You have served under some notable government leaders. What have you learned from them?
I learned a lot along the way about leadership. I worked for Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser. He’s a very skillful manager in bringing the best out of people. I worked for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and saw their ability to focus people on what’s important. You can’t do everything. One of the things I learned is that if you’re going to be focused on something, you also have to decide what you’re not going to do. You can’t just keep asking more and more of people. You have to get them to do the things that are important first.
What would you say is the secret to building a successful team?
Leave your ego at home. Communicate and be as transparent as you can. You can’t always be fully transparent, but knowledge can be power for your employees and team. It also helps build the third component, which is trust. Trust can be knocked down really fast, so it always needs to be attended to. A trustful team is one that can be in very constructive disagreement. The worse kind of atmosphere is when people don’t have trust and they don’t communicate their differences.
What value did your time working in academia have for you?
A depth of understanding of the issues that I was dealing with. I think of it as a reservoir of ideas that can be drawn upon. In government, you build up experience, but there’s not a lot of time for deep thinking. Where you’re able to do that in a consistent way, [it] gives you that reservoir that can be expended, if you will, as you take on those leadership challenges.
With your start-up, would you have done anything differently?
I would’ve put more structure in the business early on. It would’ve helped it scale better. Part of it is, when you do something like this, you don’t know where it’s heading. We operated for the longest time without a chief financial officer. It was a small business. I was doing this part time. But by the time I transitioned to Qinetiq North America, I had learned a lot. I was able to understand the market in which we were operating, navigate the venture capital/private equity world, and understand how to run a business that was almost virtual.
What is your leadership style?
Inclusive and then decisive. Decisions that stick need to have buy-in, but once you make decisions you need to move on.
Reading any business books?
I just finished “Five Dysfunctions of a Tram” [by Patrick M. Lencioni] with my group. It was very useful. He uses leadership fables to construct a set of principles that leaders need to know.
— Interview with Vanessa Small