Five Questions With: Stephen Lamb

East Greenwich resident Stephen Lamb is the new head of the contracts department at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport. He’s served as acting department head for contracts since February and was head of the group’s procurement division before that.

Lamb is in charge of acquiring goods, services and equipment for NUWC customers, being on time and in compliance. Lamb didn’t originally set out to be involved in contracting for the U.S. Navy but sees the area now as ripe with opportunity and important to the Navy mission.

PBN: You have been acting department head in this area for the past few months. What have you learned in that time?

LAMB: Two things: An appreciation for the areas of our department that I was never responsible for as a contracting officer, production branch head, or production division head. I stepped into the position during preparation for an external inspection and was blown away by the efforts made by our business office and policy division, which allowed the production side of the house to keep the focus on awarding and administering contracts.

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[Taking this role has also] reinforced my commitment to the NUWC Division Newport, the Naval Sea Systems Command and Department of Navy missions. With the current attention from senior leadership at all levels of the Navy to accelerate acquisition, our team has an opportunity to drive change.

PBN: How do compliance issues differ, if at all, compared with the private sector?

LAMB: Being responsible for the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in a democracy brings with it significant oversight. … The big difference for my team is we can’t turn to directors or shareholders and request approval to lessen our quality for an increase in speed. Our leadership has made it clear that the expectation is we will find opportunities to accelerate acquisition lead times while maintaining the same level of compliance and quality in our commitment to small business, development of our acquisition strategies, source selection decisions and overall contract documentation. Our team is up for the challenge.

PBN: Your undergraduate and graduate education are both in business administration. Had you always intended to get involved in contracting?

LAMB: No. When I found the opportunity at Division Newport back in 2007 after graduating from Northeastern University, I honestly didn’t know anything about government contracting. I knew I needed a job, and I knew working as a Navy civilian in the Naval Acquisition Development Program would give me a stable foundation. … It probably wasn’t until the two-year mark that it clicked for me that I could turn this job into a career and that there was ample opportunity both in the career field and at Division Newport.

Recently we have done a lot more outreach with local colleges and universities to raise awareness of the contracting career field and the importance of contracting to the execution of the Navy mission.

PBN: What is the most difficult part about procurement?

LAMB: We get asked this question all the time by potential candidates during job interviews. As a new employee in the contracting career field, you will be required to become familiar and compliant with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the Defense Acquisition Regulations Supplement, the Navy Marine Corps Acquisition Regulation, Navy policy, NAVSEA policy, NUWC policy and multiple other guides, yet be empowered to take calculated risks, be innovative and look for opportunities to go faster than the generation before you. Most employees embrace this challenge and don’t see the two in conflict, while others find it a difficult landscape to explore.

PBN: What are some of your goals for the department?

LAMB: Ensure my employees understand where they fit into the mission. Expanding the Navy’s advantage over our competitors is why we come to work every day, and contracting is a key element to accomplishing that mission. Implement a risk assessment into every contract action we work … [so] there will be a direct correlation between lead times, required resources and risk. For example, my contracting officers should be able to accept more risk, go faster and use fewer resources on a project that has historically resulted in competition.

The message from Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Geurts is to push decision-making down to the lowest, capable level. I am looking to do the same thing within my workforce, so my managers can manage, my senior contracting officers can focus on complex actions and mentoring our junior employees, and that all employees are empowered. Decentralization will drive more and more high-velocity learning.

I want my employees to give me everything they have for the time they are on the clock, but then I want them to leave the job at the door and enjoy their time with friends and family. … Empowering my people to make decisions and allowing them to maintain a work-life balance are key to the future of this department.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.