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Leidos CEO Jumper reflects on career, lessons learned

Whether as part of the military or the commercial world, John Jumper has relied on some basic leadership principles to guide his successful career in and out of uniform. Now, on the eve of his retirement as CEO from Leidos, Jumper talked with Senior Staff Writer Mark Hoover about those principles, and how he applied them as he led the company through its dramatic split.

What lessons did you learn by leading SAIC through the split?

Mike Tanner

John Jumper, Leidos

Jumper: You’re always learning, but you learn the difference between life out here in the commercial world, where your motivations are driven by profit and loss, versus the budget world of the government. I’ve been aware of this difference because of my duties on fiduciary boards for public companies for quite a few years, but to get out and try to drive that kind of behavior has been a learning process, and to deal with the organizational differences that have taken place between SAIC and the new company, trying to organize yourselves to be efficient with this set of core competencies that you can now focus on has been a challenge and a lesson learned.

But a lot of the skills that I bring to this problem are really more leadership oriented: skills that have to do with keeping everyone motivated, organized in the same direction, and on the same sheet of music, between the investors, the board of directors, the employees and the management teams, making sure that we all maintain the belief that we got something here that’s worthwhile.

Why is now the right time to step down as CEO?

Jumper: We got through the transactional part of [the split], and that was the thing that took best use of my talents, and now that the transition has been made to being able to drive the business and being able to extract the maximum set of efficiencies, it is probably a good time to transition to someone else.

I’ll be staying on as chairman of the board, so I won’t be far from it, and I’ll still be able to lend my assistance to whoever the new CEO is. We’re stepping out briskly on opening international opportunities, and again, I bring connections overseas from my time in uniform that can be helpful to that endeavor, as well.

What skills does your replacement need? What challenges will the next CEO face?

Jumper: The formula for success doesn’t vary that much; you’ve got to be able to lead your people, you’ve got to organize human endeavor, you’ve got to be able to elevate human spirit and motivate people toward the belief that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and that you’re supporting the greater good.

In addition, I think we do have to make sure we have strong skill sets in cost consciousness and strong skill sets in continuous improvement. And I mean formal process improvement, I’m talking about Six Sigma and lean skills that in a formal way can be part of a continuous improvement program that works from the bottom up to implement change as well as from the top down. So, I think those skills overall are ones that we would value.

When you look back at your overall career, what are your favorite accomplishments?

Jumper: In the military, I’ve got a lot of proud moments. Being able to get a group of people through conflict with a minimal number of casualties, and to do it efficiently, has always been the goal of any leader in uniform. Your decisions always have human lives at stake, and they all weigh on you to be as thoughtful as you can, as thorough as you can.

In the commercial world, I think going through the significant transaction that we’ve been through is certainly one of the highlights, but I think more important than that is the constant awareness of the valuable things we do as a company.

I always point to this business that we have up in Frederick, Md., which is where is the federally funded research and development corporation for the national cancer institute is located, and we have world-renowned cancer researchers up there that are employees at Leidos that do this miraculous, unbelievable work every single day. It’s very gratifying to see it.

We also do other human behavior work out in California for the U.S. Navy, studying behavioral characteristics and behavior of people who have been on submarines for extended periods of time, trying to make the tie between the behavior of the current generation to the requirements of military duty.

These things are all enormously important things that have consequence not only for the customer, but when you really think about it, they’re really larger societal issues.

When you look at our national security work, and you look at the work we do for the intelligence community, you see the significant role that this company has played, that our employees have played, in some of the major accomplishments of the conflict period we’ve just been through, anywhere from just being able to provide that tidbit of analysis that made the difference on finding one of the bad guys to the airborne programs we have that have been extremely effective at finding IEDs and other things that are of enormous value to the commanders over there.

If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you give?

Jumper: I would say that you find that human nature is human nature, that people who are able to perform and willing to perform are the same whether they’re wearing a uniform or not.

You have hard working people everywhere that just want to do the right thing. Don’t ever forget to surround yourself with people who fill in your blanks, not just people who are just going to agree with you, but the people who have skills that you don’t personally have, and don’t be ashamed of that.

Just go with it, and you’ll be better off that way.

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