Federal Spotlight: Soraya Correa
MC: How long have you been in Federal service, and what is your main responsibility in your role today?
Soraya Correa: I’ve been in Federal service 36 years. I’m the Chief Procurement Officer at the Department of Homeland Security—what that means is that I’m responsible for providing leadership, policy oversight, and support to the acquisition for the procurement workforce, which consists of about 1,500 individuals across the country. Our spend is about $16 to $17 billion annually, and we process approximately 90,000 transactions. We accomplish our work through a variety of contracting actions. Sometimes we write very specific contracts to meet specific program requirements, and sometimes we develop strategically sourced contracts that are agency-wide and possibly even government-wide. We use a variety of mechanisms to accomplish our work, but primarily we make sure that folks comply with the policies and procedures to achieve the acquisitions that support the men and women who execute the day-to-day mission of protecting the homeland.
MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate to continue your career in public service?
SC: I am in Federal service because I am passionate about Federal service. I believe in our government and our system of government. I understand we have some flaws—if we were perfect, we probably wouldn’t all be here. I’m motivated by the fact that this is a great country and we have one of the best systems of government, if not the best one, in the world. I’m also passionate about the mission that I serve. At DHS, I look at it as there is no greater mission than to protect the people who are the citizens of this country, the people who visit this country and live here. So I’m motivated primarily by mission, but I’m inspired by the people who work for me and the people that I work with and for. I’m inspired by all the other Federal employees as well as contractors who come in every day to serve this mission and support the work that we do. Those are the things that inspire and motivate me every day.
MC: What is your biggest career achievement?
SC: On a personal level I would say my biggest career achievement is to be where I am today especially as a woman and a minority. I started working in the federal government 36 years ago as a clerk/typist. It was a job, and I wasn’t really thinking about a career, but it turned into a great career, a career that I navigated successfully on my own. In other words, I never worked in an office where things were handed to me or a promotion was given to me. When I was ready for the next promotion or the next challenge, I went out and sought it out myself.
I’m very proud of where I am as a woman and as a minority. That’s my greatest personal achievement. It’s where I am and how I try to share with others my experience how I got here, so that hopefully they’re motivated to share with others how they got here, and hopefully this is how we continue to grow and develop the workforce.
At DHS, I think my most significant accomplishment is establishing the initiatives that I call Acquisition Innovations in Motion, where I focus on three key things. One: Improving our business processes. How do we get to better business process to be more efficient and more effective? Two: How do we enhance our engagements with industry? How do we better communicate with the industry that supports us and with the folks out there that aren’t doing any work with DHS who may have some great ideas and concepts that we can bring to bear in helping address some of the solutions that we seek?
The third thing is my Procurement Innovation Lab, where I’ve come in and said to the men and women of DHS who accomplish the acquisition activities, “How do we become more innovative? How do we get smarter and more effective at the work that we do? What are the smart ideas that we have working within the parameters of the regulation to make the processes flow a little bit better, to make sure that we’re getting good business decisions when it comes to our buying?” The Procurement Innovation Lab has taken off. We’re changing people’s minds one person at a time. We’re not trying to dictate innovation. We’re trying to encourage it. I’ve never told someone, “Just do it.” I’ve found a way to get them to do it, to want it to be from them as opposed to, “Just because I said so.”
MC: Are you involved in coaching and mentoring programs?
SC: I believe in mentoring. I believe that we should help each other out. I believe when you achieve success, you have to share that with others. You have to help others learn from your mistakes and also learn from your achievements and your successes. I’ve even started a mentoring program here for our procurement community to cross the geographic and organizational boundaries that sometimes limit our communications and learning. Sometimes we need to go beyond where we live to develop and grow as individuals and teams.
MC: What’s your advice to people who are new to leadership roles?
SC: It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the private sector or in the government, we all, hopefully, are working to achieve great things. Whether it’s great things for the country, for the company, and sometimes the company translates to the country, remember that we have a social responsibility to one another. We have to treat people well.
When you become a leader, if you really think about what leadership is, it’s no longer about you. It’s about the people that you’re leading. To be effective, you’ve got to park your ego and focus on taking care of your people, because when you take care of them, they take great care of you. That is what truly makes leaders successful.
A leader has to have courage, strength, and credibility, but they also have to have passion, compassion, and empathy. You have to put yourself in people’s shoes, and you have to think about how you make them feel and how you support them. When I meet egotistical leaders, I say, “Well, there’s a guy or a woman that’s not going to have a lot of people working for them,” because people are going follow people who inspire, motivate, and show them that they care.
MC: What advice would you share with the next generation of leaders entering government?
SC: While you can seek out advice about your career and you can look to others to help you guide your career, at the end of the day these are the decisions that you have to make. You have to commit to how much you’re going to invest in that career. Whether it’s getting certifications, training, education, or aspiring to achieve to higher offices, those are all your call. There’s no one easy answer to it. All of us navigate it differently.
I believe that a large part of my success is not just the fact that I was willing to work hard. It was that I had a good attitude. Some days things went really well, and sometimes they didn’t, but I always found a reason to smile or a reason to laugh. I also always found the good side of things. I recognize that change is going to happen, so I prepare for it and I accept it. The example I like to use is the change of administration. We have a new President and that means we are getting new leadership. You can sit there and sulk and say, “Oh, my old leader left,” or you can say, “Got a new leader. Let me try out some new things on this one. Let me try the stuff that I couldn’t get through to the other guy here.” I make jokes about that, but that’s the truth.
Work with great people. Love the job you’re in. Every job I’ve had, I have liked, and I really appreciated the people that I worked with, but that was a choice I made. I choose to like the people, and I choose to get along with them. You work eight hours a day (at least) —you’re going to spend a lot of time around coworkers. Be a nice person. Get along. Be a good team player.
Pay attention, learn, and seek out new opportunities for learning. Go get yourself a really good mentor or mentors. Don’t focus on your mentor being of the same gender or even in the same profession. Sometimes it’s better to have mentors with completely different perspectives.
It’s also important to never forget your support infrastructure at home. Have a good balance between your work and home. I don’t define balance by the amount of time you spend at each; I define balance by how you feel when you’re at home. Do you have people who really support you, who understand what’s important to you, that really help you to achieve your goal? If you have tension going on at home, it’s going to come to work with you and vice versa – if you have tensions going on at work, you’re apt to take them home. So you’ve got to try to find that balance.
I completed my bachelor’s degree in June 2002. I was already a GS-15, but why did I finish it? Because it was important to me. I knew that I should do it and that even though I had gotten to a 15, it was a promise I had made to myself many years before. Why didn’t I get it before? Because life happens—I had to take care of my family. All of us have a life. Sometimes life puts a few obstacles in the way of your career, but they don’t stop you. You choose to stop you.