Seeking Out Hard Problems: Delores Alexander, global category management leader at Amazon, discusses the transition from government to commercial contracting.

Delores Alexander’s responsibilities at Amazon, where she has worked since September 2021, include implementing standards for strategic planning and executing category plans for major indirect purchasing across the globe.

Prior to Amazon, she was vice president of supplier management for Boeing Global Services. There she provided leadership for managing the critical relationships with thousands of aerospace aftermarket suppliers. She was awarded the Women of Color STEM Career Achievement Award in 2021.

Alexander earned both a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University, where she currently serves as the advisory board chair for the School of Leadership Studies.

NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad, MBA, CAE, CTP, met with Alexander in March 2022 to discuss her career journey, the leap from government contracting to commercial, and her advice for students and early career individuals who want to make an immediate impact. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kraig Conrad (KC): In thinking about your career journey, which opportunities were planned, and which were just good luck?

Delores Alexander (DA): My initial journey into procurement and contracting was good luck. When I first started to apply for jobs at Boeing, I was just out of school and I realized that none of the real-world jobs match the titles that you study in school. I found a position called “procurement agent materiel level one.” Even today, if I were to ask someone what that meant they would not know it was an entry level procurement position to acquire telecommunications equipment. So, I said to myself, “Hmm, I kind of know what this job is about, it sounds exciting, let’s give it a try.”

I was very lucky that I fell into that role with a new and very good group that was buying something called dark fiber. Who knew what that was back then? It felt very secretive and exciting.

Then, as I started to navigate roles, I realized I was going to have to pick and choose my assignments. It wasn’t going to be luck of the draw that would get me where I wanted to go with my career. I started to actively pursue harder assignments, particularly ones that would highlight what I did well. I knew I could research, I could negotiate, and I was really good at problem solving. So, I would seek out the hard problems to solve as the next assignment.

I remember at one point we were going through a transformation. The realignment created a team that was in a really bad situation from the start, including some overdue projects for a really tough customer. My boss jokingly said, “Who wants that team?” Everybody averted their eyes, but I said, “I’ll take it. I think I can do it.”

I took it, I had a lot of fun with it—and a lot of success. As much as it had been considered problematic, the team was talented, and we drove it home.

It was a good blend of luck plus moving towards hard assignments and learning how to turn that into a benefit as I started to mature my skillset.

KC: That’s great insight. I want to expand on that a little bit. Your work at Boeing built your experience in procurement and government contracting. What about that supports your role at Amazon, and how was the transition from government contracting to commercial?

DA: You know, I think it’s easier to make the transition that way than the other way, quite frankly. Government contracting gives you a foundational structure. It instills a maturity and a discipline that allows you to easily move forward into a less-regulated environment. I think going from an unregulated environment into a highly regulated environment would be a much harder transition.

I know that when I look for candidates, I look for folks who come out of a heavily regulated environment. Even if they don’t come out of government, I know that discipline is there. It’s an important factor for talent I’m seeking to bring into the company.

KC: You are relatively new at Amazon – congratulations on the move. Could you tell us a little bit about where you’re trying to help the organization go?

DA: One of the challenges is always keeping our eye on that bottom line. How do we continue to look at reducing overall cost so that we can stay competitive in this increasingly competitive market? That’s one of our biggest priorities. I know folks will say, “Oh, what is Amazon worried about?” But Amazon has the same worries every other company has. We still have to think about how to contain costs and be as competitive as possible.

We have several leadership principles that guide our discussions and our decision-making. One is, “Success and scale brings broad responsibility.” With that comes a strong sense of purpose around sustainability. One of our priorities is to make sure that we are doing business and working with partners that are embracing sustainability for the products they provide and their footprint in the world. That responsibility includes diversity, so we’re making sure we have the right balance of suppliers around the world. That includes small businesses, woman-owned and veteran-owned.

These will feel like very common metrics to anybody in our world: The same challenges, the same priorities across the board. Bear in mind that Amazon’s not a very old company. So, we’re looking at key performance indicators and priorities that are right on pace with other organizations that are within the same maturity level in contracting as we are.

KC: It’s very interesting you say that Amazon, like everyone else, has the same pressures to stay competitive and to ensure diversity and sustainability. That leads to my next question. As we look at today’s young generation, those who are looking for jobs or in school, they are very focused on how to make an impact right away. What would you say to someone who’s considering a career in contract management and is thinking, “how impactful can I be in that role?”

DA: It’s wonderful to talk with some of the folks entering the workforce today. It is such a different world today than when I was coming in. They’re hit with so much more data. It’s exciting, but it’s daunting.

I think it appears more daunting to me than to them, because they’ve lived their whole lives in this world. They’re used to massive amounts of data at any given time. It’s part of their natural state of being.

The best way for folks entering the workforce to make an impact is to use that data at their fingertips and learn their craft. They should not just take the data and broadcast it like the news. They should assimilate it, learn their craft, and challenge themselves to do something with that information.

This is not just a rubber-stamp activity. There’s an art and a craft to contracting. Learn the book part and then practice it. Become a craftsman and an artist. Become really good and do the hard work. Get innovative about how they do things.

Do that first, and then make sure to promote themselves. Make sure people know what they do and who they are. A lot of folks will try to do that backwards: Promote themselves before they learn their craft and know how to do hard work. But they can’t falsely promote themselves. They must do the work first.

They should go after the hard assignments. There are lots of hard problems to solve in the world. Go after some. Don’t be afraid of them. It’s okay to fail. Stumble a little bit, pick yourself up, dust off, keep going.

I used to feel worried about what the world was coming to and where things would go when we retire. Right now, though, I feel pretty good. We’ve got some great talent coming into the workplace, and I think some amazing things are going to happen.

KC: Exciting to hear! What do you see as most concerning right now in terms of supply chain risks in the coming year? How is your team looking at tackling those risks?

DA: The first thing I’ll highlight is talent. The war for talent is brutal. It’s not just what you can offer in a simple compensation statement; it’s who you are as a company. It’s what you can offer in innovation, in making a career exciting. It’s how they feel about working at the company. It’s about their work-life balance.

Being able to balance all those things and get the right talent and keep them has been just an unbelievable challenge. If you’re constantly faced with refreshing your talent, you’re going be struggling in other areas. One of my big areas of concern is just making sure we have stability in having the right talent.

One of our other leadership principles is to be the Earth’s best employer and one of the safest places to work. Any place I work, I want it to be one of the best places to work. Building that culture, having people really feel that sense of inclusion and joy in what they do every day, is absolutely key. That joy really is important. If you can’t find that joy in what you do every day, you’ve really got to reassess. You spend more than a third of your life doing this.

The other major concern is making sure that we have the right amount of data and the right technology to manage our risks. We’re always going to have assurance of supply risk. We’re always going to have raw material risks, regardless of the environment. Making sure that we have the right data and the technology to manage the risks are real key areas of concern.

If somebody were to ask me, “What keeps you up at night?” Those would be a couple of the big ones because without stability in those two areas, everything else starts to fall apart.

KC: Is there anything else you’d like to share with your NCMA peers?

DA: Don’t ever think that the journey from government to commercial is impossible. You can absolutely make the transition. It’s been exciting for me to do it, and it’s been fun. CM