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'Not Just Pushing Papers': How Nicole Stevenson Redefines Acquisition at NRC

May 29, 2024

By Performance.gov Team

Post-it note next to post-it note with calculator on wooden desk.

The Biden-Harris President’s Management Agenda (PMA) Vision lays the foundation for an effective, equitable, and accountable government that delivers results for all. Periodically, we share stories that highlight real-world examples of one of the three PMA priorities.

Across the Federal Government, acquisition professionals help manage the business of government. Performance.gov recently sat down with Deputy Director of the Acquisition Management Division, Office of Administration, for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Nicole Stevenson and some members of her team to hear about her unique leadership approach that’s driving a new era of collaboration, risk-taking, and visionary thinking at NRC.

Founded in 1974, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials, such as nuclear medicine. This includes licensing, inspection, and enforcement of its requirements. The NRC Acquisition Management Division helps fulfill this mission by ensuring NRC has the latest technology and services.

That’s where Nicole comes in. As the Deputy Director of the Acquisition Management Division, Office of Administration, she oversees the day-to-day operations of the division and management of the branch chiefs. Nicole has a wealth of experience in federal contracting and knows what it’s like to be on both sides of procurement, having worked with small businesses prior to her transition to the Federal Government. This experience helps her and the division oversee many areas, including commercial and other procurements, interagency agreements with other federal agencies, and grants to qualified institutions to support nuclear research and education.

‘Not Just Pushing Papers’

Both Nicole and her team emphasize the important role an acquisition professional plays in the mission of the government.

“The work of acquisition is complex. This is not just a paper pushing job. As business advisors, we have to understand what we’re buying, the market and weigh risks so that we can deliver for the government, so the government can deliver on mission.”

Jill Daly, Acquisition Policy, Planning and Support Branch Chief, echoes Nicole:

“There are a lot of regulations surrounding government procurement. Nicole encourages us to find ways within those regulations to support the mission of the agency at a better price in the most efficient way possible.”

One way Nicole encourages her staff to be innovative is by organizing panels of both experienced and more junior contract specialists who present on flexible procurement techniques that they have executed, such as price affordability and phased negotiation. Following these panels, this acquisition team participates in an open discussion on the effectiveness, efficiency, and legality of these flexible techniques.

Working in Acquisitions at the NRC Youtube Video by the NRC.

An ‘Unorthodox’ Leadership Style that Empowers

Empowering her staff to take risks and try out new approaches is a core component of Nicole’s approach to leadership and something she believes is essential to developing a competitive supplier base for the Federal Government.

“Not only for the NRC, but across the Federal Government, it’s important we have an innovative and competitive supplier base so that we can achieve the most cutting-edge results in the most cost-effective way possible.”

Nicole’s experience and passion for this work pushes her to be hands-on and incorporate what she calls an ‘unorthodox’ leadership style.

Nicole shares with us, “Because I love the work so much, I like to stay close to what I call the ‘real work’ of acquisition. My staff is very important to me. It is always my highest priority to spend time with my managers and our staff so that we can continuously learn from each other. I’ve been in many spaces, from Fortune 500 companies to Congress, and I draw the best from each of those experiences. I’ve learned there are times to be hierarchical and there are times to be very flat.”

One example of Nicole’s unorthodox leadership style? Her role as the DJ for their team meetings where she chooses thematic songs to start and end her meetings, which help her staff not just see her as their boss, but as a person, and has created an environment where staff are excited to participate in meetings, share their ideas, and collaborate with each other.

Photo of Nicole from her South Africa trip.

Nicole on a recent trip to South Africa.

Her focus on approachable leadership has had a significant impact on Nicole’s staff, personally and professionally. Domonique Malone, a Branch Chief in the Acquisition Management Division, tells us more about the type of leader Nicole is.

“When I think of Nicole’s leadership style, I think of an innovative style, because I think she’s an excellent communicator. She has a vision, and she’s clear about communicating what that vision is…I think the most groundbreaking things she’s implemented here come from her experience leading teams in private industry and federal contracting. She understands what it’s like to be in this field, in what she didn’t get or what she did get, and she’s bringing it to us. And then she’s allowing us as leaders to try innovative techniques.”

A New Approach to Acquisition

In 2023, Nicole took her breadth of experience and vision of achieving cutting edge results and launched the Innovation Incubator (I²) for NRC’s acquisition professionals. I² functions as an advisory forum that aids the agency’s contracting officers in identifying and assessing emerging technologies and business models. It also fosters innovation by advocating for creative approaches and mindful risk-taking.

Nicole intentionally designed I² to include representatives from not only the acquisition team, including program partners and end users, but also the Office of General Counsel and Office of Small Business and Civil Rights. This streamlined approach aims to provide an open and supportive space to discuss procurement approaches, gain stakeholder buy-in, and retrospectively review the approaches taken and identify lessons learned.

“We use this as an opportunity to build people up. If someone has a procurement and wants to use an innovative technique, then they can talk through their ideas and be supported. You get the benefit of a brain trust, whether you’re planning on doing something new in procurement or you want to take a look back and analyze your lessons learned.”

In just over a year, I² has had many successes, including reduced close-out contract backlogs and increased contracts with small businesses in new areas like research and development. Anthony ‘Tony’ Briggs, the Small Business Program Manager in the Office of Small Business and Civil Rights, tells us about the impact I² has had on the small businesses they work with.

“When you make a contract award to a small business, it is more than just a contract. An award is a life changing experience that helps an entrepreneur realize a dream they’ve been striving for since they started their business. I know countless small businesses that started with one to two people. They got their first contract at the NRC, and now they’re over 200 people.”

As they look to the future, Nicole and her team are optimistic about the Innovation Incubator (I²) and the culture it has fostered at NRC, in addition to the impact it will have on small businesses. The next phase? Collaborating with federal partners and their procurement data scientists and analysts to identify metrics and measures that can be used governmentwide to quantify the success in the adaptation and adoption of implementing innovative acquisition techniques.

The Innovation Incubator (I²) is just one example of the numerous contributions Nicole has made during her time at the NRC. Nicole has not only improved the approach NRC takes with acquisition, but she has also clearly left a significant impact on the staff and culture at NRC, something that will continue to yield results for years to come.

Learn More

If you’re curious about the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, you can head to their homepage to learn more. We invite you to explore the President’s Management Agenda to learn more about the role of acquisition and procurement in managing the business of government.

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