Chief Officer Awards Finalist Dennis Kelly: ‘Listen More Than You Talk’

Editor’s Note: The winner of the Chief Officer Awards Private Company COO Award announced June 17 is Charles Beard of Guidehouse.

On June 17, WashingtonExec will be virtually celebrating the most impactful and innovative C-suite executives in government and industry. These chief officers work in technology, security, data, operations, finance, business and more, excelling on both sides of the government contracting sector. Our team of judges have chosen the finalists for the inaugural Chief Officer Awards, so before we announce the winners during the event, we wanted to get to know the finalists a bit better. This Q&A series highlights their careers, successes, proud professional moments and notable risks.

Dennis Kelly, Centauri

Dennis Kelly is president and chief operating officer at Centauri and a finalist in the Private Company COO Award category.

What key achievements did you have in 2019? 

Centauri had a company-defining year in 2019. While there are many highlights, the work that our talent acquisition team has accomplished is the key achievement that makes me the proudest. Our workforce is the lifeblood of our company. We hire highly skilled, highly experienced and — most importantly — highly cleared individuals to help our federal government with its most difficult challenges.

Naturally, as a company grows, hiring needs grow in tandem. The challenge we faced — and continue to face — is organically growing our company through new hires while maintaining our high standards. We call our employees the “brightest minds in the industry” for a reason.   

So last year, we set about refining our talent acquisition process — to include leaning into big data tools to give our recruiters a holistic view of the talent landscape. We partnered more closely with our marketing and communications team to be more proactive in finding individuals with the skills sets we need. We were more aggressive in hiring these individuals by offering limited time signing bonuses for those that qualified. We also leaned into what has been the most effective part of our hiring strategy, employee referrals, by increasing referral bonuses for current and former employees. 

These strategies gave our company record-setting hiring months at the end of 2019 and into the beginning of 2020. 

What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?

I am most proud of the way Centauri has grown over the past 12 months. To be clear, I’m not just talking about headcount and revenue. I’m referring to how Centauri has grown. Any time you combine companies together, there are going to be challenges, from clashing company cultures, to integrating infrastructure without hampering ongoing business. The best analogy I heard was that it’s like upgrading a F-16 while it’s pushing Mach 2.

What Centauri successfully did in the last 12 months was bring together six different companies from different parts of the country and merge them into one powerhouse company. We took the great Space Systems Engineering support of Integrity Applications Inco., the cyber expertise of Dependable Global Solutions, the intelligence support of Xebec Global, the directed energy and missile defense of Kord Industries, the PNT expertise of PreTalen, trusted microelectronics work of The Design Knowledge Co., and merge them together in a way that not only helped those skillsets thrive, but improved nearly every aspect of our company. 

It starts with finding companies that have similar values — a people-first mindset, and a focus on mission to name just two – and carefully integrating them. If done right, it’s a meticulous process. Luckily, our integration team was up to the challenge and I’m proud to have a part in that success. 

What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?

Anybody who has gotten to the chief officer level has taken their share of risk during their career, and I am no exception. The one that really sticks out in my mind is the professional risk that I’ve taken that also affects my personal life. Moving to Washington, D.C., from New England was a big risk for myself and my family. My kids were deeply rooted in New England — and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get a New Englander to leave New England. We moved to this area in the fall of 2002, right when the D.C. sniper attacks were happening, so my wife was obviously concerned. 

But my family supported me and — like many military families — we restarted our lives in D.C. It was a risk, but we settled in quickly and have really put down deep roots in this community. 

Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?  

I’m most proud of the present and what I’ve accomplished at Centauri. I can honestly say that being the chief operating officer and president of Centauri is the proudest and most fulfilled that I have been in my career. I think we’re doing great things for this community and this country and we’re just getting started. 

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps? 

The best advice that I can give future executives is to listen more than you talk. People that take the time to seek out knowledge truly understand how a company operates are the most successful. I started as an engineer and that has informed me how I look at business. Every part has an important role to play and executives should deeply understand those roles, from accounting and human resources, to marketing and business development. You have to walk in their shoes. 

For me, earlier In my career, I was never in a job for more than two years — I took every opportunity to try new things and not get too comfortable in any one position. Systems engineer, program manager, head of investor relations or business development — every role that I took was a learning experience and got me to where I am now.

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