From COO to CEO: Deb Alderson Makes the Leap to Sotera

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Deb Alderson, CEO, Sotera Defense Solutions

Deb Alderson, CEO, Sotera Defense Solutions

It was announced June 24th that Deb Alderson would join Sotera Defense Solutions (Sotera) as the company’s CEO. Alderson, a first-time CEO, spoke with WashingtonExec her first week on the job. Alderson previously served as COO of SRA International.

We asked Alderson about the “Road Warrior Plan,” her overall strategic vision for the national defense and security solutions company, what it’s like working with private equity-backed company, and what she believes makes a great CEO.

First we asked her about the decision to grant media interviews about her new position in advance of her July start date.

“During the CEO transition, we had very capable people taking on the interim leadership role; but everybody knew that Ares was looking for a new leader to come in — including our own people. Once the decision was final, we wanted it out in the open that there was an investment made — by Ares Management and the Sotera leadership team. We thought the sooner we shared the news, the better.”

Alderson calls her strategic vision for growth at Sotera the “Road Warrior Plan.” Face-to-face engagement with her employees, navigating furlough mandates and continuing to invest in intelligence capabilities are all key priorities for Alderson.

“I’ve always emphasized engagement. We do have a lot of people who work at the customer site so over the next 30 days I’ve scheduled trips to go out to those offices. For those who are on customer site we’ll be setting up town halls near their facilities so they can come. When possible I may hit two or three offices a day,” said Alderson.

“We’ll do it around the employees’ schedules, not mine. You can’t engage with your employees from behind a desk. And that’s not the way I work,” added Alderson.

Sotera holds a unique position as a mid-size contractor in the defense, intelligence and security marketplace. With the tightening of the nation’s federal budget, the defense budget in particular, we asked Alderson, “how does a mid-tier company like Sotera stay competitive and innovative in in today’s market?”

“In order to have growth, or capture the growth opportunities, you have to have a very good infrastructure and business development organization that’s focused. Sotera’s infrastructure is a machine. I’m impressed with the line capabilities, I’m impressed with our ability to hold on to the base work with our high recompete capture; and then I’m impressed with the business development resources that we have to identify business opportunities early and go after them. The U.S. defense budget is still very robust; there’s still an emphasis on intelligence analytics and intelligence- related technology; I think that’s a perfect fit for Sotera going forward,” Alderson said.

When asked about the impacts of sequestration that have been felt thus far, Alderson responded,

“As 2013 approached, we in industry were not quite sure about sequestration; we all thought, ‘there’s no way they’re going to do that, it’s too disruptive,’ well we were wrong,” she added.

“Now I’m seeing the rollout of major furloughs; it is something we need to keep an eye on because it will impact the customer’s ability to serve the mission,” Alderson said.

“I think on the same point; people have become more comfortable with the new reality of sequestration. Those of us in the industry see it. We feel it. The reductions are here to stay,” Alderson told WashingtonExec.

Alderson’s résumé includes leadership experience at both public and private companies. Before joining Sotera, Alderson was COO of SRA International (SRA).  And prior to SRA, Alderson served as Group President at SAIC and Anteon, both public companies. Sotera is privately held by Ares Management, a private equity firm headquartered in Los Angeles, California.

We asked her about the challenges –and upsides- to working for a private equity-backed organization verses a public company. Having worked for three of the top “S” organizations in the government contracting industry, including: SAIC, SRA International and now Sotera, Alderson gave a comprehensive prospective.

“I think being private right now is perfect. Public companies have the additional pressure to focus on that quarterly performance — which is important, but that takes up a lot of resources. And it can actually be somewhat distracting. With Ares, they let the leadership team run the company. I was told when I took the job that I’m the CEO, I’m in charge, and they’re there to support. So here it’s all about creating opportunities for people; driving growth, making sure we’re compliant, always focusing on the execution,” Alderson said.

We last caught up with Alderson at her speaking engagement for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce “Women in Government Contracting” panel. Does Alderson want to be branded as a “female CEO”?

“I want to be known as a people-first CEO, someone who always creates opportunities for people so that they want to continue to be a part of this team. Alderson went on to say, “I see myself as a CEO. I really don’t see gender, and I don’t feel it here.”

Alderson began her career as a GS4 clerk typist although, according to her, “she couldn’t really type,” and worked her way up the corporate ladder, taking on various management and leadership roles throughout her over 25-year career in the federal IT industry. We asked Alderson about what she believes are key aspects of running a great company and about her decision to join Sotera.

“I will always appreciate what I learned and the friends I made in my previous positions. I’ve always wanted to be a CEO and I’m really happy for this opportunity. When I first got into the business, that’s what I wanted, and it was totally being driven by the fact that I wanted to be in a position where I truly felt that I could influence the decisions that took care of people. It was always my goal,” Alderson said.

“The night before my first day at Sotera, I couldn’t sleep. It was like the first day of school. You walk in the door and you better be prepared for it,” joked Alderson.

Alderson’s advice is, “make your goal achievable with reasonable objectives. Be willing to invest the time. Don’t be too shy to get in someone’s face. Make sure people know who you are. And some of the basics — come in before your boss and go home after your boss; maintain a strong work ethic.”

In late 2011 Alderson abruptly left SAIC as President of the Defense Solutions Group, where she managed over 14,000 employees. It’s been less than 24 months since the incident, and we asked Alderson if the incident affects her today.

“I think it is old news now. However, if you think about it, it hasn’t even been 2 years. I hope that I can demonstrate to people that you can survive something like what I went through and still land on your feet. I think that story has run its course, but if it comes up again, I can handle it,” said Alderson.

“Keep an eye on Sotera. I’m going to have to start wearing sunglasses to work because the future is so bright,” concluded Alderson.

Read more about Sotera’s new CEO through our Government Contracting Family series.

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