Behind the career: Kirkland H. Donald

January 12

Position: President and chief executive of Systems Planning and Analysis, an Alexandria company that provides assessments that integrate technical, operational, programmatic, policy and business aspects of national security.

Kirkland H. Donald, the son of a World War II veteran, received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon graduating, the future admiral began a 37-year career in the Navy, working with nuclear submarines. He served as the commander of the Naval Submarine Forces, and also as deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s naval reactors. He retired last year and joined SPA, where he will now lead the company.

What were some of your strengths early on in the Navy?

I give a lot of credit to the leadership of people who were my commanding officers and mentors during my time in the Navy. I had a wonderful set of leaders, particularly on my first ship. I was on the USS Batfish, an attack submarine. We had a dozen or so officers and 130 or so hand-selected enlisted folks. It was a very tight-knit group that worked very, very hard. It was the height of the Cold War. We were deploying all the time, and you never knew where you were going to be next. If anything, the culture and environment around that type of job brings about the most important success factors for people to succeed. You have to be willing to work hard. You have to have the physical and mental stamina to withstand the rigors of getting the job done. It wasn’t like I stood out. It was a team effort. It became the way I understood how to do business.

Talk about some indelible marks mentors made on you?

Entering into [Adm. Hyman] Rickover’s program really shaped me. He thought that I could do better than what I was doing. He challenged me to fulfill my potential. I was really impacted by meeting him and seeing his standards for excellence. He was always striving for excellence. If you aren’t getting better, you’re getting behind. You have to be an expert. You have to know your stuff. You have to work at that constantly. There will be bumps in the road. It’s how you respond and deal with them.

What were some of your proudest moments in the Navy?

Those instances where you’ve been able to pull together a team and get hard things done, those are the ones that stand out the most. When I had command of the USS Key West, in the eyes of a submariner, that’s a pinnacle of your career. You’re always working to build a team. You’re dealing with constantly changing schedules and transfers of people, in and out. Also, it’s pretty complex technology you’re dealing with. It’s a very harsh environment you’re dealing with. We enjoyed success on that ship. It was the fact that we did it as a team and pulled together through good times, leaving the ship in a better condition than when we found it.

What do you bring to SPA?

It’s been a very successful company for a very long time. I do have some different perspectives, having come from where I came from. To the extent that that is helpful, and continuing to satisfy our customers and deal with challenging customers and continue doing work for senior leaders, that’s what I think I can do. I can certainly bring enthusiasm to the job.

Reading any business books?

I tend to lean more toward history. The one I’m reading now is because of some work I’m doing for a congressionally appointed panel that I’m on that looks into governance in the nuclear security enterprise. I’m reading “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes. It’s an anthology of all that went into the Manhattan Project. It’s not a business book, but if you look at how you mobilize for such a large undertaking, there are lessons there in organizational leadership.

There’s another book I read called “Six Frigates” by Ian Toll. It’s about how we built the first frigates in the Navy. There’s a lot of lessons in there about how difficult it is to take on large government-sponsored projects. We think we have challenges today in building ships, but if you look back into the late 1700s, it wasn’t all that different.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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