The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.
Next is Healthcare Government Executive of the Year finalist Cal Stephens, who serves as Defense Health IT Division lead at the U.S. Navy’s Naval Information Warfare Center Atlantic. Here, he talks about his career highlights, rule breaking, shaping next-generation leaders and more.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the two major cyber capabilities I stood up during my time at NIWC, which are the cybersecurity service provider and the Cyber Red Team. Only a handful of entities in the Defense Department have these certified capabilities (23 CSSPs and 10 red teams) and even fewer have both capabilities.
Having these capabilities has provided a continuous stream of new work for NIWC in Charleston and combined with ancillary supporting services has employed more than 500 people in the Charleston area in a high-demand, cutting-edge area that would not have existed had we not invested in building this capability over 10 years ago.
What has made you successful in your current role?
Without a doubt, it has been the program leads that work immediately under me. I have nine excellent leaders that know their work, know their customer and know their team members. My job has largely revolved around building connections between these several teams to deliver integrated capabilities to our customers, several of which were the source of our significant accomplishments in 2019 and 2020.
Which rules do you think you should break more as a government/industry leader?
I would like to see the government move away from fixed-price work with industry as the default type of acquisition. I think they should be the exception as opposed to the rule. I have rarely seen anyone in the government have requirements for a contractor that are well enough defined/stable enough to make it through the procurement process (usually six to nine months or longer) and last for the life of a standard 5-year contract. Change orders which are complicated to execute almost always result and usually eliminate the perceived value to the government for doing a fixed-price contract.
What has made me successful has been leveraging industry as a true extension of my team versus turn-keying requirements out primarily using more flexible-cost type contracts. Very few times have our requirements been well defined enough to turnkey them to industry for execution.
I have found that I have been most successful when I have asked industry to provide me with capabilities I can integrate with my government team to deliver a combined, seamless, service/capability to my customer. I will state that the government must have highly technical and competent project managers to be successful with the approach I have laid out.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
The best advice I think I could give is some advice that was given to me: Try to avoid saying anything you’ll regret when you’re mad, especially in writing. Whenever I thought a customer was being unreasonable or just plain made me mad for one reason or another, my old boss would have me write up an email to the customer about the issue and send it to him. We’d then get together and work on it, then he’d put it in his draft folder saying he’d touch it up and send later. I think he rarely ever sent them. Usually, the issue would blow over and I would have been spared adding insult to injury as it were.
How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders?
One of the biggest things that I try to do in my organization is to create a culture of partnership with our industry partners. I have too often seen government leaders look at our contractors/industry partners as being “out solely for themselves” or as being inherently untrustworthy. I have never subscribed to that philosophy. I have always tried to encourage a “one team” attitude with my government and contractor workforce.
I have many times told our new professional government employees that run my projects that although they are “in charge” of how we execute, we have contractors with a lot of experience for which we pay a lot of money. I encourage them to listen closely to what those contractors have to say, because in most cases, they offer very good recommendations/advice.
I have rarely seen a contractor behave in a purely self-serving way. I have worked closely with our industry partners to understand their concerns so that I can respond to them. Most of our industry partners recognize that success as a whole team ultimately brings more work to NIWC and therefore more work for our industry partners. That’s the basis on which I’ve grown programs from $20 million a year to over $150 million a year in five years.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
When our CSSP was originally accredited in 2010 at the lowest level of accreditation, we were the newest organization to be added to the program in several years. We recognized that we were in many ways the most junior and least experienced CSSP — we were on the bubble.
Over the years, we grew and matured our capability and were re-accredited in 2012 with a perfect score. While I was exceedingly proud at that time, I was probably the most proud of my organization after our 2015 re-accreditation, where we not only received a perfect score but over of our processes were identified as best practices with the program.
We had moved in a few short years to one of the most mature and capable CSSPs in the DOD. Watching the CSSP grow from just an idea in 2007 to one of the most capable programs in the DOD less than 10 years later was very a proud moment for me.