Deb Alderson, appointed Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Executive Vice President of SRA International in November of last year, sat down with WashingtonExec to give her 2013 strategic outlook for the federal contracting market. Alderson joined SRA in 2011 and has more than 25 years of government services experience. She is a past recipient of the Fed 100 award (2011) and was previously recognized by The Washington Post as a Top 25 Female Executive.
Alderson spoke with WashingtonExec about where she expects to see growth in the industry, why there is “no such thing as the good old days” and how she is navigating SRA in this LPTA environment.
Alderson, along with her husband and son, were recently featured in our “families of government contracting” series.
WashingtonExec: Last time we spoke, you told me “there is no such thing as the good old days”…what is your overall perspective of the current government contracting climate?
Deb Alderson: Government contracting has always been challenging and there’s always something looming when it comes to the budget. I have to admit, the budget does seem a bit rougher than I recall and it’s important to be prepared for that.
But how do you prepare for an environment where your customer is waiting to get direction on his/her budgets and what he/she is authorized to do, and your people are concerned about their livelihood? At SRA, we’re focusing on growth to create opportunities for our people.
I feel very fortunate to be part of the SRA team. We’re in a great position to succeed. I’m excited about our future because we have great leadership and really talented people on the ground serving our clients across our four portfolios: Civil Government, Health, Defense and Intelligence, Homeland Security and Law Enforcement. I’m really glad to have the opportunity to serve SRA, it clients, and its employees as COO right now.
WashingtonExec: Where are you seeing growth?
Deb Alderson: There are real growth opportunities in providing our clients with alternative solutions – solutions that are cost-effective, efficient, and help them get their mission objectives accomplished in the current environment.
Growth seems promising for small businesses. We’ve had very successful mentor/protégé programs and continue to partner with small businesses. I want SRA to be opportunistic, and therefore, I’m perfectly comfortable teaming with larger primes if that’s what will bring the best value for our clients.
“The real secret to all this is balance; I want to see us have a balanced portfolio. We invest mostly in prime opportunities, but we’re also getting people more aware and engaged as we look at subcontracting opportunities.”
WashingtonExec: What are your thoughts on the LPTA environment?
Deb Alderson: Concern. I work a lot with the Professional Services Council (PSC) in this area and we’re working to gain more clarity on what technically acceptable really means – I think that’s crucial.
Now, if you’re asking me if I think LPTA will survive, the answer is no. I think we have to learn how to bid and win in this environment, which means we can’t walk away from LPTA. Like many of our industry partners, SRA is in a good position to compete in this arena, but I don’t see this as a long-term solution for our customer base.
WashingtonExec: Let’s talk merger and acquisition activity at SRA International.
Deb Alderson: We just had a nice acquisition – purchasing a national security solutions group that is doing really well and providing a lot of value doing great work for our customers.
Just like we are opportunistic in our markets, we will be the same with M&A activities. What’s really important in today’s environment – with all the pressure people feel right now, as we work to ensure we’re creating opportunities for our people – is to keep that “fun” element alive. I don’t want to make it sound too simplistic, but it’s just like in any situation. We want to make sure our people are challenged and excited about the future at the same time. You need to be honest and open in your communication with employees.
“This is a tough market and we may need to make sacrifices to compete, win, and execute.”
WashingtonExec: Do you think your leadership style has changed since becoming COO of SRA?
Deb Alderson: I’ve held similar roles in the past and I don’t think my leadership style has changed at all. My approach is pretty basic – put people first, be engaged, and be available to help grow the business or deliver on our customer commitments. Now, more than ever, we have a real need to help our customers be as efficient and effective as possible.
This business evolves quickly – that’s the reason I love it so much. You have to move quickly, you have to be able to make decisions fast, be willing to accept risk, and most importantly, you have to know when to change your mind when you’ve made the wrong decision.
WashingtonExec: You say that you “can’t learn leadership from a book.” What organizations did you find were most helpful in launching your career and getting you to where you are today?
Deb Alderson: As far as exposing me to the market, I would say PSC and other people and organizations, of course—JD Kathuria, AFCEA, NDIA, any association where you are working with both the customer base and other players in the industry.
WashingtonExec: How do you balance your work and personal life?
Deb Alderson: I work out every day. I always find a way to make time for that. And I make time for myself. I spend time with my boys and my husband, and I try to leave as much work as I can at work. This is another area where balance is key – you have to do both, so I wouldn’t want people to think they can’t approach me on the weekends.
WashingtonExec: What was your first job?
Deb Alderson: I was a waitress while I was in college and it was one of the best jobs I have ever had because it taught me how to work with the public. My first job out of graduate school was as a GS4 typist. That is what started my whole network – it got me into the defense community.