Monday, May 16, 2011

Building Business with Strategy: A conversation with AJay Thornton, Director of ECBC Engineering

Given the recent climate of doing more with less, can you speak to the importance of being a strategic organization?

In an era of diminishing available resources, having a forward-leaning strategy allows us to be in a position to dictate where we go, rather than being dragged in any direction because we don’t have resources to meet needs. As a strategic organization, we are leaning forward and looking for opportunities to fill the void that has emerged due to a decline in our traditional revenue streams. This kind of proactive strategic approach, while necessary, brings with it several complexities. Sometimes opportunities for work arise, but they are not considered to be in our “traditional lane.” This can cause us to bump up against the work of others. However, we’ve learned to be successful in those instances as well – anytime we consider taking on work beyond our conventional chemical biological (CB) boundaries, we intentionally socialize the work opportunity with others that do similar work. We then allow them to either lead or partner with us, even if we are the ones that initially identify the opportunity.

The Balanced Scorecard (BSC) strategy has allowed us to identify these types of partnerships, enabling us to leverage preexisting relationships to build business more efficiently. Unlike some organizations, we have been fortunate to maintain a demand for our work. To me, that says we’re doing something right because we’re not suffering as much as we likely would if we didn’t have a satisfied customer base.

Criteria to become an SES is largely centered on strategic thinking, thinking at a higher level. How has being engaged in strategy helped you as a leader? How does it provide valuable experiences for those who aspire to your level? What value do you see in their participation?

I think that most significantly, my involvement in the Directorate’s strategic planning effort has helped me to be personally engaged with the workforce and be better in tune with what they are thinking and what their issues or concerns are.
During our Board of Directors meetings and Strategic Management Meetings, I try to impart to the workforce that the strategy is an opportunity to be a part of the organization’s future. The BSC is a vehicle for them to bring projects, ideas, priorities and other things that are of paramount importance to them forward for consideration and action. The BSC is not just for me, it’s for the workforce. It is important for each individual employee to understand first-hand that resources are available to help them pursue their goals and ambitions via the BSC.

With regard to people that aspire to be in leadership positions, when you involve yourself in strategic planning efforts like Engineering’s BSC, you begin to develop a sense of career and work-related direction that helps to guide your decisions on a daily and long-term basis. It’s like the old adage, “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any old bus will get you there.” Additionally, involvement in the strategy allows employees at various levels to interact with senior leadership and gain first-hand knowledge about the types of decisions and issues we consider at this level. It provides an opportunity for them to see how we respond to different anomalies and adds to their tool box of experiences and knowledge that will help them in the future.

I came up through the ranks and started as a GS-5. I looked at all of my senior people and could see how some reacted in a reactionary, attack-like manner – they were focused on the tactical. Others were proactive – they led strategically. I learned by observing those different approaches, and that served as good point of departure for me to know what kind of leader I wanted to be.

How do you see the BSC making the Engineering Directorate better day-to-day?

Prior to the BSC, we didn’t have an effective means to recognize an individual’s contribution to the Directorate’s progress. The BSC provided a way to recognize their contribution to the overall strategic process through the “Engineering Directorate BSC Awards Program.” I also think of the various milestones and events that were birthed out of the strategy, resulting from daily strategic work. We had the “Women In Science and Engineering (WISE)” event in March; that was an outstanding event and helped us progress against several strategic initiatives. While these events don’t happen on a daily basis, they are visible signs of the BSC efforts. Springboarding from that event, we are exploring ways to leverage other related workforce development events. Most recently, we are working towards a Military Appreciation event in May.

How do you see Engineering’s Balanced Scorecard serving the Center’s larger vision?

Currently, the Center has refocused their strategic efforts to center on four distinct goals. Because the Engineering Directorate has a strategic plan, we can fold our key initiatives into the Center’s focus and accommodate those four goals. We can proactively direct and align our existing efforts with that direction. For example, one of the four goals is Leadership Development. Things like the WISE event directly support this goal. That’s one of the beauties of our strategic plan – it allows for that flexibility to link our efforts to the Center’s four goals. That flexibility is vital to the general success of our organization, as well. The only constant is change, and to remain relevant to our customer base, we must be flexible - not just with internal changes or changes in leadership, but also in our ability to meet the changing requirements of our customers.

How do you see strategy evolving to meet future needs?

The strategy was designed with flexibility in mind. We know that things continually evolve; if we had something etched in stone that didn’t lend any kind of flexibility, our strategy would be outdated before we even began to implement it. I see our strategy continuing to evolve to meet the needs of the day.

How does Engineering’s strategy connect to the Directorate’s mission to support the Warfighter?

I think our strategy fits very well towards that end. It provides us with the ability and the tools to leverage one another’s foresight and skills to adapt to the needs of the Warfighter, integrating our otherwise distinct and unique capabilities into comprehensive Warfighter CB Defense solutions. Again, strategy has directed our decisions to make possible this kind of flexibility.

Mr. Alvin D. Thornton entered the Senior Executive Service in November 2008 and serves as the Director for Engineering Directorate at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC).  In this position, he serves as Client Manager to multiple Joint Project Managers of the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical Biological Defense (CBD). Among his responsibilities are policy development, management and direction of the Center’s program involving engineering development and technical support for CBD systems program lifecycles. Formerly, Mr. Thornton served as Team Leader for Biological Detection Manufacturing, Office of the Project Manager for Nuclear Biological Chemical Contamination Avoidance.

This content on this blog does not represent the views or beliefs of ECBC, its employees, its management or the federal government.

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