I like a good challenge. Graduating from West Point was one of them. But it was a program at West Point where I found that I really enjoy leadership.
I was sent out as a leader of an Army infantry platoon. As a 19-year-old cadet, the sergeants under me were all experienced Vietnam veterans with 10 to 25 years of service.
I learned early on to listen to them and take advantage of their knowledge in decision-making. I also learned what it means to take care of your team first. When you take a break from patrol, you always have your soldiers go through the mess hall line to eat first. But when we were stationed at Fort Bragg (N.C.) on a paratroop mission, the officers go out the door first because if it’s something more dangerous, you lead by example.
That has translated well into my civilian career in government contracting.
A critical design review for a major industry project is an event that could either give your company a milestone payment or nothing from your customer. I’ve been there at 2 o’clock in the morning signing those minutes with a customer. The message was: You need to be there with your team and lead to get it completed even if it takes working until dawn.
The military will also put a difficult mission out there and expect your team to achieve that. I brought those same expectations to industry. For example, at one point during my 22-year career at Lockheed Martin, I established a reputation as a program manager that successfully bid and ran fix-priced contracts. So I was chosen to head a $600 million firm-fix-price development of a Norwegian frigate weapon system with international partners.
I had never stepped on a ship in my life, but it looked like a great challenge.
At the time, most work at Lockheed Martin was done on U.S. government contracts (that covered costs plus an agreed-upon profit). But here was an opportunity to work for a Spanish shipyard — with the end customer being the royal Norwegian navy — and having to do the entire development on a fix-priced contract.
The key there was laying out the vision and building the team that had a culture of working in a fixed-price environment.
Also, it was imperative to learn the end customer’s culture. We were in the preliminary design phase and having a lot of difficulty getting our preliminary designs accepted. I decided to hire a firm to train us in Norwegian culture so we could properly understand how to communicate our design. They showed us why we were not successful in our designs because we weren’t interfacing with them effectively.
That cultural training turned the whole design-review process around, and we started getting approvals. The program has been very successful, and there are currently five royal Norwegian frigates in various stages of operation and deployment.
During a consulting stint after Lockheed, I did some work with Proxy Aviation and found that they had a great product with an excellent team.
Those were the things I was looking for in a chief executive opportunity.
The challenge will be to find the right opportunities to partner with the large integrators and working with fixed-price contracts, which aligns well with the competency I built. I am up for the challenge.
— Interview with Vanessa Small
Position: President and chief executive of Proxy Aviation Systems, a software and systems engineering company in Gaithersburg.
Career highlights: Vice president of business development, national security sector, SRA International; director, Norwegian Frigate Integrated Weapon System Program, Lockheed Martin; Captain, U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Education: BS, Engineering, U.S. Military Academy at West Point; MS, Computer Science, Monmouth University; MBA, International Business, Georgetown University.
Personal: Lives in Vienna with wife Karen and children Kristen, Jenny and Sarah.