Achieving Success in the Civil Service – “Navigating the Enterprise”

Robin PorterfieldThe Supply Corps Office of Personnel has initiated a series of interviews, focusing on Supply Corps (SC) career management and what it takes to achieve a successful as a Supply Corps officer. Our 12th article in this series is focused on diversity and takes a more civilian focus. Supply Corps Career Counselor Lt. Cmdr. Adam Prosser interviewed Ms. Robin Porterfield who serves as Assistant Commander, Financial Management / Comptroller (N8), Naval Supply Systems Command.

SC CC: Ms. Porterfield, please tell us a little bit about yourself (education, career, etc.).

Ms. Porterfield: I grew up in Pennsylvania. I have a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a major in Accounting from Shippensburg University. After school, I headed to the D.C. area and earned a master’s in Public Administration Financial Management from American University. A significant time later, I attended the Army War College and received a master’s in Strategic Studies. Professionally, I started as a Navy Comptroller Financial Management (FM) intern at the GS-5 level as an accountant. As part of my rotational assignments, I was fortunate to land a journeyman position as a budget analyst within the Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) Comptroller shop. The journeyman position took me from a GS-7 to a GS-13. In that progression, I worked in various positions within the NAVSUP Comptroller Directorate. I became a supervisor (GS-14) of the Operations and Maintenance Appropriation and Navy Program Objective Memorandum (POM) Budget Formulation branch and then I moved to the Revolving Fund branch. Along the way, I participated in several leadership programs, specifically the NAVSUP Corporate Management Development Program as well as, what was then called the Defense Leadership and Management Program (DLAMP). It was through the DLAMP program that I was able to attend the U.S. Army War College (USAWC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as a full-time resident student. I was the only Navy civilian, which was quite interesting. Following my time at USAWC, I returned to NAVSUP and competed for the Enterprise Deployment Director for Continuous Process Improvement, which was a GS-15. I then became the Director for Strategy and Innovation (N5), initially a separate Assistant Commander (ACOM), which was merged into the larger Corporate Operations (N1/N5). That was my last job before I threw my name into the hat for this one.

SC CC: Discuss your current assignment as a newly-appointed member of the Senior Executive Service at NAVSUP Headquarters.

Ms. Porterfield: As the NAVSUP N8, I am responsible for an obligation authority that exceeds six billion dollars and covers eight types of funds: operations and maintenance, procurement, research and development, military construction, industrial and supply management areas of the working capital fund, military assistance, and foreign military sales. The NAVSUP Enterprise is a diverse group of about 22,500 individuals worldwide. Forty percent of those folks are dedicated to logistics and 60 percent are in the Navy Exchange Family Support area. I have oversight responsibility for financial management of the Navy Resale System, which is a non-appropriated fund operation. I spend most of my day monitoring and evaluating the status of NAVSUP programs and funds, reprogramming and recouping as necessary, as well as prescribing, interpreting, and implementing FM program policy. All of this is done in an SAP®/enterprise resource planning environment and we have a new emphasis on the audit-ready financial processing.

We coordinate and serve as “auditors,” although currently we do not have any folks in auditor classified positions. While N8 is in the coordination role, Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness (FIAR) and Financial Improvement Program is really about every single person at NAVSUP Enterprise understanding their processes, identifying where the integration points lie within these processes, and making sure they minimize any gaps or seams within those processes. I know that when a lot of people hear “FIAR,” they automatically think, “That must be N8’s problem or issue to resolve.” But it is not. It’s the front-line managers and folks who do the work that have to understand that they’re responsible for making sure their processes and all corresponding data are traceable, properly documented, within any prescribed controls, and a way to monitor these elements is in place.

SC CC: In what way has your leadership and career experiences in civil service impacted your progression to the Senior Executive Service?

Ms. Porterfield: It had a major impact on my progression. I served 12 years in a leadership position within the NAVSUP Comptroller and now I’m at the head of this organization. I spent my time looking at financial planning and programming, budgeting, accounting control and execution. Basically, I learned the culture and the processes and the policy from the ground up. I was very fortunate to be mentored by many of the “legends” of the Supply Corps. I served under Admirals Straw, Lippert, Hickman, Keller, Bird, Lyden, and Yuen. I gained a wealth of exposure from these military officers along with some very exceptional civilian senior leaders, and those interactions were instrumental in terms of my career progression to the Senior Executive Service level.

Having the opportunity to spend a year at USAWC as a full-time student was fabulous and it was easily the best year of my career. It gave me exposure to joint operations and strategic thinking, and it also gave me a mid-career break, where I could focus on my family and myself. I highly recommend this opportunity to all civilians.

When I came back to NAVSUP, I served in positions outside the FM area, which I found to be very enlightening and afforded me opportunities to be on the receiving end of the FM processes. This gave me a unique and invaluable perspective that will help me as I take the leadership reigns of the FM world for NAVSUP.

My most recent position, director of Strategy and Innovation, really enabled me to play to my strong suit: strategic thinking. This position afforded me the ability to influence the strategic direction of NAVSUP, as we were responsible for putting together NAVSUP’s Strategic Plan (five-year) and annual Commander’s Guidance. While I have had the opportunity to work outside of NAVSUP at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations level, my time spent within the NAVSUP community has composed the majority of my career and proven to be enjoyable. Luck has contributed to my successful career – being in the right place at the right time – so my advice to your readers is to not stress about how they’re going to get to a specific job but rather to take the opportunities as they come and make the best of them. If they do, doors will open.

SC CC: As a leader in the NAVSUP enterprise, you offer a unique perspective regarding what it takes to have a successful career as a government service civilian. That said, what role does ethics and leadership play in a successful career?

Ms. Porterfield: Ethics play a significant role. Ethical conduct is about doing the right things in the right ways, but when you’re in public service, you must also be aware of appearances. Even when decisions are clearly legal, you must also consider them through the lens of appearance. There’s a saying that I think is very appropriate for all folks who serve in the public realm to remember: “Perception is out of bed and half way around the world before reality even wakes up.” I remember those words when I’m doing things and I think, “What would people think if I pursued this action?” When ethics and leadership are solid, both in perception and reality, they’re critical in developing that level of trust that’s necessary to be an effective leader. Folks won’t follow you if they don’t trust you. It’s critical that you earn that trust and establish it through all the components that you touch: stakeholders, customers, senior leadership, your employees, and even the taxpayers. Ethics and trust are two large and integrated components. You can be the best speaker in the world, you can know everything about what you’re responsible for inside and out, but if people do not trust you, they will not follow you.

SC CC: From your perspective, what is the “secret sauce” to success for a government service civilian?

Ms. Porterfield: My advice to folks would be to have the courage to step outside of your comfort zone, take some risks and tackle the hard jobs. Challenge yourself! You may go into an area that you hadn’t considered before and you may find that’s your strong suit. Continuously learning and testing your knowledge, skills and abilities will help you to grow, not only as an
individual, but also as a leader.

SC CC: We hear about the importance of mentorship as military officers, but how important is mentorship on the civil service side? Did you receive any profound career advice from mentors that helped you reach your current position?

Ms. Porterfield: Mentorship is critical for civilians, just as it is for the military. You need people who are willing to take the time to share their professional knowledge, just like you would have in an apprenticeship relationship. As I mentioned earlier, I have been very fortunate to have had both military and civilian mentors who were willing to advise me and work with
me as an apprentice. Even on the reverse side, I have sought to return that favor by serving as a mentor to both military and civilian colleagues. The best career advice I received was to be an active listener. Taking the time to learn the facts and listening to folks who have more experience and may understand a situation a little bit better, regardless of where they are in the organization – I think that’s the key to becoming an effective leader. If you know what your shortfalls are, be willing to listen and learn from those who have mastered that particular area.

SC CC: In your current role as ACOM for Financial Management, and continued focus on cutting financial resources, what do you see as the enterprise’s greatest challenge over the next several years?

Ms. Porterfield: I think the greatest challenge we have is supporting new platforms, while still fully supporting the legacy platforms. That would be the number one challenge and then I would follow that closely with knowledge management. As our workforce is hitting retirement age, a lot of our corporate knowledge is walking out the door. To me, the key to overcoming
these challenges is tied directly to improving how we fully leverage the innovation that is taking place within the Department of Defense and industry, along with capturing the good ideas that our workforce generates daily. As leaders, we have to do more to ensure our folks have time to dream. I know that may sound silly, but I think when you give folks “white space,”
you can get a significant return on that investment. It enables them to sit back, look at things, and think about how it can be improved so that they ask “Is there a better way, or a more efficient way, that we can do this?” Part of making this equation successful is to encourage our folks to take calculated risks. As leaders, we need to remove barriers to allow our  employees to dream.

SC CC: Outside of NAVSUP, what motivates you? What has enabled you to push on and serve successfully through a 20-year career? How important has the work/life balance been for you throughout your career?

Ms. Porterfield: That’s easy – my family! I have been blessed with a supportive husband and two wonderful children who have always been there to encourage me to be the best that I can be. On the flip side, I recognized some time ago that it doesn’t matter what I say to my kids, but rather what I do. The best way to serve as a positive role model for them was to keep a  positive attitude and work hard, while also balancing my workload to spend quality time with them so they know how important and special they are to me – basically the work/life balance, which I believe is critical to achieve. Personally, I think it’s difficult for everyone to find the right balance, but I do think it’s a larger challenge for our working mothers. Since I’ve been selected for this position, I have had a number of young, professional women approach me and ask how I’ve balanced my career and family, seeking my advice on the topic. They’re in a constant battle with themselves trying to find the right balance, feeling like they are falling short on all fronts despite their best efforts. Unfortunately, there is no magic answer or solution that will work for everyone. Instead, I encourage them to look at the larger picture, to make sure that whatever they decide matches what they personally desire. They have to be selfish just this one time because it’s critical that they have no regrets with the decisions they make going forward. There will always be critics, regardless of what you decide, but if you’re happy with your decisions, that will come through in all that you do, whether it’s being the best employee, being the best mother, or just being the best you.

SC CC: Any final thoughts that you’d like to share with our readers?

Ms. Porterfield: I’d like to emphasize, whether civilian or military, the importance of working together to create a work environment of mutual respect and inclusion to everyone. Civilians bring the continuity of knowledge on our processes, whereas the military bring the warfighter knowledge. The combination of these two perspectives is critical to NAVSUP’s future success because each one brings something to the fight that’s unique and valuable. As leaders it is our job to ensure the culture and environment in which we work makes people feel comfortable, welcomed, and encourages everyone to voice their opinions knowing they are doing so in a supportive, innovative, and trusted environment. That saying that we hear a lot, “One team, one
fight,” may sound cliché, but I think that’s very important for folks to embrace and demonstrate as we move forward as an enterprise.

Congratulations to Ms. Porterfield on being selected to serve in the Senior Executive Service as NAVSUP’s Assistant Commander for Financial Management and special thanks for her service and willingness to share her invaluable perspective!

January/February 2016