Engage Others to Challenge Convention: A Conversation with Lori Ruderman
By Stephen Woodring
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Lori Ruderman, the BUYSMARTER Initiative Lead for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The BUYSMARTER Initiative analyzes HHS purchasing data to develop department-wide programs and strategies for collective purchasing, resulting in operational efficiencies and cost savings. Once fully implemented, BUYSMARTER has the potential to enable cost savings of over $720 million per year for HHS.
Large-scale organization-wide efforts like this can thrive or wither depending on the level of support they receive from key stakeholders. Lori has led BUYSMARTER’s stakeholder engagement efforts, receiving buy-in from more than 200 partners and building a solid foundation for the initiative to succeed. Lori was recently selected as a 2019 Federal Computer Week Fed100 award winner for her leadership of BUYSMARTER.
When we spoke, Lori was kind enough to share her perspectives on the traits of a successful leader, how to establish a high-performance culture, and the challenges associated with government technology initiatives. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
The Clearing (TC): Can you tell me about what constitutes your role as the BUYSMARTER Initiative Lead?
Lori Ruderman (LR): I oversee a new and innovative initiative within HHS to modernize the acquisition process, leveraging emerging technologies to help consolidate acquisition spending across the department.
TC: What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization?
LR: The decisions that are the most essential to the organization and this initiative revolve around change management, stakeholder engagement, and time. There is intense pressure from the top to go fast, but there is also an intense desire from our stakeholders to be cautious and deliberate. So, striking that balance of speed and yet doing the job correctly and well, instead of rushing through it, is key. I think that has been my most important responsibility as a leader: managing the speed of the project to ensure we are moving forward all the time in a measured, intentional manner.
TC: What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
LR: Passion. Feeling motivated and excited about what you are doing is the best way to get others to follow. If you’re just going through the motions, everyone else will go through the motions as well. As a leader, your excitement is contagious.
TC: What is one common mistake you’ve witnessed leaders make?
LR: One mistake that I sometimes see leaders make is that their management style is too authoritarian. If team members don’t feel comfortable to approach the leader then there is a problem. Some leaders don’t take the time to engage with their team, blinding them to the problems that may be present. But if you make it a safe environment for people to express concerns or offer suggestions you often get better products. Keeping your ego in check is very important for a leader.
TC: What is your advice to other leaders attempting similarly transformative efforts?
LR: There are a couple factors that are important. Number one is always stakeholder engagement. No successful project can exist without critical stakeholder engagement; everyone touched by what you are doing should be consulted, made aware, and offered education.
The second factor is change management. Change management begins on day one. You can have the best program in the world, but without appropriate change management it will never get into adoption.
Lastly, having a diverse team with diverse skill sets. You want lots of different perspectives. I will occasionally bring in a devil’s advocate, or someone who is not aligned with what we are doing and encourage them to poke holes in our thinking. It’s too easy to get rose-colored glasses and miss the obvious flaws. So, I will strategically invite people in to test our ideas.
TC: How do you keep your team members keen and motivated?
LR: A lot of our staff are learning and strengthening their skill sets and capabilities. Thus, offering these individuals new opportunities in different areas helps to keep them excited and motivated. Providing recognition to teammates early and often is important. Also important: team building, the value of laughter and camaraderie in a group, and taking a personal interest in each member of the team.
TC: As a leader, what comes to mind when you hear the word ’culture’?
LR: The culture of any group is critical to its success.
Not having a healthy culture leads to derision and a lack of unity within the group. Now, that doesn’t mean everyone needs to conform to one another’s personal beliefs. Instead, it means that everyone agrees to some basic standards of behavior and has a willingness to be innovative, to think outside the box, and to challenge and adapt. All of this is critically important. You have to have a culture that embraces the opportunities to take risks, to push the envelope, and to question things. A team should not be saying “this is the way we do it, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
I used to work at an organization that had a stagnant culture. Over time, I began to adapt my behavior; instead of asking a yes or no question, I would ask my colleagues to show me the law, regulation or policy that says “you cannot do this.” Because if I asked a yes or no question, I would always get a ‘no.’ Instead, by changing the questions I was asking, I was able to do things differently.
And sometimes, you don’t want to be solutions-oriented. Sometimes you want to let it play out and find the best result. A solution can tell you where you need to go and how to get there, but sometimes it is good not to know where you want to go and see where the path takes you. One of my favorite expressions is J.R.R. Tolkien’s: “Not all who wander are lost.” Sometimes you just need to wander.