SRA's new COO down, but never out

Deb Alderson moved quickly after getting fired by SAIC last year, never losing her confidence and landing a job at SRA a month later. Now she's the COO. What's behind her remarkable comeback?

When Deb Alderson was fired from Science Applications International Corp. last year, she had two choices: run away or stand her ground.

Alderson was the president of SAIC’s defense group, but was terminated after one of her employees was involved in a bribery and kickback scheme, as part of the CityTime contract in New York City.

The scandal cost SAIC $500 million to settle, and Alderson and two others lost their jobs in October 2011, though they were not implicated in any wrongdoing.

“I was totally shocked; I had no idea it was coming,” she said of her termination.

But her attitude – “You have to regroup quickly,” she said – led to a remarkable comeback.

Within a month of leaving SAIC, she was hired by SRA International as executive vice president for strategic development. She spent the next year learning about SRA from the inside, building relationships and developing strategies to grow the company.

Last week, she was named chief operating officer, second-in-command, at the $1.6 billion company.

“I like to characterize it as not missing a beat,” she said.

Within the first week of being fired, she started talking to SRA about a job. She’s long considered SRA founder, Ernst Volgenau, and former COO, Ted Legasey, friends and mentors.

Four other companies also were in the mix as potential employers before she picked SRA, she said.

Several things buoyed her in the immediate aftermath of the firing, which she described as a risk that comes with that kind of job.

“Other senior executives from around the industry called me and said, “There but for the grace of God go I,” Alderson said. “You never know when something like this might happen to anyone.”

Another positive from the experience was the outpouring of support that she received.

“On that first day and for weeks after, people reached out to me – clients, customers, colleagues – it was just unbelievable. If anything, it made me stronger,” she said. “I never lost my confidence.”

Her family also played a critical role. Alderson said her husband teased her about not watching daytime television. But it wasn’t all about jokes.

“When something like this happens, it’s professional but personal too. Your family knows how hurtful the situation is,” she said.

Now as COO at SRA, she has her sights set on moving forward and taking with her some of the lessons learned from her experience. And the biggest lesson might be for her rely on what made her successful at SAIC, and the other companies where she has worked.

“After this I could have changed how I operate. I could question everything that people say. Not delegate. Try to micromanage everything, but those aren’t leadership qualities,” Alderson said.

Instead, she said sees her job as creating value, taking care of her people and serving the missions of her customers. “And to do that you have to trust,” she said.

Building that trust at SRA began with her position as executive vice president of strategic development, reporting to CEO Bill Ballhaus.

“They could have plopped me into this position [COO] from the start but it works better if you take the time to earn the trust and get to know the organization,” she said.

For that year, as executive vice president, she learned about SRA operations and customer base. She also worked on a strategy to accelerate growth. “That’s what I love to do,” she said. “It is a natural transition to take over the line organization.”

Finding growth in today’s market won’t be easy, but “it is still a huge market,” she said. “And it is nice to be our size and private.”

SRA’s capabilities in IT efficiency and investments in mobility and cloud computing position it well. “We have nice diversity in our portfolio,” she said.

One immediate challenge is the loss of a large contract with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which SRA is protesting. It represented 9 percent of SRA’s revenue in 2012.

“I’m used to things like that,” she said, referring to the cancellation of the Future Combat System, which was a large contract held by SAIC. “We just have to keep our head in the game and I’m working on building a pipeline of qualified opportunities,” she said.

That pipeline will include an emphasis on bringing efficiency and innovation to customers, she said. She also wants to bring opportunities for growth to SRA employees.

“I want to make sure our people are excited about the future of SRA and where we are going and that we are growing year-over-year,” she said. “A year ago, maybe I was wondering where I’d be but I’m thrilled over how things have worked out.”