XLA’s Deborah Cegielski Talks Retaining High Performing Employees in a Contracting Marketplace

Deborah Cegielski, XLA

Deborah Cegielski, XLA

For government contractors, the last couple of years have been a bit of a wild ride with government budgets being cut across the board.

In this lowest price technically acceptable (LPTA) environment, which appears to be the “new normal,” contractors are facing the challenge of providing the same high-quality services they’ve built their reputation on for a price the government can still afford to pay. However, those high-quality services can only be provided by high-quality employees.

WashingtonExec recently spoke with Deborah Cegielski, Vice President of Human Capital at XLA, on how contractors can recruit and retain the talent they need to compete.

“Attracting and retaining employees is a very important part of who XLA is,” said Cegielski. “We are able to attract and retain by specifically looking at three things: First, we want to provide the best possible environment for our staff. We start by making sure that we have strong professional managers who can cultivate and ensure employees have a positive and enriching environment.

Second, XLA looks for ways to provide opportunities for our employees. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean an advancement, but we ensure there is substance to our employees’ roles.”

“These days, employees want to know where the job will take them and they tend not to be satisfied with the here and now. We make sure we have an appreciation for developing that opportunity for those individuals.”

“Finally, we like to provide the best possible benefits program for our people. When I say benefits, I don’t mean just medical — I really mean benefits that help balance the employee’s life. That’s what we focus on in the current environment.”

All of these tasks are easier said than done when dealing with the regulatory changes that constantly shake things up for human resource professionals in the contracting industry. “In the approximately ten years I’ve worked in this space, compliance matters have changed considerably,” said Cegielski. “For example, OFCCP has become much more focused on specific concerns. In the past year, hiring individuals with disabilities and veterans has become a very specific focus as opposed to previous years, when you were expected to have your workforce balanced by geographic area only. Now we’re facing more scrutiny on how to go after those populations and how to meet compliant procedure expectations. In fact, my mantra regarding compliance issues has become: Always be prepared for an audit; it’s no longer if we’re going to be audited, but when.”

Another change human capital professionals across all industries have faced is social technologies that have completely disrupted their day-to-day jobs. Since human capital is all about people, and people are inherently social, it’s no wonder that social media like LinkedIn have turned the profession on its head. “Approximately 50 percent of XLA’s hires now come from LinkedIn,” said Cegielski. And, now when we reach out to candidates, most of them are what’s called ‘passive candidates.’ These individuals weren’t necessarily looking for a new role at the time we reached out and contacted them.”

“LinkedIn gives us access to people who would have never stopped at XLA’s website or who were not considering a new position, and we find that we get some of our best quality hires that way.”

Besides changing regulations and disruptive technologies, contractors are dealing with a changing workforce demographic, too. In just a few years, the millennial generation will comprise a majority of the workforce, and companies from all industries are shifting long-entrenched business cultures and procedures to better engage these young workers. However, Cegielski said that XLA’s core pillars for human capital success are still serving them well. “For us here at XLA, we stick with the three pillars: the environment, the ability for advancement, and that balance we have found that millennials want and we try to provide,” she said.

Cegielski, however, admitted that providing consistency in the programs and incentives offered can be difficult for contractors who often work for a number of clients with different expectations and requirements. “One of the things we do is to make sure we don’t put anyone into a role with an expectation of ‘X’ and the job itself is going to be ‘Y,’” she said. “But across the board, we do offer incentives such as a telework program, informal comp time, and a variety of opportunities to participate in our corporate activities such as our Corporate Stewardship program and volunteerism.”

On the other side of the equation, professionals who want to enter government contracting, no matter what their age, should aim to cultivate skills that will translate well to this industry. “I think government contracting requires a broader understanding of business acumen,” Cegielski explained. “Workers need to go beyond their individual subject matter strength and have a good understanding of things like project management, finance, and the contracting world as a whole in order for them to have a leg up in this environment.”

Mentorship is another way to hone the skills necessary to compete in the industry, and Cegielski appreciates the many mentors she’s had in her own career. “I’ve always looked for opportunities to be mentored by almost everyone I’ve worked with, specifically the senior leadership that I have been directly involved with,” she said.

“Each company that I’ve painstakingly made the choice to go work for has had leaders above me who have shaped the professional that I am.”

“Right now I have the honor of working for Bill Weber, XLA’s president and CEO. He has taken the time over the last few years that we’ve worked together to help me hone some of my critical strategic skills, and I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to find new and exciting pieces of myself to be developed and mentored depending on what companies I’ve gone to.”

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