Earlier this week George Mason University (GMU) named John Hillen executive in residence and professor of practice for the School of Management. Hillen served as CEO of Sotera Defense Solutions for almost six years, until May 2013, and continues to represent the company as Vice Chairman of its Advisory Board.
We briefly checked in with Hillen, as he was on his way to New York City for a National Review Magazine Board Meeting, to find out what he is up to these days, whether or not he considers himself “retired,” and where (if any) he sees areas of growth in the defense space next year and beyond.
“It’s a refreshing time after the day to day grind of being a CEO – including an IPO and two other recapitalizations at Sotera. There is no typical day for me now. I’m in New York about three times a month as Executive Chairman of National Review. Next semester I’ll take up a teaching load and various other activities at Mason’s School of Management. And I’m still Chairman of the Professional Services Council during a dynamic time for government contractors and serving on several other boards. So every day is a little different; some are maniacal and some are a chance to read and write and reflect and some are a little bit in between,” Hillen told WashingtonExec.
When asked if he considers himself “retired” from the defense industry, Hillen replied that he is in “no way retired,” and is still evaluating what his next professional challenge will be.
“I’ve always been impressed by a statement from Henry Kissinger, brought to my attention when I was first in government as an Assistant Secretary of State. Kissinger said that ‘when you are out of service, make sure you fill the reservoir because when you are in active service you will only draw from that reservoir.’ This is a great time for me, having been a day-to-day CEO of a vigorous company for 5 ½ years, to step back and fill up that reservoir; think, write, reflect, teach and then get recharged for whatever I’m going to do next,” said Hillen.
For Hillen, deciding where he lands will not be a decision between reentering the defense industry, return to government or hopping over to the nonprofit sector, but will be defined by where he is able to find the best leadership challenge. Joining GMU’s School of Management fits right into his present professional outlook.
“I’m from Northern Virginia, I grew up here and I’ve made my business career here over the past ten years. Even though I’ve lived and worked overseas for a good bit of my adult life, this is home. I believe it is really important to get involved with local institutions. As important, the George Mason School of Management focuses on the government contracting industry and the government technology marketplace in a way that other business schools in the area do not.
This fact has always intrigued me, I’ve watched the Northern Virginia area evolve since the late 1960’s; I think we can all agree that the government contracting and government technology industries are economic growth drivers and enduring forces in the local economy. George Mason is a top flight local business school that focuses on the industry and can apply a lot of real expertise to it in a very unique way. I am very excited about that connection being able to teach in that environment,” Hillen said.
“The George Mason School of Management focuses on the government contracting industry and the government technology marketplace in a way that other business schools in the area do not.”
2013 was a turbulent year for the government defense contractor with sequestration, the shutdown of the federal government, and deep program cuts, but Hillen sees this uncertainty and contraction of the market as a part of the normal cycle of any business.
“Every 20 years or so – you can almost set your watch to it – the defense industry has had a downturn. 1953/4, 1973/4, 1993/4, and now 2013/14. This is perfectly appropriate because it is a downturn that is commensurate with the change in the international security environment or the chosen strategy of an administration. I think many Americans would agree with this current pull back. But, we should be mindful that there is always an upturn as strategic environments and challenges evolve.
Sometimes that is regrettable because the upturn happens as a result of the US getting surprised by events such as 9/11, which marked a dramatic shift in the national security environment. Or it can be just a change in strategy as with the Reagan Administration defense buildup. The world is a dynamic place. Almost nobody is arguing that the world today is becoming more stable and less dangerous. So, history hasn’t ended simply because we are winding down from a series of security investments in the Middle East and Central Asia. In the very near future, however, our government will have to respond to challenges, take advantage of new technologies, and pioneer new ways of undertaking its defense. That will create another upturn for the industry in the future. I don’t know if that upturn will be two years from now or four or six years from now, but what I do know is that the laboratory of history tells us pretty reliably that something will happen,” Hillen said.
“When you look overall in the industry, it looks more like a flattening out of the growth in defense spending. In the meantime, some programs and mission areas and technologies will continue to grow.”
Hillen describes today’s U.S. defense market as part of the overall federal government adjustment process as it works to rebalance towards new missions and new strategic circumstances.
“It’s not a severe downturn by most historical measurements. A defense budget that dropped by 40% within a year or two in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War – that was much more severe statistically. On the other hand, I’m very sympathetic to the leaders and employees in the industry today. This downturn will hurt a lot of people – some tens of thousands will be displaced by these budget adjustments. But when you look overall in the industry, it looks more like a flattening out of the growth in defense spending. In the meantime, some programs and mission areas and technologies will continue to grow,” Hillen went on to say.
Described as a “renaissance man” by many, we concluded our interview by asking Hillen to reflect on his career as a U.S. Army officer, his service under President Bush, as well as his leadership in the government contracting industry.
“I’ve had a bunch of career inflection points. In fact, I think I really seek inflection points because they cause you to pause, reflect and grow. When I first became a uniformed military professional I couldn’t imagine a career over my lifetime in something other than that. Yet I went from being a combat soldier in the military to becoming a policy intellectual in my early 30s, a complete change. Then in my late 30s I took a stab at the business world and I started in financial services on Wall Street and again, I had to go back to school, get an MBA at Cornell, acquire financial services licenses and certifications, move up to New York, enter a whole new world and start over again.
Inflection points, like changing careers, going back to school or becoming acclimatized to a new industry, can be a source of anxiety if you let them. They were for me at some point in time – who doesn’t worry about launching into something entirely new? On the other hand they can become great sources of renewed energy, great opportunities to rediscover learning and oneself as a leader. I look forward to and seek out inflection points.
Compared to some of the other paths I have taken, for this stage in my career, this period is hardly a big change. Instead, I’m connecting some old threads and supplementing that by going back to a university environment where I can teach and write for a time,” Hillen concluded.
Hillen is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Professional Services Council (PSC) and serves on several other boards of directors in the government contracting and defense and security sectors, to include SOS International (SOSi) and Software AG Government Solutions.