In the Army acquisition profession, leader development and talent management are key. Being able to identify, train and support acquisition experts as they move up throughout their careers helps ensure the Army acquisition field remains the best, most innovative and professional workforce in the Army and beyond. That’s why the Army Director, Acquisition Career Management Office offers the Inspiring and Developing Excellence in Acquisition Leaders (IDEAL) course, which is facilitated by the Army Acquisition Center of Excellence.
by Krysta Zurowski
I was selected out of almost 90 candidates who applied for the IDEAL course. I’m a mid-career acquisition professional and chose to apply for this course because I was recently promoted to a GS-13 program management position leading a project delivery team of about 12 people. The month before I was selected for this promotion, I saw an announcement go out through email about the IDEAL course, which seemed interesting and something that could be very beneficial for my career development. As a brand new program manager, I was hoping to “add some tools to my toolkit” to help me with some of my weaknesses—like addressing confrontation and being more assertive—since I was expected to run two programs and get results. I thought this course could help me with that.
The course consists of multiple one-week sessions held over six months. We had guest speakers and took tours of various facilities, which kept us engaged. There were a variety of acquisition professionals participating in the course from contracting, engineering, logistics management, and project/program management and from many different organizations throughout the Army, including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Army Contracting Command, program executive offices and many others. With the diverse background everyone came to the course with, we were able to see so many different perspectives and experiences regarding leadership.
The IDEAL participants all took turns discussing how we approach leadership and supervisory roles. We were provided proven leadership methods and walked through practical examples to help us better understand what is “right” in terms of leadership skills. I knew this course made an impact on my leadership style because I found myself thinking and acting differently, which has already made a difference in my office environment.
What is unique about the course is the way it is broken into key focus areas. While these focus areas seem so simple, they can be the difference between what makes you a leader versus a manager. I understand that, as a leader, organizational trust will begin and end with me. Once you know what breaks trust, you then know how to develop trust. I was there to learn how to be a good leader.
Here’s my take on the key focus areas:
Emotional Intelligence: According to Psychology Today, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. As a leader, I need to first be able to understand and control my own emotions so that I can think clearly before I act. I then can consider the emotions of others on my team, which will help me motivate others and have empathy. It is this conscious awareness that will give me and my team a better opportunity to listen to other points of view in a calm environment, resulting in a positive way forward.
Critical Thinking: Critical thinking is that mode of thinking—about any subject, content or problem—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing and reconstructing it. Someone who truly thinks critically and independently will make better decisions, deal with change quickly and effectively, solve problems systematically, think more creatively and have increased self-reflection.
Crucial Conversations and Influencing: These two lessons were my favorite! A crucial conversation would be defined as a conversation with one or both parties having strong emotions about a topic. The biggest takeaway for me was that the emotion must be removed so that you can discuss facts only and have a “safe zone” where both parties feel that they are not being attacked. Once a conversation is determined to be “crucial”, there is a set approach on how to handle the conversation in a calm and collected manner. The step-by-step approach we learned helped me to develop confidence, so that having what could be a confrontational conversation is no longer intimidating. I am able to respectfully and tactfully discuss difficult issues using only facts with a teammate, without anyone leaving the conversation with hurt feelings, because the emotion has been removed.
Influencing is when you need to have crucial conversations with multiple people, especially those who you do not have authority over. Leaders may not always be personally responsible for the direct management of people on the team, but they still need to drive the team to do something that will benefit the organization and its mission. That’s when influencing comes into play. I can very much relate to this skill because I work in a matrixed organization where I lack some authorities, but the project requires everyone on the team to do their part in order to meet success. An example we used in the IDEAL course was a hospital where sickness was being passed from patient to patient. Turns out the doctors and nurses weren’t washing their hands after seeing each patient, not on purpose, but rather because they were overwhelmed by events.
This is an issue that requires everyone to be on board with fixing. The staff established an accountability clause: If you see a doctor or nurse not washing their hands before or after, then you have to say something—no matter who you are or your role in the hospital; it’s everyone’s responsibility. The result was that more people washed their hands and less illness was spread—everyone wins! This isn’t an easy task, but everyone, starting with leaders, can be an influencer.
I’m very glad I applied for and was able to attend the IDEAL course. It gave me tangible skills to work on that will prepare me to be a successful leader within any organization. Upon completion of this course, I had an entirely different view on what a leader and leadership looked like. I went back to my office feeling more confident and capable to do this new job I had been chosen to do.
Krysta Zurowski has a background in interior design and project management. She received her bachelor’s degree in 2008 from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh in interior design and her master’s degree in 2013 from the Florida Institute of Technology in project management with a concentration in acquisition and contract management. She began her government career with the Army Corps of Engineers, Huntsville Center, in 2010 as an interior designer on the Admin Furniture Program. She transitioned to a project manager with the Furniture Team in 2014 and then began with the Energy Division as a project manager for the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) Program in 2015. In 2018, she was selected as the Utility Energy Services Contract (UESC) and PPA Program Manager. Since she began as program manager, she has worked to enhance connections with the Utility and Energy Service Contractors communities to build relationships and create the most proficient and dynamic UESC and PPA Programs in the industry.