Born and raised by the Beltway in the land of government contracting, Alicia Harkness was no stranger to the industry — and jumped into the world of consulting before even graduating from college.
Harkness is a founding partner of Guidehouse, where she now leads the firm’s health segment to include the public health and commercial health care leadership roles. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the firm isn’t far from Rockville, Maryland, where Harkness grew up.
She left the DMV for a bit to attend Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, receiving her bachelor’s degree in management from the school’s College of Business and Economics. There, she participated in a business class called the Lehigh University Management Assistance Counseling program, where she assisted small businesses in consulting.
Her first two clients were a business that manufactured hook-and-ladder trucks, and a small chocolate candy factory.
“That really exposed me to consulting and got me excited about the value you can bring to businesses,” Harkness told WashingtonExec.
And after an early entrée into consulting, she immediately found her way back to the DMV, and into government contracting.
Harkness accepted a consulting job with KPMG working with the Naval Sea Systems Command on foreign military sales, and later, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She said the organization provided a great opportunity to get cross-sector experience.
“I learned a lot about the importance of some very disciplined program management, as well as the incredible technologies that were managed through DARPA,” Harkness said.
It was while working with DARPA she fell in love with the power of research and health care, and the importance of relationship-building — an industry and professional value that defines her career today.
Harkness has been in the business for more than 25 years doing management and IT consulting, serving clients and growing high-performance teams to help deliver transformational solutions — from human capital alignment to the adoption of new business models.
She served as partner at KPMG Peat Marwick until that firm was spun out to become management consulting company BearingPoint, where she spent another 10 years. There, Harkness served as managing director and later, as a vice president overseeing State & Local Government and Education Advisory.
In 2009, she joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as a partner leading health care and education advisory services. She later returned to the federal market by applying leading commercial health care practices when she began serving Department of Veterans Affairs and Military Health System clients.
Throughout her career, Harkness has also served the departments of Defense, Education and Health and Human Services, the U.S. Agency for International Development, state and local governments, and for-profit education including public and private institutions.
She was with PwC until 2018, when its public sector business spun out as Guidehouse, financially sponsored by private equity firm Veritas Capital.
And Harkness was part of it all — interacting with potential sponsors and strategic acquiring entities and helping the firm to chart its course as the platform for a new consulting powerhouse.
As a founding partner of Guidehouse, she remains focused on the firm’s work and mission.
“I’m very passionate about serving mission-based organizations including those in the government, commercial and nonprofit sectors, and helping them transform to make a positive impact on society,” Harkness said.
She served as government health care segment leader until appointed the leader of the firm’s overall health segment in July. She also is the firm’s inclusion and diversity leader.
But becoming Partner was perhaps the most rewarding personal career moment for Harkness — a result of hard work and performance outcomes.
“Continually putting my clients and team first has been a winning formula. And that career milestone was a moment of recognition for me and my entire team,” she said.
Power in People and Passion
While her educational and professional experience taught Harkness the importance of hard work, she also learned the significance and impact of building strong team and client relationships, which has proven its value time and time again.
In fact, Harkness’ current team is the result of building strong relationships early on. She worked with Guidehouse CEO Scott McIntyre at KPMG, for instance.
“Many of my fellow partners were teammates on my earliest consulting projects. I learned early on the importance of building strong relationships, but I see firsthand the importance of it,” Harkness said.
She’s also learned from several mentors the importance of surrounding herself with great people, as they’ve helped her realize her professional passions.
“Some of the people that I most admire professionally helped encourage me to keep on looking for what motivated me from a passion perspective. And that’s one of the reasons why I kept on moving around and I found myself motivated by the why,” Harkness said.
If an opportunity compelled Harkness from a passion perspective, she was also able to inspire others to generate enthusiasm and create value for her clients. And one of those passions is to constantly provide positive outcomes through innovative services and enabling technologies.
“You can’t be successful in this business if you don’t provide quality service. The ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider their perspectives while driving change is critical,” Harkness said.
As health segment leader of the firm, Harkness has worked with clients dealing with the pandemic, as the Guidehouse team collectively works across industries, agencies, state and local entities, and global corporations on COVID-19 related projects.
These projects include strategies for employers thinking about how to get employees back into the office, and setting up on-site clinical labs for employee safety within global digital retail enterprises. Others include working with for-profit and nonprofit partners doing testing on site with employers, predicting demand for PPE to manage supply chains using data analytics, accelerating clinical trials and vaccine development and managing data breaches and cybersecurity threats within the health care agencies and provider networks.
Considering all the ways the current pandemic is impacting the world, Harkness finds it’s redefining what it takes to achieve good health and health hygiene of the firm’s clients.
“It’s amazing to be in this market, in this time,” she said.
And while Harkness is responsible for accelerating innovation and growth with health segment clients, to innovate, she goes back to building trusted relationships with customers.
“Then, your clients are willing to share their challenges and we can work together to envision the future where the problems [are]resolved,” she said.
Diversity is Key
As the firm’s diversity leader, Harkness has helped create a program that builds awareness and fosters professional development; attracts and retains diverse talent; and develops relationships to ensure diversity in its many forms is understood and that perspectives are valued.
The program also ensures Guidehouse has a diverse workforce and can address its clients’ needs through that diversity in perspectives and experiences.
“All of those things are really a competitive advantage in the marketplace, bringing a diverse team,” Harkness said.
She believes Guidehouse’s success will continue to be driven by a diverse workforce, as the firm has created and continues to create employee networks that help facilitate inclusion and diversity.
“It’s the power of our differences that enable innovation,” Harkness said.
And her job is to create that welcoming, inclusive and equitable environment that respects values and celebrates unique attributes, characteristics and perspectives.
It was at PwC she had her first exposure to being a diversity leader, but encouraging and promoting diversity have long been a key part of Harkness’ career.
“Whether it was from a generational diversity in my very early years of being a young partner or being a female executive and developing other professionals, I was always drawn to growing, mentoring a diverse population,” she said.
What Harkness has realized over time is that people’s unique features should be supported, and leaders should bring people together.
While Harkness is fueled by her passions for inclusivity, building relationships and making an impact on society, she’s always been driven by being her best self.
“Since my days as a competitive swimmer and musician, I’ve always found myself motivated by continually pushing myself to reach for my own personal best, whether it was in the pool or the mastery of a new musical piece,” Harkness said. “Now, I’m motivated and pushing not only myself, but my team and our firm to do the same.”
She’s also motivated by working with her team of equally passionate people and solving pressing challenges that ultimately bring social good to both commercial and public sector clients when adopting new technologies, whether through health care, the global supply chain or human capital transformation.
“It demands an intense amount of effort, but it challenges me to grow every day. And that’s cool,” she said.
Ultimately, what’s truly rewarding for Harkness is providing for her family and giving back to her community and organizations she believes in.
Harkness recently joined the board of directors for the American Institutes for Research as she was drawn to its work to create a better, more equitable world through education, health care and workforce development. She also volunteers with and supports St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with her husband and kids, and is involved with engaging young teens and their parents into the world of philanthropy and service.
“My husband and I definitely want to provide an example to our kids,” Harkness said. “We have a 13- and a 16-year-old, and so it’s important to me that we show them that you need to put all of yourself into what gives you a sense of fulfillment and purpose in life.”
Once an accomplished classical pianist and competitive swimmer, Harkness now finds herself on the side of a baseball field, soccer field or the pool deck cheering on her kids with her husband and playing piano in her downtime. But if there’s one thing her experiences have taught her thus far, it’s that the next step is just as exciting, or more exciting as the last. That’s a lesson she plans to pass down.
“Don’t worry and don’t stress about tomorrow. Keep on doing your thing. Make the most of the environment you’re in,” she said.