After 20+ years leading and participating in projects with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I picked some best practices – and some not so great ones—in partnering with commercial businesses. These lessons learned from my perspective as a VA project lead, team member or Point of Contact (POC) could prove valuable for other private sector entities doing business with the department. I’ve found most successful partnerships and collaborations stem from mutual understandings, clear communication, respect and transparency – and that’s the case here too. Here are my dos and don’ts:
Do expect a communication gap: When finalizing a contract, your company’s primary interaction may have been with the contracting officer and/or selecting official. These people may not know or communicate much with the VA staff/team who advocated for the contract or are responsible for finding or implementing a solution to the problem.
Don’t assume the VA team knows the ins and outs of your business: Don’t assume the VA POC knows who you are, how your company is structured, or how to communicate with you. While this is likely covered in the opening conference, you will need to make additional efforts to form a relationship.
Do get to know VA: Understand VA structure. VA often has very “separate” organizations with staff who may or may not know each other. For example, the Veterans Health Administration is a very separate organization from VA’s Office of Information and Technology.
Do accept idiosyncrasies: VA project staff may have past experiences in working with contractors that will govern their behavior. If possible, identifying these experiences can help a project. A conversation about past poor experiences and best practices can be very illuminating.
Don’t be inflexible: The VA team may be sensitive to a need to change deliverables identified in the contract. These contracts take time to implement, and sometimes things change. Identify those changes and support change orders to keep the contract aligned with the VA needs.
Do make connections: Within the bounds of the laws for payment of food, etc., create opportunities for key VA staff to get to know your key people personally. I have a stronger memory of the friends made and opportunities to socialize and hear stories than I do of many business meetings.
Do respect their time: In my experience, VA staff are dedicated, hard workers. Many of them are (perhaps badly) overextended in their responsibilities. At the same time, if they are a key person in your VA relationship, short, effective meetings to update issues are a must.
Don’t underestimate personal connections: Difficult issues are navigated better when key players know each other personally.
Don’t neglect facetime: I remember that many times running into key people “in the hallway” resulted in more important and timely communication than scheduled meetings. As a CEO or company leader, don’t be afraid to make unscheduled personal calls to check the temperature of a project or contract. Even a 5-minute conversation can be invaluable.
Do give a heads up: If your company is struggling to deliver something on time, attempt to solve it behind the scenes first. However, as soon as it becomes evident the problem will adversely affect the timeline or deliverables, like all unwelcome news, make VA staff aweare sooner rather than later.
Don’t forget to have fun: While most meetings with contractors I participated in focused on business, the few times we scheduled/had team building or fun activities always made the rest of the work easier and more enjoyable.
Do celebrate the wins: Plan the end of a contract and celebration of successes. You want VA front-line staff to remember you with a smile.
These dozen tips may help you guide you and your business in engaging with the VA. Remember, the VA isn’t a monolith, but is composed of some 170+ medical centers and 1,100+ outpatient clinics, and a trio of administrations, each with a unique purpose but all united in their mission to support veterans, their families and their survivors. But we know they can’t do it alone, and industry is here to help — hopefully, in the most productive and efficient way possible.
Dr. Mike Davies
Federal Business, LLC