Position: Chief operating officer and executive vice president of Barquin International, an information technology consulting firm based in the District.
A 24-year career in the Navy specializing in acoustic intelligence transformed into a private sector career when Bob Willitts decided to bring his expertise to a large government contractor. That opportunity led to software development where he ran his own division until moving here to lead the operations of a smaller business.
You ran a division at Science Applications International Corp. that nearly doubled in revenue under your leadership. What leadership qualities most contributed to the growth?
Any time that you’re managing a group of people that has come together to solve some of the most difficult and challenging problems the country faces, you’re talking about the best of the best in their field. When you get a group like that, they can be a challenge to manage because they are so technical and capable. Having them understand the common goal — it’s almost an art form, like herding cats.
What is the key?
You have to put yourself in people’s shoes and ask people to put themselves in others’ shoes. Never forget where you come from. When people tend to move up in an organization or in a particular field a lot of times they forget that if you want to paint a clear vision for people, you have to understand from all aspects how other people see your vision. It’s very hard to get individuals to focus on a common goal if you can’t understand where they’re coming from.
How do you secure that understanding?
I do an awful lot of listening. I manage through talking and listening directly. I’m always interested in what they’re doing. I want to know what people are doing all the time. It’s not to tell them how to do their job. It’s to understand what they’re doing, talk at their level and listen at their level and translate.
How has your leadership style evolved?
The first time I had people under me was in 1982, when I was a Navy petty officer. I’m not nearly as vocal as I used to be. I guess it’s something you learn with age. I was so much more hands on. As part of a submarine crew, you’re responsible with so many aspects. You don’t just have one singular responsibility. I was leading a group of guys, but I was working side by side with them to help take care of that situation. I became more hands on.
Describe the time when it cost you a great deal to achieve excellence?
There was a point in my time with SAIC in 2006 when we were in the midst of performing a critical task for a customer. The importance was so significant not only for the technology we were demonstrating but more for the success of the customer to be afforded the opportunity to take that capability to the war fighter. I just remember when we were taking that test, we were working 22-hour days in the heat and humidity. But all that didn’t matter. What mattered was that we had developed a capability that was extraordinary. We were given the opportunity to demonstrate it to the customer and the results of that test were so significant that it paved the way for the future of that program. That capability will get to the warfighter here in the not too distant future.
— Interview with Vanessa Small