Nazzic Keene on Adapting Courageous Leadership to Changing GovCon Market

Nazzic Keene, SAIC

Nazzic Keene, SAIC

As the new CEO of Science Applications International Corp., Nazzic Keene has two major priorities: to lead in talent development, retention and leadership and to create an environment driving innovation to solve critical national challenges.

But as we enter a new decade, leadership is going to look, act and feel differently, thanks to a changing technological and generational government contracting landscape — and Keene plans to adapt with the times.

As an industry leader with more than three decades of experience in information systems and tech services, Keene assumed the position of CEO in August, ascending from her previous roles as chief operating officer and prior, president of global markets and missions sector.

And as the company’s new CEO, she’s focused on transforming SAIC’s culture.

“To be a leader in the world we live today, and more important, the world that’s on our horizon, goes beyond shareholder returns, goes beyond delivering to our customers and goes beyond building an effective workforce — these are just table stakes,” Keene said Nov. 7 at the Atlantic Council and Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Captains of Industry Series in Washington, D.C., where she spoke on redefining leadership in today’s evolving industry market.

Rather, being a leader in today’s world demands building on proven leadership principles of yesterday — but in many cases, abandoning old ways of doing business with a new approach and focus on talent, innovation, purpose and mission, Keene said

And much of this stems from courageous leadership. Keene was born in Tripoli, Libya, during political unrest and danger, so her mother took a risk and left the country to raise Keene as a single mother in her hometown of Tucson, Arizona.

“My mother’s actions that day and for the years that followed taught me leadership, responsibility and accountability — but most importantly, that courage often means abandoning the past to focus on a better future,” Keene said.

And with that mindset, Keene learned to be adaptable, resourceful and on her toes for opportunities, shaped by her mother’s bravery.

“We all know it takes courage to be a leader today,” she added.

So, Keene is drawing from her courage and leadership experience to change the way she leads going forward.

In 2020, millennials are expected to comprise half of the U.S. workforce and by 2025, 75% of the global workforce, Keene noted.

“Companies including great companies like Ernst & Young and Accenture have already reported that millennials make up two-thirds of their employee base,” she said. And two-thirds of millennials see themselves in management within the next decade.

Millennials value flexible work options and work-life balance when assessing and evaluating employers. And along with financial performance, CEOs are being judged on ethical behavior, transparency and their care for social issues.

According to Keene, these factors, among others, drive SAIC to think about how to change and adapt leadership.

“We, as leaders, don’t have a choice,” she said. “For those of us in a people-centric, enabled-by-technology-talent business, we have to change.”

This means defining leadership in two key ways:

How SAIC Leads and Treats Employees

Keene cites LinkedIn Co-Founder Reid Hoffman’s book, “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age,” which says today’s and tomorrow’s employees expect professional development, mentorship and a sense of purpose from employers. It also suggests to embrace that in the current state, most employees won’t stay with one organization for a lifetime, so employers should help employees advance in their career and make the most of the time they do spent in the organization and help them find their next role — within the company or within another.

Ideally, Keene said, those employees will end up returning with newer skills, more diverse experience and perhaps well-rounded leadership.

“As a modern leader, we have to be willing to let our recruits leave the nest and hope that perhaps they will return a little wiser, with an outside perspective to strengthen our organizations,” Keene said.

It is counterintuitive, however. And creating this culture means organizations must lead by building loyalty underpinned by mutual respect and helping employees feel a direct link to the impact they have on customers’ missions. This way, a culture is created that encourages employees to stay, but if they leave, feel they are wanted to return.

This can also be done by linking employee engagement to a larger purpose outside the company and within the community, through grass-root fundraising for important causes, silent auctions and community service.

How SAIC Finds, Develops and Drives Innovation

Keene wants to change the rhetoric that government contractors are slow, stuck in the past and “bureaucratically dreary,” by working with top technology accelerators to bring new and innovative projects from startups and entrepreneurs to SAIC’s customers.

This means partnering with tech companies to bring advanced and commercially available technologies and products directly to defense agencies to enhance training programs, for example. Or serving as a conduit for customers to gain access to emerging technologies developed by commercial tech companies, such as bringing mobile apps to the intelligence community to enhance federal employee efficiency.

SAIC does this through its IGAPP Portal, where crowdsourced app developers are connected with government customers to have mobile apps ready within 90 days. So far, SAIC has brought about 100 apps to its customers, Keene said.

Plus, SAIC launched an Innovation Factory to collaborate with startups to harness emerging technologies and bring those to its government clients to “bridge the gap as the integrator for these leading technologies,” Keene said.

Not only does this serve SAIC’s customers’ mission but it also engages and energizes its employees as they’re eager to learn and grow.

And with this changing technological landscape and GovCon environment, leaders and companies must take risks to drive innovation, and learn to be open to new ways to innovate, partner and build different types of relationships with employees.

“That may mean that many of us have to step out of our comfort zones, abandon the old ways, and take a bold risk to create a better future. We have to have courage,” Keene said.

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