Chief Officer Awards Finalist Nancy Morgan: ‘You Need to Own Your Failures’

Editor’s note: The winner of the Chief Officer Awards Government CDO Award announced June 17 is Eileen Vidrine of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense.

On June 17, WashingtonExec will be virtually celebrating the most impactful and innovative C-suite executives in government and industry. These chief officers work in technology, security, data, operations, finance, business and more, excelling on both sides of the government contracting sector. Our team of judges have chosen the finalists for the inaugural Chief Officer Awards, so before we announce the winners during the event, we wanted to get to know the finalists a bit better. This Q&A series highlights their careers, successes, proud professional moments and notable risks.

Nancy Morgan, ODNI

Nancy Morgan is the intelligence community’s chief data officer and a finalist in the Government CDO Award category.

What are you primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?

First, it is leading intelligence community efforts to treat all data as an IC asset. 

We spend a large amount of resources collecting exquisite data and producing valuable intelligence insights. That value is diminished if we do not get the right information to the right people at the right time and in the right form. We also have to provide solutions to be sure that we appropriately share, safeguard and handle data across all of our environments. 

The IC consists of 17 different agencies who have a wide variety of exciting and diverse mission portfolios. They have a few things in common — we provide distinctive and timely insights to our customers and policymakers, and we need to understand the intentions of our adversaries and provide strategic warning on threats and opportunities. 

We continue work toward the goals in the IC Information Environment Data Strategy published in 2017. We are working on more common, secure and scalable data services and solutions to make it easier to quickly integrate information around the world. We are building on and evolving from initial data cataloging efforts to full data lifecycle management constructs.

In light of COVID-19 I would add another dimension — finding new ways to increase our resiliency, in some cases by adapting our use of information and data for secondary mission purposes. If you cannot get what you need, work with what you have. When you combine the data in new ways you gain new insights. 

Second, the IC CDOs are helping change the way the IC does business by applying technology to transform our intelligence tradecraft. We do not have enough humans to meet the growing volumes of data that we collect and produce. We need to accelerate our path to augmenting intelligence using machines to optimize the use of scarce resources, reimagine our work processes and automate labor intensive tasks where possible.

We are actively partnering more than ever before across the IC, with the Department of Defense, with the private sector, research labs and academia to ensure the United States has superior artificial intelligence and machines learning capabilities to keep our nation safe and provide more seamless intelligence integration. 

We are asking a lot of questions, such as: What is different about machines interacting with information and data than humans? What is different about blending humans and machines in various processes and workflows? What are the privacy and ethical considerations? While working on answers, we developing the related strategies for how we equip our workforce to be successful in the evolving digital age.

Third, we are creating a more data savvy workforce and growing data acumen at all levels of the organization. We recognize that we have a skills gap and there is fierce competition for talent with data acumen, even more so in the cleared world. As CDOs, we are working to foster a culture of data excellence that champions and rewards data centric behavior. 

  • Being more data savvy is a spectrum or perhaps even a maturity model. From having more general knowledge to building your data acumen where our workforce understands the basic vocabulary, concepts and attributes of data.  
  • The next levels are about growing their tradecraft and building their data acumen to develop a more disciplined appreciation of data. 
  • Then, moving to the advanced levels where we leverage knowledge and innovation to transform how we work and help current and emerging leaders make more data-driven decisions. 

It is not just about growing more data scientists and algorithm developers (although those skills are in high demand in the IC). It is about growing data acumen at all levels of the organization, combining domain expertise in new ways and applying critical thinking and analytic reasoning skills.

Growing data acumen is also about ensuring that information technology people can “speak human,” and helping mission partners successfully communicate with technologists and data masters. It’s about being comfortable working through the legal and policy aspects of what happens to the data. Frankly, people make themselves more valuable to the organization as they grow their data acumen. 

The IC is hiring. We are looking for bright and mission-driven individuals committed to tackling the world’s biggest problems. At Intelligence.gov, and on ODNI’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages, you can learn more than just the application process —you learn the reasons why people join the IC as well as why they stay. 

How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders? 

By serving as a coach and mentor — in both formal and informal ways. I like to provide perspectives on why things work the way they do and what they can do to influence change. I also share lessons learned and stories from my own past experiences. I also push them to take on challenging roles, even when they do not yet see their potential to be successful. 

I am fan of spot coaching techniques. Rather than telling a mentee the answers, using a series of questions to help them explore the situation and develop a strategy for moving forward, then check in with them to discuss how it went and what to do next.

Frankly, I get as much back from my mentees who offer different perspectives on how they see situations, or who show me new techniques particularly with emerging tools and technologies.

What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?   

You need to own your failures — and that which does not kill you makes you stronger! 

First, you need to engage when the going gets tough. Problems can and will happen. The magic is in how you handle the situation once the problem has been identified. Communicate with stakeholders, even when you to not have all of the answers on how the situation will be resolved. Tell them what you do know and give them interim progress reports. Most importantly, address what you will do differently going forward.

You will spend significantly more time assessing what went wrong, rather than studying what went right. Use that energy to think about how you would handle things differently the next time.  

In the IC, we tend to be very mission-outcome focused. It is important for project teams to find and highlight the good things (even when the going it tough), not just track and tackle the problems. We need to find more ways to celebrate success — and during situations like COVID-19, get even more creative in how we do that (hence more virtual events).

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps? 

Be open to new experiences. My career zigged and zagged in unexpected ways. In some cases, I was asked to take on leadership roles way outside of my comfort zone. In other cases, maybe I was not selected for a position I was competing for (and it turned out to the best thing for me), because then my career branched into whole new directions.

Each of those experiences from full time positions, to councils or working groups and task forces, to training and formal education situations, helped me build knowledge, skills and relationships that serve me well today in an executive leadership role. 

I am known for asking lots of questions that help build an understanding of the larger landscape, how the pieces and parts fit together, where there are dependencies and so on. I have worked with several information technology project teams using various forms of agile methodologies. In that space, you learn to ask three simple questions as part of various retrospectives and checkpoints: What is working well? What is not working well? And the most important question: What should we do differently?  

If you really listen to the responses of your subject matter experts, team members, partners and stakeholders, you will gain incredible insights. You may not always like what you hear, but if you are open to their insights and feedback, your teams can thrive. Whatever role you are in, try to learn about the perspectives of other stakeholders and partners. How can you work together or find some give and take to move the project forward. 

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