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News | Sept. 9, 2022

FB director leads by example, shows failure not an option

By Tonya Johnson DCMA Public Affairs

Cherry Wilcoxon’s motto is, “Failure is not an option.”

As one of the few black females to serve as a comptroller for a Department of Defense agency, Wilcoxon she has learned throughout her career that opportunities go to those who do a good job.

Wilcoxon is the Defense Contract Management Agency’s Financial Business Operations executive director and comptroller.

“In my role as the DCMA comptroller, my goal is to create a transparent financial and business environment, while simultaneously building successful partnerships based on creditability, integrity and trust,” she said.  “A resource management system grounded in sound financial principles is the gold standard for good stewards of taxpayer resources, in both a legal and ethical manner in executing the DCMA mission. It is also my goal to create an enduring financial management and business infrastructure, which is sustainable, measurable, repeatable, transparent and seamless, regardless of leadership.”

Wilcoxon came to the agency headquarters in May 2021. She previously served as the senior advisor and chief financial officer at the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency. In the year that Wilcoxon has been with DCMA, she has gained a wealth of knowledge relative to the various DCMA functional missions. With her extensive resource management background, she quickly aligned her skills to her current role and hit the ground running.

“Dr. Wilcoxon came to DCMA with incredible experience, already performing at the highest levels of what we expect from our senior executives,” said Army Lt. Gen. David Bassett, DCMA’s director. “She is a trusted financial professional who knows how to get things done and has the relationships and leadership skills that was the right leader at the right time for our agency.”

Wilcoxon grew up in Alabama and went to a segregated elementary school. Her parents, teachers and small-town community taught her to excel at an early age.

“My parents, teachers, and community helped build my self-esteem,” she said. “I learned from them that failure is not an option for me. Even if I don’t win, there are still lessons to be learned.”

Wilcoxon has been a federal employee for more than 30 years and has served in the excepted service and career service. She is a level-three certified DOD financial manager and American Society of Military Comptrollers certified defense financial manager with an acquisition specialty.

Wilcoxon holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas, a master’s degree of business administration in finance from Jacksonville State University in Florida, and a doctor of public administration from the University of Baltimore in Maryland.

FB director’s role and team approach

As the FB executive director, Wilcoxon leads a team of more than 170 employees. She manages DCMA’s business infrastructure and all matters pertaining to its resource management operations. She is also responsible for the development and implementation of financial management policies, procedures, and controls; strategic planning; budget formulation and execution; and the agency’s risk management and internal control program.

She has advocated and defended DCMA’s budget to Congress; Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment; Under Secretary of Defense, Comptroller; and other external stakeholders. Wilcoxon increased the agency’s baseline funding by $400 million across the Fiscal Year Defense Plan, which included an information technology modernization restoral of $31 million per year across the FYDP.

“I have viewed every assignment throughout my career as an opportunity to excel, which has helped to prepare me for my current position as the executive director of Financial Business Operations and comptroller,” she said. “I have been given many opportunities to not only acquire operational and strategic knowledge of DOD and executive branch resource management business processes, but I have also gained an abundance of tactical experience through exposure field activities such as volunteering for a humanitarian detail after Hurricane Andrew and participating as a civilian in active-duty military field exercises as well.”

Wilcoxon said her previous experience helped reduce her DCMA learning curve, and she is grateful to her team for their hard work and mission dedication.

In the last year, the FB directorate instituted changes and streamlined business models and processes that included the transformation of labor execution, unfunded requirements, allocation of civilian pay, and agency workload and prioritization of mission requirements. The team accomplished all of this while working in a maximum telework environment. Wilcoxon said she made the effort to establish enhanced working relationships with her staff by hosting FB virtual town halls, wellness activities, brown bag lunches, and other interactive activities and site visits in an effort to acquaint herself with the team despite many prohibitive factors imposed in a pandemic environment.

“I consider myself to be a transformational leader working toward a shared vision with my team. I am also an agile situational leader with a unique ability to adapt to the needs of the team for mission execution,” said Wilcoxon. “The FB team, as well as the agency, has been receptive to change management initiatives to improve business processes to advance the resource posture in support of the DCMA mission.

“I am an enterprise honest broker rooted in fiduciary responsibility and focused on obtaining the resources needed for the DCMA mission,” she continued.  “I understand that governance and transparency drive resource justification and accountability in an era of diminishing budgets.

Federal career journey

Wilcoxon began her federal career in 1991 with the Air Force. She started as a GS-9 personal financial manager at the Bitburg Air Base Family Support Center in Germany. Her job duties included developing a curriculum to provide airmen with a better understanding of foreign currency, teaching them how to manage and eliminate debt, and ways to improve their credit scores while gaining financial stability.

She spent 20 years as an Air Force civilian. During that time, she held a variety of positions including personal financial manager, resource advisor, instructor, course director, budget analyst, budget officer, and director of resource management.

“The best advice I was given came from now retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James A. Whitmore, who told me to focus on the position that you are assigned and your next job will find you,” Wilcoxon said. “Hence, it’s the same advice I give to others because it has worked for me.”

Additionally, Wilcoxon has worked for other DOD agencies. She served as the chief of the Accounting Operations Division at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the deputy of the Financial Management Division and comptroller at the DCSA. As the deputy of DCSA FSM, she was responsible for directing the day-to-day financial management operations. Her final position at DCSA was as the senior advisor and chief financial officer. Wilcoxon directed all of the financial management activities and led a team that provided budget planning and execution. Her efforts in that role earned her a recent Presidential Rank Award.

“As a defense senior intelligence leader with DCSA, I was an integral part of the unprecedented historical effort to reshape the future whole of government background investigation and vetting mission to deliver an uncompromised and trusted federal workforce,” she said.

Presidential Rank Award Career Highlight

In May, Wilcoxon was selected as a Distinguished Presidential Rank Awardee, an accomplishment given to dedicated senior leaders who have made a difference across the federal government.

“I am both honored and humbled by the recognition, but the challenge of complex organizational and mission transformation while ensuring financial continuity of operations during the COVID-19 global pandemic could only be achieved with leading and working with a great team,” she said.

Wilcoxon was nominated by the DSCA director, William Lietzau. Her accomplishments included transferring of background investigation revolving funds and mission from Office of Personnel Management, standing up the DSCA Working Capital Fund, and completing the transformation of the whole of government background investigation and vetting for a trusted workforce.

Wilcoxon and her team stood-up the first Defense Wide Working Capital Fund in DOD in 23 years, transferring over $1.6 billion from the OPM revolving funds for background investigation services. DSCA is the lead federal agency that conducts background investigations for most federal employees and job applicants, excluding only the intelligence community.

The nomination stated that Wilcoxon developed short- and long-term financial and resource strategies “for the transfer and merger of mission and support personnel, contracts, resources and responsibilities of the National Background Investigations Bureau, the DOD Consolidated Adjudications Facility, Defense Security Service, and other security enterprise missions and essential support functions to form DCSA.”

The nomination further elaborated that “she assembled and led a team of employees and contractors to develop and automate a set of business rules, establishing data input controls and standardization for DCSA to efficiently and effectively process background investigation cases and to bill and collect in a timely manner, while minimizing the resources required to perform data clean-up and reconciliation tasks. 

“She designed and tested standardized, global business processes to support the DCSA WCF Defense Agencies Initiative (DAI) system with significant improvements to legacy business processes and practices, fundamentally transforming the way the WCF is managed and operated,” according to the award packet.  “She simultaneously led the establishment of the DCSA WCF infrastructure, led working groups, and drove the reconfiguration of the WCF DAI system to support the transfer of funds from OPM to DCSA.” 

Because of her leadership, the transfer from OPM to DSCA now conducting background checks led to more efficient and timely clearance processes. The agency also uses artificial intelligence and commercial best practices to conduct background checks and makes sure federal employees are thoroughly vetted using a risk-based approach.

Honing leadership skills as a professor

In addition to being a career civil servant, Wilcoxon served as an adjunct instructor at El Paso Community College and Jacksonville State University and course director at the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Civil Engineer and Services School. These positions have helped her become an even better leader.

“Being a professor and my degree in computer science has taught me how to approach the most complex problems, issues and information through dissecting into its most simple form in an effort to substantially increase the exchange of knowledge and gain a greater conceptual understanding,” she said. “Most of my intellectual engagements are usually from either a learning or teaching perspective for the exchange of institutional knowledge.”

Words of wisdom

Wilcoxon said she has few regrets of her professional career journey. One of them is not contacting Congressman John Lewis’ office to see if he could have executed her official oath during her swearing-in ceremony as a senior executive service member in 2018.

“I never aspired to be an SES,” she said. “I didn’t seek jobs that would ultimately prepare me to become a SES. Honestly, I have been blessed and fortunate enough to be selected for many newly established positions. In most instances, others have observed my job performance and requested I compete for various positions. These positions provided me opportunities to excel and apply my personal vision to the position.”

Lewis, who died in 2020, was a prominent civil rights activist from Pike County, Alabama, like Wilcoxon. Lewis and Wilcoxon’s uncle, Willie Collins, went to school together. Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Chisolm, a Congresswoman who was the first African-American woman to run for president, are some of Wilcoxon’s heroes.

“I never met Congressman Lewis, but I stand on his and the shoulders of my ancestors,” she noted.

As Wilcoxon continues to lead her team of acquisition professionals, she said she is grateful to be a part of the DCMA team that focuses on supporting America’s warfighters. She encourages others to pursue challenging, yet rewarding, career opportunities, but not with the single focus of moving up the career ladder or at the expense of not enjoying being a civil servant. She also encourages employees to implement work-life balance boundaries.

“I believe career advancement and opportunities will find you. I tell people to always focus on their current position, create opportunities to excel, work hard, embrace failure and become a lifetime learner,” said Wilcoxon. “People should be receptive to constructive criticism, venture outside of their comfort zone, find a sponsor and remember that career growth may require great sacrifice. Finally, in the words of Confucius, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to a work a day in your life.’

“I don’t have a lot of fear when it comes to challenges,” Wilcoxon said. “I like the quote by Shirley Chisolm who said, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.’ In addition to that, I want to have a voice at the table.

“I have had an awesome career,” she continued. “It has been an absolute blast. I have had the opportunities to do things others civilians could only dream, such as participating in fighter refueling exercises in Europe, landing on the Cape Canaveral NASA runway with the Air Force Jolly Green Giants helicopter crew and participating in maneuvers over the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t fear change. I see it as an opportunity to excel.”