Master Sgt. Kade Forrester is a Graduate Student in the Department of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA. He is pursuing his MBA in Contracts and Acquisition Management. Forrester enlisted in the Air Force in November 2009. He graduated from Technical Training in March 2010 and began his career in Materiel Management before later retraining into Contracts Management in 2015. Forrester’s diverse background includes various leadership and technician roles within supply chain management, plans and programs, and services contracting. He has deployed to the Horn of Africa and in support of numerous other contingencies to include Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, Freedom’s Sentinel, Resolute Support and Inherent Resolve.
Prior to being competitively selected for Naval Postgraduate School, Forrester was the Section Chief, Infrastructure Flight at the 11th Contracting Squadron, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C. where he and his team supported the first lead service transfer in Department of Defense history.
NPS offers a unique understanding of our sister services and partner nations. So far, the classroom environment and curriculum has fostered an environment for collaboration and cross sharing of experiences and processes. This has been the most impactful and beneficial for my development. Learning the different ways other branches and countries approach situations has opened my eyes and understanding. More importantly, it has impacted how I will interpret dynamic situations and lead through adversity. Open discussions with my fellow students continue to shape and improve my leadership style as well as who I am as an individual.
I initially came to the school NPS interested in exploring two challenges faced by the Air Force Contracting career field. First, was that Contracting professionals do not have direct access to Air Force Supply Chain network so that we may leverage available resources. As a prior Materiel Manager (Supply), I saw the benefits this access would provide when I entered the career field. My second challenge I wanted to explore was how routine interactions between a Contracting unit and their mission partners (what we call our customers) affect the effectiveness of that Contracting unit’s ability to meet the mission partners’ needs and achieve their mission. There is a bad stigma of Contracting Officers being chained to their desks operating only from behind their computer screens. From my experience, I see value in recurring interactions with our mission partners resulting in Contracting Officers having stronger relationships with those we support and enable. Moreso, we are then able to identify potential requirements the mission partners may have, or they may be unaware of, and work jointly to develop the requirements to ultimately provide the DOD the best value at the right time, right price and right place.
Most recently, I was a part of a team of USAF Contracting professionals working on a project for the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force (VCSAF) looking into Talent Management and Human Capital Management. This was part of an Enterprise Innovation Design (MN3307) course at NPS where we focused on using Hacking-for-Defense (H4D) and Lean Start-up practices to profoundly understand a problem and develop a minimal viable product. We were fortunate to be able to continue the project post course, present our findings at the Headquarters of the Air Force, and secure the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force support to continue working on the topic. This is a topic that I am interested in researching for my thesis. To be more specific, I found that much more research needs to be dedicated to how we as a force recruit and reutilize talent to exploit untapped skills and secure long-term benefits for the member and the Air Force.
Being one of the first two enlisted from USAF Contracting to attend NPS, I took it as a personal charge to explore enlisted education and advocate for more opportunities. Throughout my time at NPS I have been researching this topic, meeting with Air Force leaders and most recently with Gunnery Sergeant Brandon Smart. After learning about the SMART Act, Professor Helzer contacted him and I to further my search. Gunny Smart was able to link the benefits of enlisted Marines attaining higher education with performance, PFT, disciplinary actions and retention. He demonstrated in his thesis how the Marine Corps benefited as the enlisted Marines had higher performance ratings, higher PFT scores, lower disciplinary actions and were more likely to reenlist than those who did not attain a degree after enlisting. I only hope to follow in his footsteps.
As senior enlisted members, we are charged with mentoring and developing Company Grade Officers. We are expected to be sound advisers to our commanders on all matters. However, there are huge gaps in the resources our services invest in officers opposed to the enlisted corps. This difference in education level could create a lack of credibility for enlisted advisors. I am not saying that our senior members are not educated as this is absolutely not the case from my experience working in the Air Force’s Logistics and Acquisition workforce. From what I have found, the majority enlisted personnel have been leveraging Tuition Assistance and personal funds to attain higher education on our personal time after work. Gunny Smart was able to ID one root cause in our US Codes affecting the justification for enlisted personnel attending higher education. I have taken it as a personal challenge to further what he started working with him, Air Force Air University and Air Education and Training Command to find a way to improve on this for the Air Force.
We were building a new unit from scratch, providing seamless operational contracting support, while simultaneously taking on the first lead-service transfer in DOD history. This was uncharted territory where nothing was the norm and there was no blueprint. In fact, we didn’t even have an office to work out of when we started this endeavor. We were undermanned (only 7 of us started our 54-personnel unit), we were not equipped with required resources, and there was no standard approach for our situation. Though these may sound like only limited factors, they were also advantages in our situation. These limited factors forced us to think in new ways. We knew what the end state we desired and was expected of us were, but had to find new, creative and out of the norm means to achieve it. At the base of how we achieved this was “trust”. I led two Flights, was tasked with building out the GPC program for the installation, along with managing the development of the unit’s programs to name a few.
Military members were handpicked for this assignment due to the uncertainty and difficulty. Our commander leveraged this by empowering us to be change agents, finding the best way to achieve objectives versus the standard, tried and true methods. He trusted us and supported us against those who did not understand or questioned our methods. As a result, I ensured to develop legal actions and yielded high return for the risk associated with them to continue earning my commander’s trust. This culture of trust spread like wildfire to all members we on-boarded over the next two years and was deeply rooted in our standard operating procedures. The guidelines we developed for building our squadron and writing our policies were “bring the good and leave the bad” placing an emphasis on efficient practices that made sense and removal of unnecessary burdens. Operating in the grey areas, we ensured a clear understanding of laws, rules, policies and regulations. Outside of that, we were able to challenge the norm and think creatively.
This freedom of creativity and innovation allowed me to form multiple teams and operate with the end-state in mind. Often, there were conflicts as others opposed our methods as they were not the norm, but through stepping outside of our lane, learning the jobs of our mission partners, forcing our way into meetings we weren’t invited to and networking, we were able to swiftly demonstrate results. Our objective was to build the premier contracting squadron. We achieved this by constantly turning every “no” into a “we can do this instead.” As a result, we were able to go above and beyond, integrate and shift the believed role of Contracting from purchasers and nay-sayers to magicians. This new creative Contracting approach of us finding new approaches to meet needs, resulted in us gaining the call sign “The Jedi.” I was successful at JBAB, because we created an environment of trust. I had leaders that trusted me, Airmen that trusted to follow me, and a workforce that was hungry for innovation and continuous process improvement. Though I may have won awards, it was my team that got me there!
Linear approaches provide benefits for standard repetitive practices. However, this would stifle innovation as it allows for very little flexibility to go against the normal sequential process. In the case of acquisition, we tend to have linear processes. This process is: the warfighter presents the requirement – Government develop and write the requirement – Contracting is given the requirement – Contracting post the solicitation – Contracting review the proposals/bids and select a vendor – vendor performs. Industry is always in a receipt mode of the requirements in a them vs us relationship. However, why does this have to always be the case? This begs the questions of why Contracting can’t be involved in the identification and development of a requirement and why industry can’t be involved from earlier to help identify limited factors in the requirement we will post. These were questions our team asked and tackled at JBAB, taking on a collaborative approach to Contracting Acquisition and GPC purchases to yield better solutions.
From my experience, I see value in regular interactions between acquisition professionals and warfighters. This resulted in us having a better relationship with those we support and enable. More so, we were then able to identify potential requirements the warfighter will have, or don’t even know that they have, and work jointly to develop the requirements to ultimately provide the Government the best value at the right time, right price and right place. In addition to this, by bringing in industry earlier in the acquisition process, we were able to leverage their expertise to develop better requirements. We have tools at our disposal that are continuously under leveraged. Draft Solicitations, Requests for Information (RFI), Industry Days, or just simple asking industry for feedback or their opinion can result in way better solutions. We need to divorce the mindset that the Government knows best and put out solid requirements. We must also divorce the practice of operating in silos, only sharing products when complete. Instead, we need to adopt a mindset and practice of collaboration and information sharing. To foster an environment of innovation, we must allow for trying new ways of doing business as long as they are legal and ethical. Ultimately, all parties want the same thing of providing the warfighter with what they need. I believe working together and not against each other would enable achieving this more efficiently.
In the short time I have been at NPS I personally found that this institution strives not to tell you what to think but how to think. This is the opposite of my prior experiences. All my prior training and education taught me what the right answer was, but not why I should care about value or care about the answer. NPS does a great job of relating all the classes and curriculum to operational situations and current events. I view this as a proactive approach, equipping us with the tools we may need in the future versus reactive of equipping us with the tools when the need arises. Too often, much acquisition is this way in terms of us finding a solution to a problem. However, many start-ups out there are developing solutions to problems that have yet to come to light but are struggling to demonstrate their value.
Though I have little experience in this, I understand the importance of the DOD investing in start-ups to either close or bridge the gap over the valley of death. This would result in the DOD being in the forefront of new technologies and innovations that we could build on or implement to solve current and future problems. This could avoid building from the drawing boards, but instead have a plethora of new technologies to build from. I was the Contracting Officer on several Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II projects. It was not until this opportunity that I truly began to understand the importance of supporting new technologies. It was awesome to learn and understand why we were investing in small start-up companies, supporting innovation, and bridging the gap over the Valley of Death.
One-way NPS can contribute to acquisition innovation across the DOD is to share success stories. Collect the innovative practices and best in field approaches across the branches and share with students. This could provide that “I didn’t think about that” moments and provide students with more tools in their toolboxes for future projects. Too often we hear of horror stories of acquisitions gone bad, but very little is sung of innovative success stories. Along the same lines, NPS can share tools that this acquisition utilized to achieve their innovative success so that students could leverage these practices in the future to replicate or build on them. I firmly believe that this sharing of success stories coupled with the curriculum that stresses the importance of innovation would yield better equipped acquisition experts to steer the future of the DOD.