Joining Forces

Transformation artist Deborah J. Spero brought inspectors together to stand up a new border agency.

In some ways, Deborah J. Spero's history is a contradiction in terms. As she neared graduation from the University of Maryland 38 years ago, her father told her it was time to look for work.

So the Maryland native bucked the trend many of her classmates were setting-extending the Age of Aquarius and backpacking through in Europe. Turns out Spero took an internship with the Customs Service, the agency responsible for checking the bags of international travelers like her friends for contraband.

"They thought I was joining some crazy 'narc' place because that was in the 1970s," she chuckles. "But it was really a great career. And I thought I would just stay a couple years. But you get hooked on it."

Spero, 59, stayed with Customs, becoming a force of change and recipient of the Presidential Rank Award in 1999 and 2007. She retired as deputy commissioner of the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection bureau last year. Rising through the ranks, she led critical transformations-reforming the Customs Office of Internal Affairs in 1991 and overhauling an antiquated personnel system in 1995. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she orchestrated the merger of four disparate workforces-Customs, Immigration and Agriculture Department inspectors and the Border Patrol-under the new Homeland Security Department as director of CBP's transition management office.

The key, Spero says, was leadership-not only her own, which she understates, but that of former commissioner Robert C. Bonner, her boss from 2001 to 2005. Like many Homeland Security agencies, CBP struggled to build its identity, but Spero says decisiveness at the top enabled her to push through policy and operational changes and to help the workforce adjust.

"When I say strong, I mean strong," Spero says, describing Bonner. "He immediately saw we could not afford to stop our mission while reorganizing."

She, too, had to make hard choices during the challenging transition. Shuffling together different union requirements, budgets, K-9 units, career ladders, payroll and overtime systems, and recruitment approaches in 15 months was nearly impossible, Spero says. She gives her transition teams much credit for staying focused and committed.

Of all things, Spero says, it was the creation of CBP's uniforms and badge that gave her an unexpected sense of fulfillment. "The symbols were important because the employees needed to have that badge," she says. Spero traveled the country in July 2004 for a series of inaugural badge ceremonies, which she found crucial to the pride and unity of the new organization.

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