New at the top: Thomas Willert

January 8, 2012

I like to build. Whether it’s a company, a software application or a high-performing team, I like to start something and build it up. This natural inclination manifested itself early in my career.

I began as a software and field engineer in support of the intelligence community, but very quickly I observed that companies weren’t very good with passing down the lessons learned to make that success go across the organization. So I got involved in process engineering and change management from the operations side.

My superiors saw the success in how my program was run. It always made its profit, finished on time and stayed within budget. Also my team had a very good reputation with the contracts and accounting departments.

It wasn’t always this way.

During one program, when we first started out, we were pretty disorganized, and I, as program manager, was part of that problem, too.


Tom Willert is the new chief operating officer of Eagle Ray, a consulting company headquartered in Chantilly, Va. (COURTESY OF EAGLE RAY)

But we transformed ourselves from a reactionary group to a high-performing, high-functioning team.

As a leader, I learned how to lead by example, communicate the good and bad, and maximize people’s strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.

I also noticed that the key to success was not getting caught up in old-boy networks or stuck in how things have always operated.

I was always willing to look at a better way of doing things with an unbiased opinion. A lot of times you see organizations where the top and bottom are at odds. I didn’t get caught up in company politics or personal gain.

So they decided to move me to change management on the finance side.

I used what I learned in that program to train the rest of the company on how to run programs.

I ended up writing a lot of the program management training courses for the company.

To be a successful program manager, no matter what position I’m in, I’m always judging myself. Am I building a high performing team? Are my people skilled? Are they being trained to be able to do other people’s jobs? Am I training replacements? If I go on vacation or on business travel, how often do my people need to get a hold of me to get something done?

My goal is that they’re trained and competent. I’m not one of those managers who says everything has to go through me all the time.

Eventually, I began to look at companies outside of my comfort zone.

That’s where Eagle Ray came in. The chief executive asked for help with the company she was starting.

I joined her as a consultant and helped start a company from scratch in 2002.

I was the second person; now here we are with 70 people.

I used my skills in change management and process engineering to take over one of the major accounts right from the start. I was a contributor to writing proposals to win more work.

In 2011, we won our first two prime contracts, tripling the size of the company in one year.

Now, going forward, I want to continue to do what I love to do: build, build, build.

—Interview with Vanessa Small

Thomas Willert

Position: Chief operating officer of Eagle Ray, a consulting company headquartered in Chantilly.

Career highlights: Vice president and account executive, Eagle Ray; vice president of contracts department, BTG; program manager of NAVAIR programs, BTG; project manager of systems and software engineer, BTG; software and field engineer, Sperry.

Age: 51

Education: BS, electrical engineering, State University of New York at Buffalo; MS, technology management, George Mason University.

Personal: Lives in Potomac Falls, Va., with his wife, Theresa.

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