George Wilson

Position: Chief executive and president of ECS Federal, a Fairfax professional services firm.

George Wilson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and was commissioned as an officer in 1979. He began his service at a shipyard, building a submarine. That’s when he developed a passion for building, whether teams, people or companies. After a few more tours that included integrating a Tomahawk missile system into a submarine, he retired and began work as a systems engineer at McDonnell Douglas. When the opportunity to help expand a company, then called Stanley Associates, came along, he seized it and helped it go from to 5,000 employees from 20. After the company was sold to CGI, he moved to ECS Federal, where he will now take the helm.

How did your time in the Navy shape you as a business leader?

At 17 years old, you’re already being drilled with what it is to be a leader, have a commitment to something bigger than yourself, grow a team, have ethics, standards and a mission, and how you as an individual need to support that. It still affects me today. Everything we did at Stanley Associates was trying to create that culture — a culture that everyone can get behind, one that they’re proud to be part of. From a personal standpoint, the biggest lesson I learned from being part of the military is persistence: Never give up. No matter the challenge or the difficulty of the task, you can’t back off. And in business, no matter how good you are and the organization is, you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose some good people and come up against things that are difficult. You’re going to have to rally around your core mission and values.

You helped Stanley Associates grow to 5,000 employees from 20.

One thing I learned is that no one is irreplaceable. No one gets out of a pool and leaves a hole. No matter how good some folks are — and you certainly want to take care of them — no one is more than the organization. The other thing is, if you’re going to grow an organization, you have to share the increased equity value. You can set up a reasonable salary and bonus programs, but at the end of the day, when you’re creating something like a company, you’re creating value in that company. We did an employee stock ownership plan at Stanley Associates very early on. At the end of the 20 years, one guy that didn’t have a degree walked away with at least $1 million.

How do you build a culture where no one is irreplaceable without creating a culture dominated by fear?

In terms of communication, you need to be committed to people being treated properly and supported in terms of professional development. We’re not taking the bottom X percent of performers and firing them. That’s not the culture we’ve got here. The important thing is to recognize the top 10 percent and get behind them because those are going to be your leaders throughout the organization and put in programs for the people who want to do a great job, help them grow. You build a culture where when you start distributing enterprise value and more things that people will benefit. Peer pressure becomes a powerful tool in an organization.

How so?

When you grow to 1,300, you can’t accomplish everything simply by manager presentations or a Web site or a policy statement — all the classic things you have to put in place. You have to rely on those 1,300 people every single day doing everything they can to the best of their ability. On every project there has to be a commitment to performance and esprit de corps that everyday is out there. There should be no place to hide for someone that is not totally committed or doesn’t want to perform.

Which business books are you reading?

I tend to read nonfiction. I like Stephen Ambrose books like “Undaunted Courage.” I enjoy books that capture something in history. About 10 years ago, I went back and read many of the classics that you’re required to read in high school and college. I found it to be fascinating.

— Interview with Vanessa Small