Vision, patience and determination

Faces of the Force: Joan Sable
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Joan L. Sable

COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center
TITLE: Deputy director, Acquisition Career Management Office; chief, Army Acquisition Workforce Strategy and Communications Division
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 20 in Army acquisition; 10 in defense acquisition
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level III in program management
EDUCATION: MBA, Strayer University; B.A., Longwood University
AWARDS: Army Acquisition Executive Excellence in Leadership Award, Acquisition Support Professional of the Year; Meritorious Civilian Service Award; Achievement Medal for Civilian Service; numerous Commander’s Awards for Civilian Service; numerous performance awards


 

by Susan L. Follett

As deputy director of acquisition career management, Joan Sable is responsible for strategic management of the human capital of the Army acquisition community—in short, the career development of most of the people reading this article. She will soon be wrapping up a 36-year federal career that includes 20 years in Army acquisition—and overlaps more than you think with her interest in interior design.

Fittingly, for someone who’s charged with managing the careers of 42,000 acquisition professionals, she noted that what she’ll miss the most is people. “I didn’t think when I started that I would stay for 20 years, but the people I work with have kept me here. I enjoy the work, the camaraderie and the partnerships and relationships we’ve built,” she said.

Those relationships are a key part of her success. “When I tell people what I do, they usually wonder how I manage a group that’s as big and as dispersed and diverse as the Army Acquisition Workforce [AAW] is. Then I explain that our robust acquisition stakeholder network ensures a true partnership between all the commands and organizations of the AAW community, and that I use data on a daily basis to inform decisions and challenges,” she noted.

Her work focuses on five goals:

  • Workforce planning to achieve current and future acquisition requirements;
  • Developing and sustaining a professional, agile and qualified acquisition workforce;
  • Developing and sustaining effective Army acquisition leaders;
  • Improving acquisition workforce engagement as a core business practice;
  • Improving communications and collaboration to support the acquisition workforce.

“My greatest satisfaction is seeing what we have put together resonate with AAW professionals,” she said. To ensure that resonance continues, Sable and her staff meet with representatives from across the AAW four times a year to find out what challenges are facing the workforce, including representatives from the program executive offices, Army commands and other organizations. “We want to make sure that our programs and initiatives are continuing to meet the needs of the workforce, across all AAW demographics.”

Sable came to Army acquisition in 1999, having spent several years as an acquisition research analyst with Defense Acquisition University. Her first position was as an acquisition career manager in the Acquisition Career Management Office. “I was excited about working one-on-one with people regarding their acquisition careers. With my background in education, it appealed to me. And, I like to make a difference.”

In the intervening 20 years, she has been witness to lots of changes and had the opportunity to work in several different roles. The Director, Acquisition Career Management (DACM) Office itself has changed, officially stood up in 2015 by combining four different divisions of the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center to take a holistic approach to ensure continued development of a highly adaptive, agile, professional and qualified workforce.

The organization’s mission has largely remained the same, Sable said, but has been tweaked to incorporate the use of data for better-informed decisions. For example, she said, “we know that 18 percent of our civilian acquisition workforce is eligible to retire today. What kind of succession planning should we put in place? What hiring initiatives? Can we develop programs to encourage them to stay? What plans do we have for transferring knowledge to the younger members of our workforce?”

She envisions more changes ahead. “Ten years from now, I think the AAW will be more robust and more technically adept. In private industry, we’re seeing a greater role for artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, and I think we’ll see the acquisition workforce becoming more skilled in those areas as well,” she said. “The acquisition stakeholder network that we’ve developed will be an important part of that, to ensure that the DACM Office continues to take a holistic approach to talent management.”

Defense acquisition as a whole also continues to evolve, she noted. “The biggest change I have seen is congressional support of the acquisition professionals in the form of funding, hiring authorities, training and development.” Most of that support comes through the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund, which was created in 2008 to provide funding for programs that recruit and hire, train and develop, recognize and retain acquisition workforce members. “The financial support demonstrates that Congress has faith in what we do and recognizes that it’s important to give acquisition professionals what they need for success,” Sable said.

Craig Spisak, DACM and Joan Sable, DDACM

Craig Spisak, director, U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center and DACM, presented Joan Sable, deputy DACM, with a flag that was flown over the Pentagon, during a Sept. 5 retirement luncheon to honor Sable’s 36-year federal career. (Photo by Catherine DeRan, U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center)

 

Sable has accomplished a great deal over the course of her career, and noted that a trio of accomplishments are a little more memorable than others. First was the Army Acquisition Dashboard, which was created in 2013 and provides daily updated data on the state of the AAW. “Before the dashboard, we were pulling data on demand in more of a reactive approach, and we’d get a lot of the same questions: ‘How many people are in the workforce? How many have a certain kind of degree?’ ” She and her staff conducted a handful of forums at which they presented all of the information that they were asked to produce on a regular basis. “It was a crazy amount of data—we put together a 200-page slide deck.” That slide deck became the requirements document for the dashboard, which gets more information to more people faster, and, Sable said, allows users “to slice it and dice it as they need to.”

Another memorable achievement was the AAW Human Capital Strategic Plan (HCSP), the blueprint for developing and sustaining the Army acquisition workforce through five goals. Work on the plan stared in 2015, and it was rolled out two years later. To create it, Sable and her team held a series of workshops with members of its strategic stakeholder network, ensuring broad representation of the AAW. “Today, we have a robust AAW HCSP governance process determining strategic initiatives to address human capital challenges. The AAW HCSP is a commitment to the Army acquisition profession.”

Sable also highlighted her work on developing the AAW Recruitment and Sustainment Center of Excellence, which will stand up at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in November. The center is the result of a 2017 pilot program that was sparked by a joint forum held in 2016 to address recruitment and hiring challenges. “Congress had been working hard to ensure the defense acquisition workforce had direct and expedited hiring authorities, but the Army could not figure out how to make them work,” Sable said. “In fact, the Army performed the lowest of all the services in that area.” In response, a centralized hiring pilot program was developed, focused on a small portion of the AAW. “The idea was that our HR [human resources] specialists needed to understand all the nuances about hiring acquisition professionals in concert with the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act,” she explained. The pilot was a success, reducing hiring time from 131 days to 84 days. The center, which will also have offices at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and other satellite locations, will continue the focus on a centralized approach to recruiting, hiring and sustaining civilian members of the AAW.

Outside of work, Sable is known among her family for her talents as an interior decorator. “I can envision how a space will look and then put the pieces together to achieve that vision,” she said. That hobby has a great deal in common with strategic planning for career development. “I can see the future and the path to get there, and then put the programs and milestones in place to achieve the vision,” she said. Whether it’s renovating a home or developing a career management initiative, both tasks also require patience and discipline. “It takes patience to get there and a commitment to the goal, and it can be difficult for those who cannot see what I envision until it actually evolves.”

On the job and outside of it, she has learned the importance of developing productive teams. “It takes a village to build anything—a family, a career, a milestone, etc. Surround yourself with a great team but know that it takes time to build one,” she said. A willingness to emphasize positives over negatives helps, too. “It’s great to know the areas where we need to improve, but when it comes to putting teams and goals together, I think it’s better to focus on the strengths of the individuals and what each person can accomplish to help the team move forward.”

As she prepares to depart, she had this advice for those just starting out: Be prepared, know what you want, and build a plan to achieve it. “We say it often, because it’s true: You are the best manager for your career. Where do you want to be in two, five or 10 years? Do you want to get another degree? Take part in a leadership development program? Figure out a plan, and develop a good relationship with your manager to help you get there.”


“Faces of the Force” is an online series highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce through the power of individual stories. Profiles are produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication and Support Branch, working closely with public affairs officers to feature Soldiers and civilians serving in various AL&T disciplines. For more information, or to nominate someone, please go to https://asc.army.mil/web/publications/army-alt-submissions/.

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