Three leadership lessons Earle Williams' life teaches us

EDITOR's NOTE: Earle Williams died March 25 at the age of 86.

I first met Earle Williams when I joined BDM International in 1985.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work for BDM.  Earle, known to me as Mr. Williams at that time, was a larger than life business leader and an industry titan.

I recently spoke to a business group about what made Earle Williams such an exceptional leader and person.  Three things came to mind: industry pioneer, community builder, and servant leader.  Let me expand on each.

Industry Pioneer – Earle, along with people like Bob Beyster (SAIC), John Toups (PRC) and others, helped build what was then termed the professional and technical services industry or defense technology services industry.  Later this vernacular would expand to the information technology services and solutions industry.  As BDM’s CEO, Earle was a pioneer and leading voice for the company and the industry with the Executive Branch, particularly the Pentagon, with elected officials and staff on Capitol Hill, the media, and Wall Street.

Earle was the 17th employee to join BDM in 1962.  An engineer by training and a proud Auburn War Eagle, Earle joined a company that had been founded in 1959 by Drs. Joseph Braddock, Daniel McDonald, and Bernard Dunn. 

During Earle’s 30-year tenure, BDM grew dramatically, moved its headquarters to Northern Virginia, was a successful publicly traded company, and sold itself to Ford Motor Company.  Most importantly to Earle, BDM played a key role in helping the United States win the Cold War and defeat Soviet Communism.

Community Builder – Earle believed that a CEO must do more than just build a great company and provide superior returns to shareholders, something BDM did very well under Earle’s leadership.  Earle believed that corporate leaders have an obligation to be active in the community and provide the necessary leadership to make the community a better place to live and work.  Earle emphasized and required this of all of BDM’s senior leaders. 

With BDM’s headquarters in Northern Virginia and his adopted state, Virginia, Earle joined a group of other leaders – Til Hazel, Bill Hazel, Milt Peterson, Dwight Schar, John Toups, Sid Dewberry, George Johnson, and others – to help move Northern Virginia from a bedroom community to a leading center of commerce. 

Earle’s contributions to our community are many, including transforming George Mason University into the 34,000 student university it is today, founding the Northern Virginia Technology Council, establishing the Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology, rebuilding the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts after a fire destroyed the main facility, and leading the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.

In addition to his civic service, Earle was a committed philanthropist, contributing generously to many organizations and causes, all to build a better community.

Servant Leader – Earle was a true servant leader, always leading by example and never asking any employee to work harder than he did or commit themselves more to the success of BDM.  He was also what I call a “Fishbowl Leader,” recognizing that leaders live in a fishbowl and their actions are always being viewed and evaluated by employees, customers, shareholders, the media, and others. 

Earle’s integrity was beyond reproach.  He showed this every day.  In an era where business leaders seem to be questioned weekly about unethical business practices, conflicts of interest and self-dealing, Earle’s servant leadership made employees proud to be associated with him and the company he led.

In 1990, after Ford Motor Company decided to divest itself of its non-automotive assets, of which BDM was one, Earle led a successful effort to buy BDM out of Ford with the help and equity capital from The Carlyle Group.  1990 was a tough year for companies with a large portfolio of business serving the Department of Defense.  The Cold War was ending, peace was coming to a soon to be united Europe, and defense spending in the U.S. was heading for a steep decline. 

BDM’s future looked less than bright, but Earle was convinced that a more diversified (commercial, international, and civilian government) BDM could succeed in the future as it had with its defense focused past. He rallied his management team, and he made the single largest individual investment in the now Carlyle backed company to demonstrate his commitment to BDM’s future, even though by then he had already started thinking about his own retirement from the company.

Earle stayed on as CEO of BDM until he retired in 1992. I was with Earle in his office on his last day as CEO.  As you could imagine, it was a very emotional day for him.

He had helped build and lead an incredibly successful company for 30 years.  The decision to retire was purely his.  As a very young 62 year old, Earle could have led BDM for several more years. 

But he made an important point to me that day.  He said that leading a company is not about you, the leader.  It is about what is best for the company, its employees, and its shareholders. Earle believed that BDM needed a new leader to take the company to even greater heights in its next chapter, a chapter that would eventually lead to more than $1 billion in annual revenue, almost 10,000 employees, a more diversified company, a second public offering, and then eventually a successful sale to TRW. 

During that time, Earle continued on the BDM board of directors, providing his usual sage advice to BDM’s management team, but only when asked to do so.  His love for BDM and all that it meant never waned, but Earle also knew that BDM’s new CEO, Phil Odeen, needed to chart his own course.

When I was fortunate to start and build my own company several years ago, my business partner, Paul Leslie, another former BDM executive, and I met with the employees of a company we had just acquired.  After finishing our remarks, we opened the floor for questions from our new employees.  A man raised his hand and said that while he did not know anything about us, he was confident we were “really good guys” because we both had worked at BDM. 

He said he had worked for several companies during his long career, and that his best experience had been with BDM.  He said that was because of Earle Williams.  He told our new employees that no CEO had a higher sense of integrity and reputation for always doing the right thing, no matter the consequences, than Earle Williams.  He was right.

It has been suggested that our life is a “dash,” with our birth date on the left, our death date on the right, and a dash in the middle.  Earle’s dash has been one of success and, most importantly, one of real significance as a CEO, industry pioneer, community builder, and servant leader.  Very important to Earle, he loved everything that the United States of America stands for and passionately believed in American exceptionalism. 

Earle leaves behind his wife, June, three daughters and sons-in-law, and seven grandchildren.  After he passed, I told one of his daughters how incredibly fortunate I was to have known her father and what a gift his life had been to so many people.  As “BDMers” can remember, Earle always loved a phrase that went something like this:  “BDM, only the best.  Not a boast, just the best.” 

Earle Williams was the very best. 

About the Author

Todd Stottlemyer is the CEO of the Inova Center for Personalized Health.

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