them how to apply acquisition principles in the real world management of their respective programs.”
“We’re going back to basics,” she said. “Like [Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [James C.] McConville says, ‘Winning matters.’ We need to be as focused on the outcome as we have been on the process. If our old training process isn’t producing the desired outcome, then we need to change our approach. More and more training is being done online, and we lose the benefit of the interaction we had in the past. The ability to hear how others managed a problem and what worked and what didn’t.”
THE ONLY CONSTANT IS CHANGE
The acquisition world is experiencing seismic shifts, as the Army and DOD focus on rapid fielding, modernization and finding ways to keep pace with technology. Beyond systemic changes and Army policies, Smith believes the workforce needs to have the technical skills to make that happen.
“Our folks need the right balance of hands-on experience and classroom education,” Smith said. “Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski [principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology] was able to push through some of those curriculum changes at Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), and I think that’s the smartest thing they could have done.”
In 2019, NPS awarded its first ever master of science degrees in systems engineering management to a class of 30 Army acquisition officers. The new curriculum focuses on advanced technical skills and allows participants to apply their education in hands-on projects during their training. “We desperately need that technical training and practical application,” Smith said, “rather than being so focused on simply obtaining a certification or passing a test.”
“Put the focus back on the total systems engineering process,” Smith said. “Defining and identifying the problem is only the first step. Understanding what to do once you identify the problem is challenging when you understand the differences in software systems versus weapon systems. We’re trying to groom people to take command at that next level, and I think teaching them how to manage technology is much more valuable. They have to know enough technology to be able to manage it.
Smith feels that progression through school should be more thoughtful, with a focus on ensuring the right balance of actual experience in a program office managing cost, schedule and performance. “At NPS, you’re reintroducing them to management of technology and updating their skill sets. I’ve heard from students there who feel it’s really been stretching them, because they hadn’t used their math or engineering skills in years,” Smith said.
Communication and cohesion can be challenging for any group, much less an organization as large and complex as PEO EIS. With 37 program offices and 71 acquisition programs focused on communications, logistics, medical, finance, personnel, training and procurement systems for all 10 combatant commands, “complex” is an understatement. “We have a very large and diverse portfolio,” Smith said, “but that is not an excuse for poor communication or siloed programs. It means we have to prioritize clarity and be intentional about our messaging and team building.”
To build that sense of cohesion, Smith and her team have focused on developing organizational identity, clarifying priorities and enhancing information sharing. Recently, they decided to try a new approach. “It just so happened that we had several O-6 deputy positions open at the same time, through natural attrition and the timing of career moves. We seized that opportunity to create synergy among the incoming deputies,” she explained. PEO EIS leaders are deliberate about the way they train, develop and integrate those roles, and the deputies help define and implement the EIS training program. “They proactively lead the talent management and training initiatives of the EIS workforce. They are given not just the responsibility, but real authority to make that happen.”
Smith said the result is improved communication and unity among members of the cohort, with a focus on information sharing and lessons learned. “That communication is key, in my mind,” Smith said. “We need to take advantage of the knowledge that already resides in our organization.”
In addition, the PEO EIS leadership team has taken a new approach to the Senior Rater Potential Evaluation. They use the tool to identify top technical experts in each relevant field (cyber, data, cloud computing, etc.), and tie that to relevant training opportunities to refresh their skill sets.
“If you’re at the top of your field in anything, whether it’s technology, program management or finance, then you’re probably the last person anybody wants to see go away to training for 30 days,” explained Deputy Program Executive Officer Brendan Burke. But Burke feels strongly that the organization has to make it possible for those top technical team members to attend more robust training, for the betterment of the workforce. “Letting them go to training should hurt, but we have to be willing to accept the pain of losing a good person for a while, because it’s the right thing to do in the long run.”
NOT ALL SUNSHINE AND RAINBOWS
Anyone who has worked in talent management knows it is more than just promotion and team building. “Talent management is hard work,” Burke said. “Managing the lower-performing members of the team isn’t something that’s fun to talk about, though. Promotions make up about 90 percent of the typical conversation about talent management. And that is important, but that’s only part—and it’s the easy part, at that. The hard part is holding people accountable and identifying who to move.”
Smith agreed that talent management is sometimes difficult, and she feels that supervisors need to provide clear examples and metrics, to take as much emotion out of the discussion as possible. “If you can show metrics and you can give data, people may not like it, but they can’t argue data.” You can’t get stuck in the role of wanting to be the friend, Smith said. “You have the responsibility to make them better—to help them grow. Grow or go.”
“Grow or go” is a very concise but accurate summary of Smith’s no-nonsense approach to aligning talent with the demands of the organization. “When working with someone who is not performing where they should be, or where we know they can be, you have options,” Smith said. “One of those options may be to move that person into a new role, which may stimulate and challenge them, and allow them to blossom. But you have to move them for the right reason. Some individuals just need a change and a new opportunity, while others may be experiencing more challenges or may be unwilling to move.”
Whatever the case, Smith is clear that the change has to be linked to data. “Track their progress even after they move, to evaluate whether it benefited both the organization and the person.” This approach echoes the directive of the Army People Strategy, that leaders “provide Soldiers and Civilians with positions that unleash their passions and talents, maximizing performance and productivity in both the operating and generating forces.”
“Underperforming individuals can really damage morale, because their teammates will pick up the slack,” Smith said. “Those teammates are doing more work and watching someone else get paid for it.” To take care of the team, Smith feels it’s vital to also manage members who simply aren’t performing. “That’s part of that supervisor differential, in my mind. That’s part of what you get paid to do as a supervisor. We must be willing to say, ‘You’re not producing to the level you’re being paid for, or to the level of your potential.’ Provide the opportunity for the person to perform, hold them responsible, and provide frequent feedback.”
THE MAGIC WAND QUESTION
There is no simple solution to the Army’s talent management challenges, but Smith has some ideas about where to start. “If I could wave a magic wand and solve this whole issue, I’d create a new standard for progression,” Smith said, “and a level of training and experience that would be required, almost like prerequisites.” The Army’s current time-in-grade requirements and educational guidelines do not adequately consider real-world experience, in Smith’s estimation.
“Instead of focusing on time in grade, I’d rather look at practical accomplishments,” she said. “Once you’ve demonstrated competence in managing risk and applying corrective actions with follow-up metrics on a program of a certain size, then you can go to the next level. We should be intentionally integrating more real-world application with the traditional training. We need to consider things like what milestone the program is in, what type of program it is (e.g., weapon, software, services) and what role the individual had on the program.”
Smith feels she was very fortunate in this regard, since she came into the original Acquisition Corps with program management experience already under her belt. “I had been doing program management probably 15 years before,” she said. “When they stood up the Acquisition Corps, I already knew how to manage a schedule, I knew how to lay out a work breakdown structure. I had done it the wrong way enough times to know that you have to have a little wiggle room for the unknowns that you will find. There are always going to be a couple of things you just never thought would happen, and you’re going to have to adjust. The experience of finding risks or identifying problems and having an opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t work in different circumstances was the best teacher.”
It’s that kind of experience that Smith wants to see incorporated into the training requirements for new Acquisition Corps members. “That’s the kind of fundamental skill that should be taught and that’s not being taught at all those basic courses now,” she said. “If you live it a few times, you have context. It just makes sense to you.”
In many ways, Smith’s approach echoes the Army People Strategy, which was released in October 2019. Talent management has been a challenge not only for PEO EIS, but for the Army in general, and senior leaders recognize the need for an overhaul. The new strategy puts an emphasis on matching people to the right positions and ensuring that experience and expertise are prioritized, which Smith believes will benefit her workforce in software and network program management.
In particular, the strategy seeks to “increase the rigor associated with the training and education of Army professionals, aligning credentialing and certification more closely with demonstrated and measurable expertise rather than time in grade, service or position.” For Smith, this change is a promising sign of things to come. “The Army is focused on modernization, and we see that in the new People Strategy, and the emphasis on the Integrated Personnel and Pay System – Army (IPPS-A) and the Accessions Information Environment (AIE).”
PEO EIS is leading the acquisition efforts for both IPPS-A and AIE, in conjunction with functional partners across the Army. McConville has said these two projects reflect the Army’s recognition that its people are its greatest asset. “No matter how much technology we develop, Soldiers will always remain the centerpiece of our Army,” he said. “We equip people, we don’t man equipment, and that philosophy will not change.”
For more information, contact PEO EIS at email@example.com.
ELLEN SUMMEY provides contract support to PEO EIS at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for Bixal Solutions Inc. She holds an M.A. in human relations from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in mass communication from Louisiana State University. She has more than a decade of communication experience in both the government and commercial sectors.
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