John Hillen on Building GovCon into GMU’s School of Management, DC-Area Business Education, And His Opportunity to “Get Smarter”

John Hillen - Sotera, ExecutiveMosaicJohn Hillen served as president and CEO of Sotera Defense Solutions from 2008 through mid-June 2013, transforming a company that “started with a handful of us, an idea from my colleague Ron Jones, and an initial investor backing the idea” into a prime mid-tier defense and intelligence contractor that undertook a successful IPO and was often recognized for its growth and high-end mission solutions.

Sotera won the GovCon award in 2012 for large contractor of the year and Hillen was selected as a member of the Fed100 in 2011.

Since June, Hillen has joined the boards of advisers and directors for several firms in government contracting industry and announced Dec. 3 he is joining George Mason University’s School of Management as executive in residence and professor of practice.

Hillen told ExecutiveBiz that through his new position he will work to bring the school closer together with the government contracting industry by constructing programs and adding to the school’s GovCon-related expertise.

He said that while some area schools, like those in the University of Maryland system near Ft. Meade, offer programs and degrees for important industry capabilities such as cybersecurity, “none of the business schools around here really make government contracting and defense technology a multi-disciplinary focus area for research or teaching.”

“It’s one of the absolute economic drivers of the region and at the same time, if you go into the strategy and finance classes in most local business schools, the case studies are about companies like General Motors and 3M – the ‘usual’ big American businesses. Good for general knowledge – but not as germane to someone in the DC area who is 1,000 times more likely to work for government or a local government contractor than for a Fortune 50 industrial company in the midwest.”

john hillen-GLOBAL

Hillen at NASDAQ for Global Defense Technology & Systems (now Sotera Defense Solutions)

“Government contracting is a home-grown industry that has matured over the past 45 years from a couple of cottage industry firms to huge public companies that represent hundreds of billions of dollars of annual business, are very sophisticated, international, and providing multiple layers of services and products.”

Prior to entering the GovCon sector, Hillen spent 12 years serving as a reconnaissance and special operations officer in the U.S. Army and served as chief operating officer at New York-based financial services firm Island ECN, Inc.

His public sector service also includes a stint as Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs from 2005 through 2007, where he helped stand up a government-wide counterinsurgency system and coordinated U.S. diplomatic strategy with military operations.

On a personal level, Hillen said that running companies over the past 15-or-so years has by necessity taken away time from thinking as deeply and broadly as he’d like in order to stay a thought leader, as when he earned a PhD from St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and wrote several books and dozens of articles earlier in his career.

“It’s important when you’re in-between assignments to recharge and have some time to reflect and in some ways, get smart again. When you are an active CEO in a vigorous company, you are trying to be smart all the while, but it’s hard to get smarter. Difficult to go to that next level of breakthrough understanding when you’re working 20 hours a day.”

“Finding, as Oliver Wendell Holmes described it, ‘simplicity on the other side of complexity,’ requires thought, purposeful learning interaction, reflection, reading, writing, and teaching. It helps to really understand something at a visceral level by writing about it or teaching it.”

Hillen’s GovCon leadership roles included leading American Management Systems’ defense and intelligence business and serving as president at CGI Federal.  Since October 2012 he has served as the Chairman of the Professional Services Council, the trade industry association for government contractors.

He currently serves as vice chairman of Sotera’s board of advisers and recently assumed the chairman role on SOS International’s board of advisers and a position on Software AG Government Solutions’ board of directors.

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