Growing up near Washington, D.C., Amy Gilliland had early exposure to the military, politics and the national security sectors. As president of General Dynamics Information Technology, she now runs in all of these circles and many more.
A Foundation Steeped in Service
Gilliland comes from three generations of military service, including her great-grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. at 18 from Switzerland and later joined the Navy to serve his adopted country. Raised by a single mom who was an Army civil servant for 40 years, Gilliland saw service to the country as a responsibility. During a kindergarten field trip to the U.S. Naval Academy, she bought an academy pennant and pinned it to her bulletin board, documenting her goal to one day serve in the Navy.
Years later, when she was accepted into the academy, Gilliland became only the third woman in history to lead the entire brigade of midshipmen. She later studied international relations at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., earning a master’s degree in philosophy in 1998.
After Cambridge, Gilliland returned to the States to launch her Navy career at the Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, Rhode Island. She then dived into international diplomacy, leading damage control and training efforts aboard a warship during the United Nations-imposed Iraq trade sanctions.
Gilliland later supported the media embed aboard USS Constellation during the initial air bombing of Iraq. These roles reinforced the importance of cohesive teams and strong leadership she values to this day.
“An Uncomfortable Career Progression”
Following time on Capitol Hill as a Navy congressional liaison officer and at the Pentagon as a public affairs officer, Gilliland sought opportunities to serve in the private sector with a company that embraced values similar to those she was drawn to in the military. She found this with General Dynamics, where her early years — including positions in strategic planning, investor relations, as head of HR and a chief of staff role to CEO Phebe Novakovic — helped shape her vision for the technology business she would later lead and transform.
“It was immensely valuable to be in a position to learn about the corporation at large and to experience a business model that successfully applies scale and autonomy to deliver innovation,” Gilliland said. “Having rich opportunities to do different kinds of jobs is super important. The experiences I had and the perspectives I gained really changed the way I think and operate.”
Gilliland later earned an MBA from Georgetown University and eventually pivoted to become senior vice president of human resources. She admits her path from the Navy to HR to her current role as business unit president at one of the world’s largest defense contractors wasn’t exactly orthodox.
“I had an uncomfortable career progression,” she said. But that’s the beauty of her professional maturation, the necessity of becoming a dynamic leader in a fast-evolving world. “My tour in HR has been fundamental to how I do my job today,” she added.
Nowadays, at the helm of GDIT, Gilliland leads a complex organization of nearly 30,000 employees delivering critical mission capabilities across the civilian government, defense and the intelligence communities. Shortly after she took the role, GDIT doubled in size with the acquisition of CSRA, the largest acquisition in General Dynamics’ history.
“Holding Ourselves Accountable to Our Values”
Gilliland recognized the success of the CSRA integration was predicated on creating a new culture at the company and emphasized the importance of building collaboration and trust across her leadership team and throughout all levels of the organization.
“Two years ago, we clearly defined our values and made very deliberate decisions about the type of company we wanted to be,” Gilliland said.
In the initial months following the acquisition, Gilliland focused on taking care of GDIT’s customers and employees. The effort included sizeable divestitures to focus the company’s technology portfolio on those areas where it could be most effective. These decisions would pay dividends and position the company to thrive in a federal market with a growing demand for IT modernization.
She also concentrated on forming a culture where employees are both willing to be challenged and unafraid to challenge her.
“I want people to understand that we’re an agile, ground-up business that empowers people and holds them accountable,” she said. A visible, collaborative executive leadership team is the linchpin of this philosophy and essential to GDIT’s success.
Knowing how beneficial her own career moves have been, she sees clear benefits in fostering opportunities for her employees.
“I am a big proponent of internal mobility,” Gilliland said. “The more we keep our talented employees moving throughout GDIT and offering their perspectives, the more valuable we are to each other and our customers. If an employee wants a career change, we better do all we can to ensure it is at GDIT.”
The intentional culture at GDIT has helped the company overcome a challenging year — including the ongoing pandemic, social injustice and more — while experiencing a period of accelerated growth and completing the remaining stages of the integration.
“I am convinced that holding ourselves accountable to our values has allowed us to move through these difficult months as a cohesive team,” Gilliland said. “Today, I believe our culture is even stronger, and it shows in our results.”
Large deals move the needle for the business, especially in a space where technology is evolving rapidly. The company has refined its growth strategy to focus on in-demand technology market areas — such as artificial intelligence, cloud and cyber — and has continued to evolve skillsets and an innovative culture that delivers high-value customer solutions.
“Within our growth focus, we are looking at building our base,” Gilliland said. “That means defending our recompetes and also positioning ourselves to win new business.”
And through its first three quarters of 2020, GDIT has won more new, competitive business than it did in all of 2019. These wins include a $4.4 billion Defense Department enterprise cloud contract and a $761 million General Services Administration contract to modernize U.S. Southern Command’s Cyber Information Technology Enterprise Services.
“Not Just Survive But Thrive:” Building a Business to Weather Any Storm
No stranger to adversity, Gilliland has battened down the hatches at GDIT to fortify the company against the broadsides dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic. She has deftly navigated the public health crisis in ways that are equal parts defensive, proactive and empathetic. She set the tone for the company’s leadership team to purposefully engage with employees and offer support and flexibility wherever possible. This was critical when, over the course of just one weekend in March, GDIT moved 60% of its workforce to remote operations
“Taking care of our people and showing empathy is most important,” Gilliland said. “I am a firm believer that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers. Our leaders were present and visible to help employees adjust to their new world, even as they were dealing with uncertainty in their own lives and figuring things out for themselves But we recognize this is a marathon not a sprint and we have to keep focused, disciplined and continually innovate inside and outside of our business.”
Gilliland also leverages her personal experiences.
“Being the mother of three children under 10 years old, including a daughter with special needs, influences my perspective in many ways, from how employees are struggling to juggle distance learning and work demands to how we can make communications accessible to all of our employees,” she said.
She believes staying connected and meeting employees where they are has undergirded GDIT’s resilience throughout 2020. This belief is reflected across GDIT’s nine Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs. These groups provide a forum for connectivity and support and have helped the company have difficult conversations on social justice issues and refine its commitments to diversity and inclusion. Gilliland wants every employee to be engaged and be heard. As an example, insights gained from the AbilityFirst ERG have been the catalyst for more effective communication and well-received greater accessibility for employees with different abilities.
“The silver lining of any crisis is the opportunity to shift one’s mindset and develop the muscle to not just survive but thrive,” Gilliland said. She and her leadership team are focused on ensuring GDIT maintains the agility and sense of urgency the company has operated with over the past few months given the digital modernization demands created by the pandemic.
“Having to collaborate, develop and immediately deploy solutions allows you to innovate at a pace you did not think possible,” she added.
GDIT has used agile strategies to accelerate the pace of software development and give customers quick access to tailored prototypes and solutions. For example, in supporting DOD’s cybersecurity strategy, GDIT recently integrated several niche technologies in its Emerge lab environment to rapidly design an identity, credential and access management prototype for application in defense environments. This is just one of many examples of accelerating capabilities to support customers’ missions, a priority GDIT wants to hold onto post pandemic.
As Gilliland looks to 2021, she notes three priorities: “First is taking care of our people, which means continuing to lead with empathy and flexibility, and maintaining a clear focus on our culture. Next is accelerating our growth by building our base, winning large deals and maintaining discipline from proposal through execution. And finally, we have to drive innovation across our organization,” she said. This innovation — including a focused portfolio, a deep understanding of the customer, and strategic partnerships — is what makes GDIT immensely valuable to its customers and a formidable player in an increasingly competitive space.
Ever the optimist, Gilliland is encouraged by what the future holds.
“Our people, our capabilities and our relationships are the foundation of the culture and the organization we are building together at the new GDIT, and it’s working,” she said.
This company has bent over backwards to ensure that their employees were able to make a living and kept us working in spite of the pandemic. I am witness and can attest this fact. We modified schedules and allowed people to breathe. Kind of exhale and know that we have a job. And for that reason we are grateful for the opportunity to work for GDIT.
I completely agree with Michael, I am reminded so often of how blessed I am for this company when I hear my friends talk about the sacrifices they are having to make because of the pandemic. One of my dear friends had to have both of her knees replaced at the same time because she couldn’t afford to pay for two surgeries and I cried because it didn’t occur to me. My heartfelt thanks for all of the effort to keep things at GDIT “normal”.
I am immensely impressed at GDIT’s commitment to inclusivity and engagement of the Employee Resource Groups. It is also amazing that in a company this big, Ms. Gilliland and the rest of the executive level folks are so accessible to the employees.