Sarah Allen serves as Leidos‘ chief human resources officer and is an executive vice president at the GovCon firm, where she works to use recruitment and retention efforts to generate competitive advantage and help the firm grow.
Allen had been with SAIC for around four years when it separated into national security, engineering and healthcare technology contractor Leidos and a ‘new’ SAIC focused on government services.
She most recently served as senior vice president of HR for SAIC’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance group, and earlier served as director of HR within Northrop Grumman‘s TASC business unit prior to that unit’s spinoff into a standalone company.
In this conversation, Allen discussed her and Leidos’ efforts to build its brand from scratch, how to balance using social media for recruitment against more traditional sources of talent, and her most significant take aways from the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” presented by the separation.
Sarah Allen: Our most successful resource for recruiting is our employee base. We’re privileged to have an exceptionally educated workforce, with five percent of employees holding Doctorates, 28 percent with Master’s degrees, and 44 percent with Bachelor’s degrees. Our employee’s networks really become a tremendous source for excellent hires for us. We also have a very robust employee referral program. In my experience if an employee is willing to stake their own professional reputation on endorsing another individual as a candidate, those are the individuals who tend to join the company and develop a sustained career path with us. But we hire more than 4,000 individuals a year, so clearly we can’t we can’t do all of that through our employee referral program.
We’ve made a concerted effort to diversify the methods that we use to identify the best candidates for the company. Like others, we found that social media has emerged as a huge asset for our recruiting efforts. Following the separation of our legacy company and changing our name from SAIC to Leidos, we began the process of building a social media presence for the Leidos brand. That’s everything from LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter. We’re now reestablishing our identity, because despite the fact that we’re the parent company from the separation, our spin-off company — SAIC — retained that very well‑known name in the industry.
So I’d have to say, genuinely and fortunately, we have an exceptionally strong comms team who is making our social media presence stronger on a daily basis. We’ve relied on them, and we’ve worked with our recruiters to research which of these social media channels are most effective in communicating with and identifying potential employees and job applicants. We’re focusing our initial efforts where we expect to realize the greatest bang for our buck. We see LinkedIn as an incredibly valuable platform for recruiting. It not only allows our staffing team to search for potential employees, but it also lets candidates get to know Leidos through our corporate page and by going through various employee profiles.
But, despite this movement towards social media, we continue to see real value in our traditional outreach – things like job fairs, a user‑friendly career portal on our Web site, and our advertising and branding efforts – that continue to pay dividends for us. We also support STEM initiatives and events in a very meaningful way to develop the skills and capabilities of the next generation of workers. We see our activities here as a genuine investment in a well‑educated, skilled workforce that will benefit the company for generations to come.
ExecutiveBiz: How is Leidos working to improve its brand and awareness in the market?
Sarah Allen: We saw the separation of the legacy company and evolution to Leidos as an opportunity to start fresh. Internally, we’ve often made reference to the fact that we’re a $5+ billion start‑up company, which is truly an exceptional reality for us. I would say we gained new perspectives through the transition and we leveraged the company separation to ensure that we were built from the ground-up for success. But, the nascent brand identity is very significant when you’re in a people‑intensive business and rely heavily on name recognition and brand awareness. The company is in a unique position as we have this incredibly strong forty-year foundation and legacy, but the Leidos brand itself is very, very new.
We have implemented a concerted effort to establish our brand identity through social media, advertising campaigns, and traditional media. We recently announced we are the official sponsor of D.C. United, which we are so excited about! We’re hoping the sponsorship allows us to get great exposure and increase brand recognition not only locally, but throughout the country and internationally.
We also have some fabulous features that truly differentiate us. Leidos is committed to solving the world’s toughest problems in important markets, like national security, health, and engineering. While to some on the outside it may not be obvious why those markets would be in a single company, we are seeing tremendous opportunities to leverage capabilities like our big data work with a national security customer and transfer that technology over into health, for example, where they have some major big data analytic challenges.
After the separation, I would say Leidos employees have a renewed focus and a real sense of purpose that may not have been fully recognized before. So, we take the enthusiasm our employees have for the critically important work that we’re doing, and we convey that to potential employees through all points of contact.
ExecutiveBiz: How have you tapped your experience from your executive career in the transition from SAIC and helping position and lead Leidos forward?
Sarah Allen: When I look back, I’m very fortunate to have worked for very highly respected companies my entire career. People often ask why I left my last employer. I’d been there 18 years, had a defined benefit pension – which no one has – and my answer is really pretty simple; I wanted the opportunity to work for a more nimble, entrepreneurial enterprise, and I found exactly that here.
My biggest successes across my career have by far been team successes. If I had to pick the single most significant accomplishment of my career, it would definitely be having had the responsibility from a people and HR perspective to enable the successful separation of SAIC on the Leidos side. It was truly a once‑in‑a‑lifetime experience, one in which I probably learned more in the last year than I might have learned in the last decade. It was just an incredible experience as a chief human resources officer in an organization that’s a people company. To have that responsibility and to have this incredible team behind me to enable us to succeed was the experience of a lifetime.
ExecutiveBiz: What were some of your major take aways and lessons learned?
Sarah Allen: One of the things that we have learned, candidly, was to manage the separation while also managing a very successful business. We needed to keep our employees motivated and devoted to our customers and their missions’ success while going through a significant amount of change. To say that taking a company through a separation is potentially a distraction would certainly be an understatement, but our employees remained steadfast in their commitment to our customers.
We were very conscious and purposeful in selecting the team that essentially stepped out of their traditional job roles to focus solely on the separation, because it required more than full‑time dedication and devotion to work this particular project. The need to keep our employees engaged was absolutely essential, and so it was a very deliberate part of our thought process each and every day as to what we could do to ensure that employees were able to focus on their customers and not be distracted by this major event that was taking place in their work lives.
ExecutiveBiz: What advice would you give to HR execs who are leading an M&A deal or spin-off in an industry going through as much change and disruption as GovCon?
Sarah Allen: Perhaps it goes without saying, but the best advice I would have is understand that you don’t have all the answers and surround yourself with excellence. While we did most of the separation planning using internal resources, we certainly engaged individuals and consultants who are subject matter experts who have proven their ability to take the company successfully through a spin. I would say, don’t go it alone. This is not a time when you can be shy and not ask questions. You really only have one chance to get it right, so engage the best resources you can. We approached it as a system engineering initiative. It was a very disciplined, thorough plan against which we executed with incredible oversight throughout the entire process.
ExecutiveBiz: What are you most excited for moving forward?
Sarah Allen: I would say a trend we’ve noticed is that our markets are increasingly demanding advanced capabilities for leveraging data and protecting our digital and physical infrastructure. And that’s true whether you’re a military commander, hospital administrator, or the CEO of a major power utility company. That gets back to our three markets – national security, health and engineering. We see the problems of today as tomorrow’s promise. We have a unique perspective across these key markets that give us a holistic way of seeing all the complexities of a problem while understanding what really matters.
My goal as the chief human resources officer is to ensure that Leidos has the skilled workforce committed to solving these challenges and I’m really excited to see both existing and future Leidos employees tackle these problems and develop solutions that will positively impact the nation and our world. There is no coincidence that, if you look across my career, I am one of those individuals who is highly motivated about being part of an organization that is making a difference in our world. And I can say I am incredibly proud to be part of Leidos.