The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Chief Officer Awards were announced March 25, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place live, in-person May 11 at the The Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Virginia.
Next is CEO (Private Company, Annual Revenue <$150M) finalist Promod Sharma, who’s president and CEO of Criterion Systems, Inc. Here, he talks recent key achievements, proud career moments, turning points and more.
What key achievements did you have in 2021/2022?
2021 was Criterion’s first calendar year capturing and bidding only full and open contract vehicles, cementing the success of our move from a small to large business according to the government definition. Furthermore, in CY2020, our existing contracts were 20% full and open and 80% small business.
In one year, we converted our existing small business work to full and open contract vehicles, reversing the ratio. A vanishingly small percentage of companies successfully navigate this transition, and I am very proud of my team and the hard work they have done to get here.
We had a good year last year, leveraging past success in our core agency customers to win new business, including at the departments of Agriculture and Energy. This success has also provided us a platform from which to launch into new agencies, including the Department of Transportation and a restricted customer.
We also built new competitive offering serving the intelligence community by acquiring three companies (Realm Consulting in late 2020; Protas Solutions and SAGE Black in 2021), each strategically selected for complementary capabilities in cybersecurity, infrastructure support and system development, and artificial intelligence/machine learning. These acquisitions have added ~100 TS/SCI with poly-cleared employees to the team, well positioning us for future growth.
In 2021, we launched a process to begin creating unique Criterion-branded methodologies and processes that we can package to further differentiate our company and our offerings. The benefits of such turnkey services/solutions are strong, helping us to enhance the corporate brand, improve customer experience, and evolve and extend our offerings in logical and clear directions.
While providing discriminators in our current and future work, they also provide new collaborative opportunities, such as packaging services for systems integrators. Together, these solutions will increase the value of the company.
We invested in our employees, launching the Criterion University mentoring, training and internship programs; continued supporting The Women’s Center (which we have since 2009); and began making ongoing monthly contributions to five foodbanks across the U.S. in communities where our employees work/live.
What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Criterion is a leader in helping federal agencies address emerging cybersecurity requirements. The president has made it clear via his executive order on cybersecurity and follow up statements that in the face of today’s geopolitical climate, cybersecurity is, and will continue to be, a strategic necessity for the defense of this nation. Our subject matter experts stay on top of these issues, working within our Cyber Center of Excellence to develop innovative approaches to meeting these challenges.
We also remain dedicated to delivering efficient and secure methodologies and architectures for modernizing government IT, improving the delivery of government services to its citizens, embracing delivery models such as managed services and helping the federal government focus on outcomes instead of being bogged down in day-to-day management.
Finally, our work with the intelligence cCommunity, particularly our focus on AI/ML, will help our customers make sense of the ever-expanding data that must be analyzed to keep our nation safe.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
Criterion’s trajectory has not been without difficulties. In 2010, Criterion was a subcontractor to a larger firm, having 75 full-time employees on the project. The prime contractor lost that project and, overnight, those 75 people were gone (out of a total of 130 employees at the time). At the same time, some other contracts ended, and Criterion reached a low of 29 billable people.
In response to this challenge, I trusted in my vision for the company, stayed the course, adjusted my strategy as needed and got some quick contract wins. That approach was successful, and we’ve never looked back.
What has made you successful in your current role?
As president/CEO, my job is to look at the big picture and anticipate what will happen three, six, nine and 12 months ahead. I then determine our future needs, the technology we will need to invest in based on industry demand, new business opportunities and how to shape the management team to work towards all of that.
I get inspired by other large companies and the pivots they take to remain successful, such as Apple. That is why we are investing in developing new solutions and methodologies to better meet our customers’ emerging needs.
When it comes to the day to day, I don’t get very involved. Therefore, I need a fantastic management team. My approach has always been to hire the best people then get out of their way. Criterion is a majority employee-owned company, as we wanted to be sure to reward people who helped us succeed.
This decision has provided stability in the management team — many senior leaders have been at the company for seven to 10 years or more — that keeps plans in place, ensures consistent execution, and promotes the harmony of everyone working together towards success.
My leadership style is to have a plan, make sure management and the team understand it, participate in it and deliver. My management style is to find best people in industry, tell them what I expect of them, what to do, give them tools to do the job (staff, tech, systems, etc.) and then leave them alone to do it. That being said, I am always there for them when they need me.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
I am a financial guy by education. In 1979, I decided to turn from being a career accountant to building IT companies as an entrepreneur, and I am very proud of that decision. Since then, I have built three successful companies from scratch, Criterion being the latest one.
We have reached some important milestones in these past few years, such as winning large cyber contracts against multibillion-dollar companies. I am thrilled at our current success and ready to rocket to the next level.