Leading from the Heart

Michelle Currier loves to be of service. As NCMA Chief Learning Officer, she plans to promote practitioners and blaze a broader career path.

At some moment during every NCMA conference, you’ll catch a blur of red hair and bright colors rushing past in a hotel hallway. She later materializes, frequently in costume, on the main stage, at the speakers table during a breakout session, or during a group event surrounded by an engaged, enthusiastic crowd. 

That’s Michelle Currier, CPCM, CFCM, Fellow.

Ebullient, disarming, caring, funny and daring, Currier wears her heart on her sleeve, whether she’s wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress, an astronaut’s jumpsuit, or a prize fighter’s trunks and a satin robe.

A champion of early-career contracting professionals, she has helped many of them grow into leadership – and parenthood. She has advocated for NCMA’s Contract Management Leadership Development Program (CMLDP) since it began, and has served as a sounding board for many CMLDP alumni and others through their careers. 

Now NCMA Chief Learning Officer, Currier has held top positions and won the association’s most coveted awards during a 42-year career in federal contracting and continuous NCMA membership. 

She likely is one of NCMA’s best-known members. She assuredly is one of the best-loved.

Currier is a Past NCMA National President (2001-2002). She has received the association’s Alvis D. Keen Honorary Life Member Award, Charles A. Dana Distinguished Service Award, Outstanding Fellow Award, NCMA Education Award, National Achievement Award, and was NCMA Volunteer of the Year in 2017. She has long been a CMLDP mentor and faculty member. 

Currier began her career as a co-op student at American University in Washington, working for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), where she rose to become a Senior Contracting Officer. She has served as a Contracting Officer, a Division Chief, a Deputy Director for Small Business, and a Director of Contracts at the Naval Research Laboratory, Military Sealift Command, Small Business Administration, Naval Sea Systems Command, and the Army Contracting Command. She received the Army Superior Civilian Service Medal and Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation Award.

As professor of Contract Management at the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) for 12 years, Currier was an inductee to DAU’s Hall of Fall and won its Frank J. Anderson Award, Junior Leadership Award, Faculty of the Year Award, and Distinguished Teacher Designation. 

In October, Currier sat down with Contract Management Editor in Chief Anne Laurent to discuss her plans for NCMA education and the contracting profession, her career secrets, and what drives her.

Anne Laurent (AL): You have moved around a good bit in your career, and I think the reason why explains a lot about who you are. Care to share?

Michelle Currier (MC): My inspiration comes from cracking the code on how to get people to understand the why of their job and to bring functional areas together in harmony, like a symphony. When the organization figures it out, they don’t need me any longer and it’s time for me to move on to the next challenge. My joy is when folks discover how to get it done together. 

For example, when I was at the Military Sealift Command, the port engineers were not fans of the contracts team because they perceived that we were the problem in delaying the repair of the ships. I remember a port engineer, John Ingersoll, would come in and complain about my team not supporting the mission. I convinced our Commanding Officer to support an all-staff team-building exercise. We decided on bowling. I put all the names in a hat to form the teams. But I didn’t randomly pull names out of the hat. I deliberately paired multi-functional teams together so they could learn how to have fun together.

One of my life’s lessons and biggest joys was when Ingersoll, who was as tall as he was wide with a long wiry beard, comes into my office, and in his deep, gruff voice says, “I’m taking your people to lunch. Got a problem with that?” And I smiled and said, no problem at all. 

That’s the joy. The joy when they find each other. When they figure out that they can’t do it without each other. 

AL: Your career is filled with people stories like this one, yet most of all, it is a contracting career. You always have worked in contracting and always in government, at the Department of Defense (DoD). So what is it about contracting?

MC: When they hired me at the Naval Research Lab, they gave me the Defense Acquisition Regulation to read, volumes and volumes and volumes. Then they sent me to Fort Lee, Virginia, to the Basics of Contracting class for four weeks. I learned about contracting and I met people who did contracting. Military and civilian employees from all the services, people from all over the world were in my class. This is where I got my love for people. Everybody was different and offered so many different perspectives on how to get things done

I loved contracting, I loved spending money. I loved writing contracts. I loved meeting people. I loved supporting our nation’s warfighters.

Here’s the dirty truth: I love when someone says you can’t do something. That’s what people think the FAR says. It’s like being a super sleuth figuring out how to do it. I loved cracking a case: I need to get this here by this date, and they let me know on Friday and they need it on Monday. So that’s the challenge. Okay, I roll up my sleeves. How am I going to get it done?

Everything in life comes back to a contract. Because what is a contract? It’s an understanding of agreed terms between two parties. Nothing happens without some type of contract. And we’re in the middle of it.

I was supporting the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama, working with the small business team reviewing the Kwajalein contract. Someone needed to travel to Kwajalein, and I said, “Oh yeah, I’ll go.” I spent a couple of weeks there. 

Where’s Kwajalein? Kwajalein is in the middle of the Marshall Islands, about 2,000 miles from Honolulu. The island is three miles long and one mile wide. It was a strategic place for the United States in World War II as the next step in its island-hopping march to Japan. This gig scratched my itch to learn about military history.

Small luxuries and everyday necessities are important to the people on that island. When the ship comes in with ice cream, and when the ship comes in with new underwear, you can you imagine their joy. The person who wrote those contracts made it happen. If you ever think what you do doesn’t matter, think again. It matters to somebody. You have changed someone’s life.

I shared the story of Air Force Staff Sergeant Cole Condiff with my DAU classes to teach my students how important it is that we get it right. Three years ago in November, his improperly configured emergency reserve parachute inadvertently opened in the wind inside a helicopter during a jump training mission. It pulled him out of the helicopter because a little piece malfunctioned on that parachute. He died and his body was never recovered. 

The top and bottom tuck inserts that hold the parachute in place were not flush with the pockets on the rip cord. So the problem there was something as benign as a bottom tuck tab not being correct.

The contracts we write matter. They can make the difference between life and death. They matter when they bring joy because ice cream is being delivered on a one-by-three-mile island for people who live there supporting the mission. 

AL: To do all you have done, you had to have deeply known the FAR and the rules of the game.

MC: I didn’t tell you that I was the honor graduate in that basic FAR class that NRL sent me to. And I earned a CPCM and a CFCM. To find the gray areas to support my mission, I had to know what the rules were. That was the important thing.

If you’re going to be in federal contracting and using public funds, Congress gives you a set of rules that you have to follow. Some dos and don’ts. But there aren’t many of them, to be honest, and FAR Part 1 matters most. That’s the one nobody reads.

FAR Part 1 says, “The fact that deviation authority is required should not, of itself, deter agencies in their development and testing of new techniques and acquisition methods to include non-FAR based methods such as OT Authority.” I read that as, “Go craft a good deal, and ask for a waiver if you need one.” So we have to arm people with the knowledge and the experience of what a good deal looks like and how to get to one. A good deal isn’t a perfect contract. And taking forever to make sure it’s a perfect contract is not going to beat our adversaries. It’s being aware of all the tools in your toolbox and knowing how to effectively deploy them.

There’s no cookbook. There’s no how-to guide. There isn’t even a YouTube video on how to do it. It takes resilient, smart, curious, people willing to negotiate and recognize what’s important to others. You really are the get-it-done person, and you’ve got to figure out how to do it.

I spent a ton of time honing my skills for just that reason. I made the choice as a single parent not to move to Washington, DC, and job hop for promotions. My son was more important, making sure I didn’t miss a swim meet or a soccer game or baseball game or school plays. Those things mattered to me more, so instead of following the SES (Senior Executive Service) route, I spent 12 years as a GS-12. As other people, my peers, were becoming GS-13s, GS-14s, GS-15s, I stayed as a warranted contracting officer. I was honing my craft for a long time, writing lots and lots of contracts, administering lots and lots of contracts. 

AL: As Chief Learning Officer, what’s your view on NCMA’s role in helping contracting professionals acquire your level of expertise? And what other skills and capabilities should NCMA help members build?

MC: Today’s practitioners are fearless and eager to step up and lead, but I worry we are pushing them too fast before they have the opportunity to experience the worst and the best deals in their contract careers. They aren’t always ready. To lead, you have to have depth and breadth, and some of them are missing the opportunity to grow. You have to have experienced that one contract that kicked your butt. That’s how you grow. It’s OK to say, “No, I need more time in the trenches.” 

You’ve got to learn the basics. NCMA provides education in the fundamentals. But equally important, we offer opportunity to continually grow in contracting currency. And that’s the thing that is going to win the game: Being aware of new tools in the contracting toolbox and being able to connect to folks using them in the field. 

Our coveted neutral forum allows government and industry to sit down next to each other – not across from each other, but next to each other – and talk about the problems the government is trying to solve, to analyze the good, the bad, and the ugly. The ability to be in person, and now virtually, to meet people, to build connections, build trust over the years, and keep that connection going. My role is to connect people in our community and to get them what they need when they need it.

I want to disrupt how we train. We cannot have only contracting people in a room solving problems. We need all the functional areas in a room. Learning happens when all the functional areas are represented in the deal. It’s not only what contracting wants, what logistics wants, or what the program wants. Today, we train in our swim lanes, then we’re released into the ocean to deal with each other, and we don’t understand each other. My vision for NCMA is to provide multifunctional immersive training, provide case studies for government and industry, build multifunctional teams working side-by-side duking it out to arrive at great business deals to accomplish the mission.

I want to embrace authorities beyond the FAR. They can’t be an add-on; they have to be part of the fiber. Today, other transaction authority offices are in a closet somewhere. They’re not sitting in the mainstream. If we only teach the FAR, that will be the go-to comfort spot. We must teach all the tools in the toolbox equally at the same time, so practitioners can pick the right tool for the problems they are trying to solve. It cannot be a separate group somewhere doing some secret handshake. All the tools and all the authorities have to be taught together. Contracting practitioners must be comfortable with both FAR and non-FAR based solutions to get it right the first time.    

Throughout my career, I was told to sit down and color in the lines. And I was one of those always asking, “Why are we doing this?” I didn’t learn the lesson that says, “Shut up and follow the rules.” I was a disruptor long before it was popular.

Back then, being a disruptor was a negative thing. I’m thrilled that being a disruptor, pushing back against the status quo, now is in fashion. I encourage everyone to give it a whirl. The thing that drives me into orbit is when I ask, “Why are we doing that?” and someone answers, “Well, we’ve always done it this way. I didn’t want to tip the canoe.” My words back to them are, “Tip the damn thing over. Tip it over. You don’t know what you might find.” Truly, being a disruptor isn't just in fashion; it's critical.

Don’t be afraid of different thinkers. Don’t be afraid of different organizations. Let’s get rid of the fear and let’s embrace different. That’s why my friends at the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum are important to me. Because they are different. And different is cool, different is exciting, different is curious, and now it is in fashion to think differently, act differently, be different. So let’s do more of it. Don’t have FOMO (fear of missing out). Blaze your own path. Be you. Be authentic. Be genuine. 

My vision for NCMA is to turn the content and the way we train over to the practitioners. They will tell us what they need, and we will be the platform that gets the people together.

This is their time. Today’s problems are theirs to solve. That’s why it’s important for me to make sure we have practitioners presenting at our events and practitioners on the main stage talking about hard issues so we can advance as a community.

We have leaders today who grew up in the Baby Boomer leadership mentality, where you make your bones, you earn your spot at the top, and then you dictate down. That doesn’t work anymore because their people will just leave. It’s hard for leadership because that’s how they were trained, and that’s what they know.

Contract practitioners today want to learn from their peers who have executed innovative deals with both successes and failures. That’s how influencers work. They connect, but they don’t connect the way Baby Boomers connected. They continually meet up. It could be playing kickball or a quick happy hour meetup. It’s more organic. It’s less formal. It’s less planned. We need senior leaders to join their workforces around the table to learn from each other. NCMA’s informal Exchanges at conferences align perfectly with these connections. For example, John Tenaglia, Principal Director, Defense Pricing, hosted an Exchange at this year’s World Congress. He brilliantly included the interns on his staff in the discussions.

AL: Speaking of connections, you’re also promoting NCMA’s common language initiative. Can you please explain?

MC: For me, a common language means a functional shared language based on the Contract Management Standard and common certifications that all professionals in the contract management space use, regardless of employer (federal, DoD, state and local government, industry and academia). This common language will provide talent mobility across the profession, support professional growth opportunities, and help generate organizational depth. People are going to be working for a long time. I want to keep them in the profession, keep them curious and keep them engaged.

Here’s an example of what I see happening today. I met an attorney at the NCMA World Congress who wants to get into public service. He doesn’t have experience in public contracting, but he has all the NCMA ANSI-accredited certifications. Even so, he can’t get hired in the federal space because he doesn’t have federal experience. He cannot get in because there isn’t a common language.

Imagine a world where we all had the same language. You could work for the DoD, then go work for the General Services Administration. Then you could go work for Marriott, you could work for Walmart, or you could work for Lilly Pulitzer. You would have 40 years of exciting new opportunities. And when you said, “I have this common certification standard,” they would say to you, “Come on in.”

Right now, we don’t have that. It is very difficult for people to move within our community of practice. I hope in my lifetime that we have one common certification standard providing talent mobility across the profession, one that supports effective interactions between all government and industry partners and most importantly creates a career pathway for college graduates who have completed a contract management course of study. This could be an extraordinary pipeline of new professionals who could hit the ground running.

Imagine if the pathway to our profession started in high school and then went to colleges and universities. Students could learn the art of the deal, the art of the contract. What if they knew in college that they could work for Google, Walmart, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the DoD, the FBI, the CIA, or the Fish and Wildlife Service as a contracting professional? 

No matter their passion, they could have an impact. Imagine they could do an internship in contracting in any of their areas of passion. Imagine they could get the CCMA (Certified Contract Management Associate) certification and a college diploma on the same day. They would have a job they are excited about on the day they graduate. Imagine a community that offered that.

That’s what NCMA’s vision is through our common language initiative and our academic outreach activities.

AL: Almost everyone who has known you for a while, and even for a little time, has received something from you – advice, a recommendation, a needed poke, a pick-me-up, a kind gesture, gifts for themselves, and even their kids. I sense this springs from something deeply felt and spills over into all aspects of your life. Right?

MC: From early in my career, I had the best mentors who really invested in me. I knew that was my passion, to pass that genuine caring for others forward.

I believe in servant leadership. The feeling of being in service to something greater than you are is what matters most to me. 

Once you receive things that help you in your life and career, then you have an obligation to give back. That’s why I stayed with NCMA and kept on giving for all these years. I was National President, I was on the Board of Directors, and the Board of Advisors for 40 years giving back to the community.

It’s the same way I felt with my students. I wanted to give them everything I could so they could be the best they could be, and to instill that sense of service.

It’s not about credit, recognition, or awards. It’s about a greater good. I’ve lived my life that way. I raised my son that way. We always did community service. We always volunteered to make things better than when we found them and formed lasting relationships along the way.

When I retired from DAU, there were more than 250 people on the line at my farewell. You know why? Because they mattered to me. I could tell you a story about every person on that line and why they were important in my life. Souls connect, you know. People who want to give back attract the same kind of people. This is what matters most to me.

I get a text every Mother’s Day from one of the first students I ever taught at DAU. Every time she’s had a job change, she’ll call, and she’ll say, “Well, what do you think about this place?” I love that I have those connections. I can’t tell you to how many weddings and baby showers I’ve been to because of those trusted and lasting relationships. I have hundreds of nieces and nephews all over the world and I love watching them grow as I did their parents. 

Funny how the world turns. Now, instead of me being the teacher and they’re the students, we’re peers and they’re teaching me. I love that. I’m not fearful of what I don’t know because I have tons of extraordinary contracting professionals on speed dial. CM