I caught up with Jill Bossi, the former Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) at the American Red Cross to talk to her about her recent announcement to run for the United States Senate in 2014 in South Carolina. The Red Cross is in Washington, DC, but Jill is also an ex Bank of America procurement executive who lived just over the border near Charlotte, NC. I am admittedly a dyed in the wool centrist who loves free markets, but not social Darwinism, so I was fascinated by Jill’s decision to abandon the two massive incumbent political parties in favor of a new party called The American Party, which advocates congressional term limits and a centrist view to aim to the middle of the bell curve where most Americans lie while the incumbent political parties get increasingly polarized as they soothe themselves with the sounds of their own voices. Her chances to win as an independent may not be the highest, but hey, John Anderson got up to a 26 percent vote share during his run for president in the 1970’s, and with the power of social media and the increasing discontent with the current political parties, you never know! Regardless, it’d obviously be great to get some seasoned CPOs into federal government (beyond those who’ve jumped to the service provider side to sell to the government), not just within the acquisition area, but also in broader congressional leadership. I hope more ex-CPOs like Jill decide to serve in any capacity they can. We need the help.
I interviewed her last week, and here is the edited transcript…
PM: Pierre Mitchell (Chief Research Officer, Spend Matters)
JB: Jill Bossi (ex-CPO, Red Cross)
PM: Jill, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. First off, I have to ask the obvious question: What’s a great CPO and supply executive like yourself doing in a place like politics. Why run for public office? What prompted the change?
JB: Thanks Pierre. I appreciate your time and looking forward to kind of walking you through some of my reasons. Actually the political side of it is that I got involved with a new political party that was created in the state of South Carolina at the end of last year through a certification process where we had to collect over 10,000 registered voter’s signatures to get certified by the state to be allowed to be even called a political party. The whole point of The American Party is that it is about coming together in the middle. It is about common sense, it is about collaboration and consensus. It was formed by a Democrat and a Republican, both in the political life in South Carolina, who realized that we weren’t getting anything done in the country because we had become polarized by the far right and the far left and the arguments that they’re having without any success in moving forward.
As somebody who has been in supply chain management, I know how important it is to reach consensus and to find, if you will, the center point of both sides of the particular issues so that we can find a way forward.
So that appealed to me from a supply chain perspective, as well as from a political perspective. I think that most Americans find themselves somewhere in the middle. They may be center right or they may be center left and all the way to smack dab in the middle. But they find themselves there because in general, we as people, know that there are ways that we have to compromise and collaborate with one another in order to get things moving ahead.
PM: So, you think the government should be “center-led,” just like Procurement.
JB: Exactly. It IS center-led. If you think about it from a business perspective and certainly business is a big key for what I look at when I made some of the decisions to run, the whole idea of being center-led is absolutely accurate. So after the party was formed at the end of the year, the first step in terms of any good organizing effort, like in the private sector, and especially in the political realm, is to realize that not only do we have to gain momentum with the voters so that they will recognize our movement -- and I believe it is a movement even more so than a political party -- but also that they will participate. And the best way to participate is to tell candidates that people can begin to get to know not only the candidates, but the party and what we stand for. So as that discussion got going, the obvious question from the folks that were involved in the party was “is there anybody out there that’s interested in running?”
I had kind of thrown my hat into the ring to help establish the party and when that question came out, I said I was willing to explore it and before you know it, “exploration” turned into the solid decision to make the run for the US Senate. I had a conversation with Dr. Jim Rex and Dr. Oscar Lovelace, who are the founders of the party and then with a number of consultants that they have working with them. Then I did my own research and I looked at what the political landscape was in South Carolina. And recognizing the fact that the whole point of moving forward was to get recognition for the American Party in South Carolina, I really looked at the roles that were out there that were going to be in the election and tried to factor in what are the ones that might bring the most visibility, the most opportunity for having the kinds of discussions that I wanted to have personally as an American citizen and I wanted to have as a candidate, if I was going to be a candidate for the American Party.
So as I looked at those, I recognized the fact that it needed to be a federal office. A state or a local office, while those are very important and I don’t discount those at all, the ability to have a real significant dialogue on the political landscape of where our country is headed really has to happen at the federal level, has to happen in a place where the mediators, where the general population looks and really open that dialogue up to all voters and the citizens that have been disenfranchised by what our political process has evolved to.
PM: You’ve spent a lot of time in Washington in terms of working for the American Red Cross. In your dealings with Washington when you were working with the Red Cross was there something there that made you hopeful that you could create some change or perhaps also the opposite situation where the polarized two-party system motivated you to change it? I know some procurement leaders who have made the jump into a public sector role and although they know how to deal with corporate politics, they do get frustrated when they get there – sort of like the movie “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”.
JB: Well, I think I’m going to feel a little bit like Ms. Smith going to Washington if I’m blessed enough to be so by the voters in the state of South Carolina to represent them. However, as the CPO for the American Red Cross, and during my time with them, as you may know, I left the Red Cross to pursue my bid for the Senate full-time. But while I was there, I did get many opportunities to go up to Washington DC and because the Red Cross is a nationally recognized non-profit, it is also the only non-profit that is chartered by Congress and that’s a very unique position that it has with the American people. It is not a federal group. The federal government does not fund it, but it does work very closely with the federal government. And because of this, I have had a lot of opportunities to interact with the federal government on many different levels. I had the opportunity to work with Joe Jordan and his team [formerly at the Office of Management and Budget] that were implementing strategic sourcing in the federal government procurement system. Joe Jordan has been appointed by the President to be the procurement policy lead for the federal government and he’s trying to do some very interesting and thoughtful things about procurement from a government perspective. I applaud him for what he’s trying to do, but it is challenging. The government procurement process, by itself, is highly complex.
PM: Yes, I’ve tried reading “Federal Contracting Made Easy” about five times and I just can’t seem to get past a few chapters. It’s the best thing to make you fall asleep. You don’t need an AmbienTM, you just need to read “The FAR”. I laugh about it, but it’s kind of sad and it’s just the most bloated policy act that I’ve ever read. It’s unintelligible and I’m somewhat intelligent, so hopefully it’s not just me.
JB: No. You’re absolutely correct Pierre. And, actually, The Washington Post recently had a story called The Sinkhole of Bureacracy which was describing a federal pension process where a group of federal employees who are responsible for managing all of the pensioners, the federal government pensioners, work in a huge underground mine. And they have tens of thousands of filing cabinets full of paper documents, and how so many times in the past, they have tried to computerize the process and they have failed several times over at cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the US tax payer because they’ve created such a complicated system that not even a computer can deal with it. What does that tell you? We’ve gone over the top in terms of complexity and as we all know, with the supply chain people, complexity is not the answer. Simplicity is the answer. A lot of the things that we deal with in corporate America require us to come up with ideas and processes that simplify the process and allow us to move forward much more quickly. In fact I was a Harvard Business Review blog that was written by Matthew Eatough who runs Proxima. And he was talking about the inabilities of procurement to get recognition from the business and the reason behind that in terms of our historical perspective of being a bit pedantic in how we go about things, having processes that take six to eight weeks or longer in terms of bids, having policies and procedures -- but a lot of that just does not match well with the speed of business today. And that is currently true when we start to look at the federal government and in terms of what needs to be done to be effective.
But at the federal level, there’s a lot more complexity in terms of trying to find a way through it to simplicity. What I mean by that is that there’s a lot more that the federal government has to take into consideration in terms of their purchasing decisions than does a corporation or a small company because after spending by the federal government, is an economic stimulus to the general American economy. Therefore, they can’t do a strategic sourcing event that gets down to one or five suppliers because it would have an adverse effect on the US economy to the other 500+ or 5,000+ suppliers. So it’s much more complicated and finding resolutions or solutions to that complexity is going to be the challenge.
PM: But just think about on the flip side too, and I’m sure you’re a strong advocate of this, certainly it needs to be kind of 100 percent transparent. There’s the need to have that in both the public sector and in the private sector. But just think about how much time and energy is wasted on this bureaucratic process versus running a good, clean competitive process that still supports the constraint’s objectives that you’re trying to support and how technology, like the bidding optimization tools and these types of decision support capabilities in the hands of our people could really support these complex objectives rather than many of the simplistic techniques and tools being used by so many folks. But, is this too tall an order for government procurement? Do you think we can actually capture these opportunities?
JB: From a supply management professional, I do believe that there are opportunities. But as I’ve kind of explored, the federal landscape of procurement in more depth and heard from the various constituencies, if you will, that have different opinions on that. It’s more complicated than a simple answer can give. But I do believe that some of the leadership in the Office Management & Budget are headed in the right direction, but they’re going to have to put together a solution that would not be one that we would necessarily implement in corporate America.
In corporate America we have much more flexibility and leeway to implement streamlined approaches because we can make a decision of one over another or of several over many. And that’s not necessarily what the federal government will be able to do. But to go back to the idea of bureaucracy, there is a huge opportunity to improve process, to simplify and streamline across so many different areas that would allow the government to operate more effectively. I think the other reason in Washington DC, what I got to experience, was that there’s also not just this gridlock that it’s created from the politicians on Capitol Hill, but there is a sense of entitlement and expectation from the members on the Hill that goes far beyond what we would consider is appropriate or even acceptable from a business perspective. What it’s worth and what I’ve experienced is that the drive behind many of their issues has nothing to do with benefiting the American public, the citizens, and the voters, but has everything to do with benefiting their re-election campaign. And that really was a key element of my growing sensation with the political landscape and why when the opportunity presented itself, I decided I needed to run for office.
I am a strong proponent of term limits. It is time for the entire federal elected base to be held accountable and held to term limits. Now, whether that’s twelve-year limits, eight-year limits, I haven’t finalized what my thoughts are on that yet, but I know that term limits are absolutely essential to ensure that when people go to Washington, that they are focused on getting the job done and not spending their time getting re-elected. That is, I think, a key change that we need to make happen in this county, and I am very committed to it. I don’t want to go to Washington for 20 years, goodness no! No, I want to go long enough to make a difference, long enough to implement real change, but short enough to be able to say “I’ve served my country. I’ve done what I believed was right to benefit both my country and my state,” and then be able to go back home and see the fruits, if you will, of my labor. Our early founding fathers did just that. George Washington stepped down because he knew he did not want to continue to serve because he knew the dangers of staying too long in those kinds of roles. And many of our other founding fathers from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, etc., they all understood the dangers of being in those kinds of roles for too long. And I think that as a country we need to come back to that and the only way we’re going to is to impose term limits on Congress, on the Senate – we obviously have it in the Presidential arena. So that’s one of my key issues and I believe if we can get to that, then we will get people into office that really know how to problem solve. There will be more people like me and I’m stepping out of the boat, right? I’m on the water and I’m willing to take a chance, and I’m not independently wealthy. I don’t have millions of dollars sitting in a bank account somewhere. I don’t have my own business yet. I am starting my own business, but that’s more of something in preparation as I go through this run for office. Should I not be successful, I need to have a backup plan. Any good procurement person should always have a backup plan!
Click here for Part 2 of Pierre's interview with Jill Bossi.