On her way into work most mornings, Cathy Dickens likes to spend quiet time thinking about the day ahead.

It's a 30-minute drive, giving her plenty of time to contemplate how she hopes the day will go, and what decisions, actions and meetings will be critical to mission success. "I want to make sure we stay true to the mission, true to the organization," Dickens said.

"I want to make sure we are allowing decision making that is guided by the right motivations. So, on the way to work I turn off the radio and I say a prayer, and I think about what we want to accomplish, how we will handle things and what we need to do to ensure the right impact."

These days, those 30 minutes have become invaluable for this Army senior executive as she steers the helm of two Redstone organizations that have a far-reaching impact on the programs managed at Redstone Arsenal. Since August, Dickens is the esecutive director of both the Aviation and Missile Command Contracting Center and the Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command Contracting Center.

"This is a one-year pilot program with SMDC contracting under the operational control of AMCOM contracting," Dickens said. "We will review this year and see if this works well together. We will ask questions like: Is this too big of an organization when you put them together' Are we getting benefits by joining the organizations' Can we leverage our purchasing when we work together' ... We will do right by both commands."

Those questions will be addressed by the commanders of SMDC/ARSTRAT, AMCOM and the Army Materiel Command, based on the year's measurements and metrics. Until then, Dickens relies on strong leadership within both organizations to make the now temporary arrangement succeed. At SMDC/ARSTRAT, Tom Kallam works as the organization's deputy. At AMCOM, it is Col. Dan Cottrell.

"I have excellent support. Col. Cottrell and Mr. Kallam are my two right arms. They make sure the day-to-day operations run smoothly. We all work closely with each other," Dickens said.

"In addition, we get the support we need from (AMCOM's deputy commander) Ronnie Chronister and (SMDC/ARSTRAT deputy to the commander for research, development and acquisition) Steve Messervy. From a vision standpoint, they make sure we have what we need. They support the overall big picture type things and our new initiatives. I have a great support network of senior people around me and the wonderful work force that makes things happen. I am blessed with the people around me."

Community expands

The local government contracting community will expand with the relocation of the Army Contracting Command to Redstone by August 2011. That move will benefit both of the organizations Dickens oversees.

"The relocation will allow us to have cross training between the execution side of business and the headquarters side of the business in terms of staffing, procedures and policies," she said. "It can be difficult for higher organizations to understand the impact of procedures and policy changes in the field. The co-location will allow us, I think, to help shape those procedures and policies because we will be able to share with them more closely those impacts."

The challenge, however, that exists today and will increase with the relocation of ACC is the same challenge facing most Arsenal organizations - the challenge of staffing. Currently, AMCOM has 600 contracting positions, with 15 percent of those vacant, and SMDC/ARSTRAT has 139 contracting positions, with 30 percent vacant.

"We are short of experienced contract specialists. There is a lot of competition for experienced 1102s," Dickens said. "We didn't hire at all for about 10 years in the '90s. Now, our work force is aging and retiring. We've brought in a lot of great young people, but we have an inexperienced work force with a lot of gaps and a lot of vacancies."

In addition, AMCOM and SMDC/ARSTRAT contracting offices must compete with the contracting offices of other local government organizations, such as the Missile Defense Agency, Corps of Engineers and Marshall Space Flight Center.

"It is very competitive in our field. Contract specialists have a choice of jobs. It makes it hard to stabilize the work force and grow it," Dickens said. "On top of that, our work force is taxed at both AMCOM and SMDC with the war effort and the significant increase in foreign military sales.

"Our employees work a lot of long hours and there is a lot of training going on within our work force. But I am just phenomenally proud of the way contracts people continue to step up and go the extra mile. They are willing to sacrifice family time and home time because they care about the Soldiers and work every day in support of Soldiers."

Growing contracts

In year 2010, $20 billion in contracts were awarded and managed by AMCOM and SMDC/ARSTRAT contracting officers and contract specialists, representing more than 80,000 contract actions.

Dickens hopes her experience will work toward managing and organizing both the AMCOM and SMDC/ARSTRAT contracting activities as they grow an experienced work force and make the organizations more efficient, effective and productive.

"In taking on these two positions, I saw a great opportunity to help both sites," she said. "I grew up here at AMCOM and I worked as a young contract specialist at SMDC. So, I know both organizations.

"I knew that we shared a lot of the same challenges. More and more it's about looking at how we balance the work force, how we standardize more, how we work with budget challenges and how we leverage our experienced people. I care so much for both of these commands, and the criticality of their missions and the work force. I am proud of this work force and want to make sure they are taken care of and balanced across both commands."

Dickens is particularly concerned about working with the leadership at SMDC/ARSTRAT in rebuilding its reputation after recent court actions against the unethical practices of a few of its contracting personnel. The unethical practices occurred prior to Dickens' assignment to SMDC/ARSTRAT.

"A focus area is contract oversight. We want to get back to the basics, back to the foundation of good business decisions, good contracting decisions and the type of oversight we need to have on all our contracts," she said. "We want to implement new procedures and make sure we use peer reviews at the lowest level to ensure we are looking at what we are doing on a day-to-day basis.

"The ethical issues that came up involved a few employees. Those issues may have happened anyway. But they might have been discovered sooner if the contracting team had more oversight, and if that oversight was asking the right questions, reviewing the actions taken and challenging the contracting officer representative."

Setting standards

Dickens said contracting officers and contracting specialists - along with the contracting officer representatives in the field - must provide fair and objective management of contracts with an eye on spending taxpayer money wisely on services and products the Army needs.

"We are a service organization. We are a support organization that works with the program executive offices, program managers and engineers to procure the supplies and services they need to ultimately support the war fighter," Dickens said. "We need to have ways to contract in a timely response manner to support those contracts that are absolutely critical. We are responsible to make sure taxpayers' money is spent wisely and appropriately."

Dickens is well-schooled in the ethical and business standards that government employees should uphold. In 1977, she became an Army employee, hiring in as a clerical assistant. During those early years, she managed to juggle her job along with her family obligations as a wife and mother of two sons and her evening college classes.

She became an Army acquisition intern, and then worked as a contract specialist and contracting officer at both AMCOM and SMDC. She has served as a command competition advocate, advising on acquisition methods to increase competition and ensure compliance with procurement policy and law; as the command leader for integrating the Logistics Modernization Program; and as a special assistant to the executive deputy to the commanding general of the Army Materiel Command.

"I have just been incredibly fortunate in my career," she said. "I've had great role models, both men and women, teaching me what's really important and how to make sure you are doing the right thing ... I don't ever think I've had a job in the Army that I didn't love. Every day, I am excited about coming to work. I am grateful every day."

Dickens was named to the senior executive service in June 2009.

"I never expected to be a senior leader in the Army," Dickens said. "For a person to come in as a GS-2 in the clerical field to be able to rise to this level ... it shows how fair the Army is across the board with opportunities for those who work hard and do the right things."

Career advice

Dickens is often called on to provide mentoring advice and does accept invitations from various groups to share her career story. She said a successful career comes one job at a time.

"You need to focus on doing every job you have the very best you can no matter what the job is. You are always making an impression, either negatively or positively," she said.

Professionals should also look at the opportunities available in various positions and through training. She encourages employees to "take on the tough jobs no one else wants" and to find mentors who "push you out of your comfort zone."

As professionals move up in leadership, they should do periodic self-assessments.

"How affective are you' Are you making a difference' Are you contributing to the environment with enthusiasm for the mission first and for your own growth second'" Dickens queried.

"Is this a job you feel where you can make a difference and is it something you want to do' Is this the right fit' Is it a job you feel passionate about, that you care about' That's critical to being a productive and satisfied employee. Whatever job you are doing, you're supporting the nation and what greater satisfaction can you have than supporting the nation'"

And, above all, employees who want to be promoted into leadership roles should find their own ways to give back to other employees.

"Leadership is about taking care of people and giving back to people. It's about bringing up a young work force and making sure they have the opportunities and understand how critically important they are to the mission," Dickens said.

"What I'm doing now is an opportunity to give back. I have over 30 years of service. I need to pay the Army back for all the great things they've done for me. I want to give back to the work force and make sure they receive the very best training opportunities and that they understand how critically important their job is. I want us to be the best contracting work force in the Army. That's my goal, and I think we are already there. Now, we have to get even better."