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Mar 8 2021

Five questions to Eleanor Summers, NSPA Competition Advocate, Integrity and Ethics Coordination

LUXEMBOURG - International Women's Day, on 8th of March, is a global day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political impact of women and also a call for action to accelerate gender equality. On this important day, we recognise women for their hard work and resilience. To date, 398 women work for the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) in a variety of roles, from engineering to procurement, legal or administration. Each one of them contributes to the broader NATO mission. On this day, we highlight the important role of one our colleagues, Eleanor Summers.

After serving in different positions for the US Department of Defence (DoD) in London, California and Dubai, Eleanor joined NSPA 18 years ago. Since then, she performed different senior procurement roles, becoming NSPA's Competition Advocate and the Agency's Integrity and Ethics Coordinator. Today she is a leader and an inspiration for others in the organisation.

Eleanor is responsible for advising the NSPA's General Manager in Competition Advocacy issues, ensuring procurements processed by the Agency are available for International Competitive Bidding and addressing Industry concerns regarding fair and equal treatment by the Agency. "I understand and accept that this can be an unpopular role at times, but it's also a critical one as it ensures the Agency complies with its commitment to fairness, transparency and a "level playing field" for all qualified bidders", she explains. Furthermore, in her collateral capacity as NSPA Ethics and Integrity Coordinator, Eleanor acts as true role model for men and women in this Agency by communicating on fraud and corruption prevention. As such, she also indirectly contributes to the prevention of illegal practices such as financing drug, arms and people trafficking.

"The two roles actually have a lot in common – they are both fundamentally about protecting the reputation of Agency as a fair and ethical business partner to industry and as a trustworthy enabler to meet the needs of our member nations. It is a busy and demanding role, but one I find very gratifying." she ensures.

Five questions to Eleanor Summers, NSPA Competition Advocate, Integrity and Ethics Coordination
Eleanor Summers, NSPA Competition Advocate, Integrity and Ethics Coordination

What were the steps you took to become a competition advocate?

I started my career in a Contracting Intern Program run by the US DoD which provided me great training opportunities and experience in a wide range of procurements. Shortly after completion, I was offered a job with a US Navy Contracting Office in London where I was responsible for negotiating large contracts with UK firms supporting US DOD requirements. That was my first exposure to working in an international environment and I was immediately hooked.

I was then selected for an Executive Development Program managed by the US Navy and concurrently offered a job to supervise a group of Procurement professionals in a Contracting Office in San Diego, California - so I bought a car and headed to California. After a few years in sunny San Diego, I was appointed as the Deputy Officer in Charge of a Contacting Office in even sunnier Dubai, where I contracted for the entire range of requirements for US Naval vessels visiting the UAE. When that assignment was coming to an end, I was lured back to San Diego by the Navy's C4ISR Command which had relocated there from Washington DC.

After a few years managing the negotiation and award of "bleeding edge" R&D contracts, I interviewed for a job at then NAMSA, and relocated to Luxembourg in 2002. I started as a Senior Contracting Officer, and then became a Branch Chief in the Procurement Division. Eventually, I was appointed Deputy Director of Procurement, which was, at that time, dual hatted as the Competition Advocate. The International Board of Auditors for NATO (IBAN) had recommended that the role of Competition Advocate be separated from Procurement. When the nations approved it, I was asked to continue in the Competition Advocate post. I had not actually planned to be here this long, but I really appreciate the opportunities the Agency has provided me and being part of the growth of NAMSA/NSPA over the years has been exciting and has presented new challenges.

Did you face any unique challenges as a woman?

I am sure that I have experienced challenges as a woman in my career, but I have never dwelled on them. I have found that focusing on doing the best job possible, keeping lines of communication open and always striving to operate as a cohesive team helps minimizing any negativity. Another important aspect is that the Procurement/ Acquisition career field in the US DOD has, for many years, had a large number of women in positions of significant responsibility, so there were many women that went before me as "trailblazers". In such an environment, being a woman in charge of a large diverse team was simply a non-issue. At least I chose to look at it that way! On those few occasions when I have received, what I felt was negativism due simply to the fact that I am a woman, I have said with a smile "I can't help wondering how you would react if I was a man doing/saying this...?" That has usually resulted in a step back and a recalibration of the situation.

Throughout your career or personal experience, have you noticed any differing or changing attitudes toward women in international organisations?

I do think there are inevitable challenges in working in culturally diverse organizations, some of which can unquestionably be made more challenging as a woman. I think it is important to try to be aware of these, but also to firmly challenge stereotypes and to lead by example. I am impressed with the focus that NATO has made in the areas of Women, Peace and Security and in promoting more diversity in the workforce. So – yes, I do think attitudes are changing for the better, but we have a long way to go. Despite all the evidence that women make exceptional leaders, it is disappointing to see so few women in positions of power and leadership at the highest levels of organizations. On a more positive note, I now see more women with a "seat at the table" than before – but there is certainly room for many more. I do think there is an increased awareness of the value that women bring to these organisations, however it is a bit disappointing that we've never had a woman as the Sec Gen of NATO, or of the UN, or as GM at NSPA. Maybe those changes will come soon!

What is your advice to any young women who wishes to pursue a career in an international organisation?

Learn as much as you can, be brave, do not be afraid to ask questions or express an opinion. Know your limits, and then push them to always bring your best self to anything you do. Seek out women you admire and talk to them about their careers and ask for advice. I think women make wonderful mentors and those of us who have been around and have a lot of experience have a unique opportunity, and I think, an obligation, to help women navigate the early stages of their careers.

This year, the IWD theme focuses on challenging stereotypes. What is your view on this? How do you think you have contributed from a personal/professional perspective to challenge stereotypes alongside your career?

As I said, I think it is important – actually, it is imperative – to challenge stereotypes. I think women are doing this routinely by demonstrating competence, courage and persistence – I try to do the same. But I think it's equally important for men in all organizations (not just international ones) to recognize their own potential innate preconceptions and to challenge them – and to look for opportunities to communicate their support, in tangible ways, to women pursuing a professional career in their organizations.

Story by NATO Support and Procurement Agency

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