For Lisa Wolford, every job matters. That becomes clear in conversation with the president and CEO of Constellation West, a Fairfax, Va.-based provider of mission-critical technology solutions for the U.S. government.
That hard work, and dedication, recently garnered Wolford one of the industry’s highest-distinctions, when she was selected as a finalist for the Executive of the Year for companies up to $75 million in the 2015 Greater Washington GovCon Awards.
Recently, Wolford spoke with WashingtonExec about her work ethic, company vision and how she promotes a culture of inclusion.
WashingtonExec: What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
Lisa Wolford: As a single mom, I have always had to step up and be responsible. My oldest child has multiple disabilities and I have always had to prioritize what needs to be done and almost always lead it. When I started my company I still had two children at home as a single mom so I needed to make sure that all of our needs (both financially and with insurance) would be covered as well creating a buffer against risk. At that time, I wasn’t aware my business would become what it is today, but that decision I made for the best interests of my family was the right one, and I think when you make the right decisions for yourself and are true to your life and its needs, good things lead to other good things.
WashingtonExec: How did your Marine Corps experience prepare you for your role as CEO?
Lisa Wolford: The Marine Corps was a great experience; I would recommend the military to everyone. The Marine Corps particularly challenges you to do things that you don’t think you could have done. Everybody learns leadership in the Marine Corps, not just the officers. There are times when you are a leader and times you are a follower but everyone is taught leadership traits — integrity, respect and commitment. I think those things are all helpful in running a business.
WashingtonExec: What are some of the things that you would never have done had you not joined the Marines?
Lisa Wolford: If I had not joined the Marine Corps, I might never have learned to challenge myself beyond my expectations. I started my company in 1997. I was a single mom at the time and I started doing the commercial sector. I was never trained in sales or marketing. I really just talked to people to find out what their needs were and how to meet them. Eventually I migrated over to the federal marketplace. We started the company with one employee and today we are somewhere near 220 employees.
WashingtonExec: What philanthropy work are you involved in to promote corporate citizenship?
Lisa Wolford: I’m passionate about anything related to veterans, disabled children or disabled adults. I’ve been on the board for an organization called At Ease USA since it started. The organization provides PTSD treatment for veterans and their families in the state of Nebraska at either free or reduced cost.
WashingtonExec: What is the No. 1 business book that had the largest impact on your life or professional development?
Lisa Wolford: It isn’t really a business book, but I am reading a Steve Harvey book right now that I am enjoying, Act Like a Success, Think Like a Success. I like Steve Harvey; I think he is a very down to earth, caring, good man who gives good common sense advice and when I saw his book I liked it. There is always something new to learn about yourself and life.
WashingtonExec: What was your first job?
Lisa Wolford: My first job was as a dishwasher at a restaurant called Bishop’s Buffet.
WashingtonExec: Overall, how did that experience shape your career?
Lisa Wolford: I knew that a college degree was important. But even the simplest jobs have to get done. And I was thankful to have that job. It helped me save money as a young girl to pay for my own expenditures and I helped keep the restaurant running. After that I became a field radio operator in the Marine Corps. Every member of a team has a critical task to complete, and whether people view jobs large or small, even the simplest ones have to get done or the whole team can fall apart. Keeping that perspective has been a positive thing for me as a business leader.
WashingtonExec: Constellation West is 100% federal. Are there any plans to pursue adjacent markets?
Lisa Wolford: We will continue to focus on the federal marketplace – that part I don’t see changing. I think that the types of structures a company needs to have to operate in both a commercial and federal marketplace are entirely different. You would have to be a very large company to do that. You see the large companies that were doing that are breaking up and selling off that portion. I don’t see that as an appropriate goal for us.
WashingtonExec: How do you promote a culture of inclusion?
Lisa Wolford: About 40% of my employees are veterans. I look to have a level playing field and I think we have it. What’s interesting is that IT is a male-dominated field typically and DoD is male-dominated. In my infrastructure about 45% of my folks are female and billing about 20% while the statistical average is about 10%. There is no ceiling here.