In today’s environment of hyper-specialization, one usually has to invest oneself in a single field or pursuit at the expense of all the others if one hopes to achieve excellence. James Lynch, however, holds a Ph.D. in literature, enjoys history and classical music, and published a book during the eight years he spent teaching at Virginia Tech. He’s also the President and CEO of Social & Scientific Systems (SSS), Inc.
It’s rare to encounter an executive so well rounded and familiar with the intellectual world, but Jim actually cites this Renaissance background as a major foundation for his success in the business world since his transition from academia 25 years ago. His experiences as an Assistant Professor of Literature at Virginia Tech enabled him to build a corporate culture based on collaborative learning and to incorporate his teaching skills into his leadership methods. And his ability to take a broad and bird’s-eye point of view, concentrating more on direction than on individual projects, left him the clear front-runner as the organization’s founders approached retirement.
SSS works with health-focused entities within the Federal Government in three main areas: clinical research, epidemiology research, and health policy research. About eighty percent of the projects originate from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), while the remaining business comes from other parts of the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Today, the enterprise boasts almost 500 employees worldwide.
On the clinical side, SSS provides clinical trial support that is largely focused on AIDS research. “We’re the operations center for the largest clinical trial therapeutic program under NIH,” Jim explains today. “Most of the current AIDS drugs were developed under this program.” They also work on infectious disease clinical trials in various international locales, such as Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand, and Australia.
SSS’s North Carolina office focuses on epidemiology research, which represents work won from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Currently, the largest contract in operation is a 14-year study of women who are sisters of women with breast cancer. The women—a group of 50,000—will be watched over a ten year follow-up phase and should provide valuable insight into the epidemiology of breast cancer. Additionally, this arm comprises research into environmental effects on the incidence of ALS, asthma, and other diseases. The final arm, health policy research, focuses on such issues as quality of care, access to care, and the effect of policy changes on the health care financing system.
Jim joined SSS as a proposal manager in 1988—in fact, he was the organization’s very first. The company was a mere ten years old at the time, and it was just beginning its transition from winning set-aside, sole-source contracts, to being in the competitive proposal environment. Founded in 1978 by three programmers, SSS was an 8(a) organization that worked primarily on welfare reform. “They made their mark really by developing econometric models of proposed initiatives such as the food stamp program,” Jim points out. “Their success was really first based on that kind of income transfer analysis. The company wasn’t fully focused on health issues until 15 or 20 years after it was founded.”
As the proposal manager, Jim flourished, but his potential for leadership was not overlooked by his superiors. About five years into his career at SSS, in the early 1990’s, the three partners began to consider what would happen to their company after their eventual retirement. “Up until then they were running the company,” Jim explains. “All projects went through one of the three of them, so it was a very broad and flat organization. It was the kind of organization that made sense growing up, but by the time I joined they were a little over 200 people.” Because the company had grown so quickly, the founders needed to restructure SSS and take some weight off their shoulders. Thus, they appointed a group of Vice Presidents in order to redistribute authority more practically, and Jim was among them.
Jim began managing the Business Development department, and, in addition, took on some of the strategic planning work. It was in the latter area that he proved himself to be an invaluable member of the management team, able to focus on the horizon and envision the company’s future. This natural affinity for leadership left him the obvious choice when it came time to promote a VP to Executive Vice President in 2000. “I knew the organization better than anyone else,” Jim reflects today. “The Vice Presidents that we had were good at managing the narrow markets they were in, but not really good at seeing how to take the company further. They were more technical than I from the beginning, and knew their markets, and our success depended on them to please those clients and get things done. And they did, indeed, get things done. But they needed additional guidance to see how we might together expand and leverage one experience into a different area.” Thus, after the retirement of Denis Ables, one of the founders, Jim was appointed Executive Vice President to assist Mary Frances leMat, the youngest of the partners and the new President and CEO.
A few years after this promotion, Mary Frances decided to appoint a COO, and Jim was again the obvious choice. Then, as she began to relinquish some of her authority as she moved toward retirement, Jim was promoted to President. In 2006, she retired fully, and Jim became the CEO. While he hadn’t expected the trajectory his career took, the rise happened organically and grew out of his ability to organize people—not out of personal ambition but out of competence and skill. “I was able to tie people together,” he surmises. “I didn’t have any interest in whether someone was cutting into my territory or not. You’ve got to find a way to do what you have to do and get out of the way of yourself. Sometimes very strong leaders are about carving out a piece of territory, but I feel as though there’s plenty of territory. What’s more important to me is looking at how to strategically approach the future.”
While his lack of ego and disdain for the “territory claiming” type of CEO make Jim uniquely suited for his upper management positions, his career has turned out miles from anything he’d envisioned for himself. Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, he entertained the notion of becoming a priest—something he stuck with until shortly before it became time to go away to the seminary. His passion and talent for languages in school led him to believe he might pursue linguistics professionally, before he eventually settled on literature as his academic field of choice while earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at John Carroll University. He credits his parents for being both avid readers and fervent supporters of his career choice. After John Carroll, Jim went straight on to the University of Texas in Austin to pursue his doctorate.
In January of 1979, Jim took a tenure-track position teaching at Virginia Tech. Then, over the next eight years, he did everything that was expected of staff in the hopes of gaining tenure, getting published in peer-reviewed journals, and even publishing a book. In what Jim came to view as a blessing in disguise, however, departmental politics kept him from advancing as he had expected. “My department head was a very smart, sensible guy, but at the end of his career he got into this tussle with the Dean of Art and Sciences, and I essentially got caught in the crossfire,” Jim recounts. Denied his tenure, he briefly considered other teaching positions. Ultimately, however, he decided it was time to move on. He resented the prominence of the dysfunctional political atmosphere at large universities and hoped to apply the skills he’d learned as a teacher—particularly the leadership skills—in the business world.
Working in the Business Development department of SSS, Jim found plenty of opportunities to use those skills. “It wasn’t really writing, but was more geared toward editing, rewriting, and helping people get ideas together,” Jim explains. “I always thought that was what teaching was all about, using the same set of skills. For instance, especially if I don’t know the technical stuff you know, we’ve got to talk and I have to educate you on how to get the words out in ways that makes sense. I knew how to get people to learn how to write and be better at it.”
Even beyond that direct application of editorial and communication skills, Jim’s leadership technique undoubtedly grew from his teaching background. He looks back on his years in the academic world and recalls that, in higher education, it’s never as simple as being asked a question and giving the right answer. “It’s far more Socratic than that,” he muses. “It’s about discussion more than a decision being handed down. By developing that skill, I honed an ability to articulate things even when I wasn’t sure I knew what the answer was. Using this skill as a leader, I see my role as a facilitator of collaboration. That is, I’m not an ‘I’m in charge, follow-me’ type leader. Rather, my focus is very clearly on the reality that I need smart people around me. If you ask my executive team, they would tell you that the four of us sit down and puzzle through stuff, ask questions, and serve as Devil’s Advocate for one another. Good decision-making comes from considering all sides and trusting the judgment of the smart people around you.”
This attitude is the core of SSS’ employee-owned culture. “We’ve always been a people-friendly, people-first kind of company,” he avows. “We’re in the business of serving clients, and we achieve success by developing and nurturing our employee-owners so that they can provide great service to our clients. We always operate under the banner that we’re going someplace together. We’re pretty transparent, and we try to give people as much information as we can.”
Being so people-driven, it’s hardly surprising that SSS engages in a myriad of charity activities. In fact, a volunteer community service committee of over forty members ensures SSS’s participation in about 30 service projects each year. Back-to-School programs that provide school supplies for underprivileged children living in group homes, food drives around the holidays, and AIDS-related work on the international side are among the staple programs to which SSS remains firmly committed.
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the workforce, Jim is quick to emphasize the tools that served him well. “Know how to write, and know how to think,” he urges. “Don’t count on anyone else to do those things for you. If you don’t come in with ideas, clearly perceived and clearly articulated for an audience, you’re nowhere.” Ever the teacher, Jim encourages today’s college students to apply their academic skills in the working world in much the same way he continues to do. As Jim’s professional path outlines, living is about learning and leading is about teaching, whether you’re in the classroom or the office.