Stan Soloway is the first to admit that his career path has been far from linear. But from private consulting, to a prominent position in the government, to the President and CEO he is today, common threads are clear. He always does his homework, knows the issues, and values substance over style. He makes important career decisions carefully and with integrity. And throughout his professional and personal life, he has prized and promoted public service.
Stan’s career began at a political consulting firm shortly after his graduation from Denison University with a degree in political science. The group had recently taken on its first corporate client, and Stan was subsequently the first hire; a mere six years later, the group had flourished into a 16-person enterprise. “We were really starting to rock and roll,” he recalls, “and they started taking clients that I couldn’t stomach. We ended up taking on someone that I really disagreed with, so I walked. I was about 26 years old and I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I didn’t want to be affiliated with it.” Although he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his career long-term, he had thought carefully about the decision and believed that success would come with honesty. “I thought then, and still think today, that when it comes to business, your integrity is your calling card.”
For Stan, that card has certainly paid off in spades. Today, he serves as the President and CEO of the Professional Services Council (PSC), a trade association comprised of over 350 companies and 17 employees. The organization, which recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, provides advocacy, high-level market analysis, policy analysis, and related services for the member groups that count on it to give them a voice.
PSC’s work varies significantly, as smaller companies and larger companies join for vastly different reasons. The larger groups don’t need PSC’s assistance solving political problems, but they have other relevant needs. “Because they’re so platform centric, and because they have such high-level issues, the obstacles affecting IT and Professional Services don’t get a lot of attention at the corporate level,’ Stan explains. “Thus, we become their arm for that. They recognize that they’re part of an environment where there is a collective goal, and that they have the resources to attain that goal.”
For small firms, on the other hand, PSC serves as a sort of Washington office. “We’re not going to be their personal representatives on the Hill, but they don’t have the resources to have any kind of Washington operation, so we fulfill that need. My sense is that, in this market more so than any other in the country, if you don’t know what’s going on politically at a high level in terms of specific policy affecting your market, you don’t know what’s currently affecting your customer. If you don’t know that, then you can’t be successful, so we mitigate against that scenario. Most firms that are under a couple hundred million in annual revenue don’t have full time policy people, so they rely on us.”
As Stan repeatedly emphasizes, inside-out knowledge of the issues is crucial. His decision to work with PSC was precipitated by his past professional interactions with them—interactions which left him confident of their ability to provide real substance to client companies. “Most trade associations are only moderately effective,” he admits. “They can be very sleepy places. I’ve worked in and around a number of them over my career and found that very few really invest in serious substance. They were much more invested in people who could glad-hand their way around town—something I knew from experience that PSC didn’t do. I had worked with them before when I was doing consulting, and when I was in office. Several major policy questions arose. We’d ask the industry for input and so forth, and almost invariably the PSC work that would come back was intellectually and substantively outstanding. People actually tried to think up new ideas, and in a clear kind of philosophical way. Thus, I got the sense that it was a more substantive organization than most associations I’d seen.” Indeed, PSC proved a perfect match for a thoughtful leader focused more on the nuts and bolts of policy than on becoming a “Beltway insider.”
Stan attributes both his business integrity and his interest in the public sphere to his father. “I remember my father telling us at dinner that he was under audit by the IRS,” he reminisces. “My mother got very upset with him and said, ‘You shouldn’t talk about this with the kids.’ But my father said, ‘No, they need to hear this. I made $36,000 last year, and $18,000 went to non-profits, but they don’t believe me.” His clear generosity bespoke an interior moral compass which also guided him to stand up for causes that sometimes went against the grain. He was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and the first public event Stan attended was a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, when a friend running for Attorney General was smeared in the press as having possible mob connections mere weeks before the election, Stan’s father went and stood behind him at a press conference. “He was standing up both literally and figuratively for what he believed in and what he thought was right, and I always remembered it as an incredibly admirable thing to do.”
With two political parents, it’s not surprising that Stan grew up in a home of impassioned debate. Of learning to hold his own with his opinionated father, he says, “You have to know what you’re talking about. Don’t just throw platitudes out there. Do your homework. Feel comfortable with where you’re going with it.” The lesson, ingrained in him young, has been a cornerstone of his career. “I’ve never been in a situation with a client where I sensed we were heading down an unethical path,” he continues. “There are some I would never go near.”
After Stan left his first job to avoid such a client, he began a private consulting business along with a coworker who had similar feelings about their company’s direction. Some of Stan’s clients chose to follow him to his new shop, providing a modest foundation as he sought out more work. The partnership was successful, and Stan was able to try his hand at a variety of things, including some television work. After eight years, however, a client came along that Stan strongly disliked, and he retreated to his home in New Hampshire, along with his wife and two kids, to give some serious thought to the situation. After a thorough analysis, he returned to his partner with the news that he couldn’t continue their work together. As it turned out, she felt similarly. “It wasn’t personal with us, but we were competing with all the big-name firms,” Stan points out.
Stan continued consulting and soon got a call from a friend running a small trade association of government contractors. Concurrently, President Clinton was elected, and the issue of government procurement and its reformation was thrust front and center. “The National Performance Review and the Partnership to Reinvent Government were big arenas, and I started going to meetings representing the association,” Stan explains. “I was responsible for policy on a part-time basis.” At one such meeting, Stan met a man who became his mentor, and later, his employee. Stan describes him as “the guru of federal procurement laws,” and the man’s advice at their initial introduction hit home. “You need to learn this stuff,” he had told Stan. “Your client better know what’s going on here, because this is the root of who they are.” As a result, Stan got much more heavily involved, building several clients and doing individual work with them.
Stan’s dedication to knowing the issues paid off. In 1997, he received a call from the White House, and, pending clearance and confirmation, was offered the position of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense. The offer was a shock. “I joke that I thought they had the wrong number,” Stan laughs today. “I had never even considered going into government on any level.” After careful consideration, however, Stan accepted the appointment. “I had two portfolios in the Defense Department—one was acquisition policy, and the other was called Defense Reform.” Then, in 1999 with nine months left on his appointment, Stan got a call from Paul Lombardi, CEO of Dyncorp, asking him to take over at PSC. Stan, however, was adamant about honoring his commitment to the government and suggested other candidates instead.
A few months later, Stan found himself faced with the offer again. None of the other candidates had worked out, and the end of his appointment was drawing near. Showing his typical aversion to jumping without thought, and unsure whether he wanted to transition into a trade association, Stan told the then-Chairman that he would need to consider the offer until Labor Day. Over Labor Day, he suggested a compromise: he would join PSC, but not until he had fully honored his duty to serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense. As a result, on January 2, 2001, he took over as President and CEO of PSC.
Working within the bureaucracy of the federal government had honed Stan’s leadership skills and prepared him for the transition. After observing military leaders both good and bad, he came out with his own philosophy. “I try to let people own what they do,” he avows. “They have to be willing to take criticism, but you also have to be willing to take different ideas, it’s a two-way street. I’ve learned that heated arguments aren’t necessarily personal, that you can have a heated argument and its fine… In fact, it’s healthy. To me, much of leadership is about empowering your folks and doing your homework. That way, when you’re in an external environment, you actually have a clue what you’re talking about.”
Passion for community service is one value Stan tries to inspire in those who work for him, and as with the other arenas of his life, Stan certainly practices what he preaches. In 2007, after a two-year process, he was confirmed as a board member at the Corporation for National Community Service, the Federal Agency that funds and runs Americorps and is also a key funding source for Habitat for Humanity, and Teach for America, among countless other projects. PSC has a mandatory day of service, and Stan is currently looking into implementing an initiative whereby staff could take additional leave days to participate in an approved service project. Additionally, although it doesn’t have the ability to give enormous philanthropic contributions, PSC donates to charity in lieu of giving gifts to conference speakers. It is also heavily involved with the A Billion Plus Chance initiative. “It’s the national pro bono initiative,” Stan explains. “The idea is to do what the legal community has done, particularly in professional services. So, in addition to or in place of giving cash, skills are volunteered to provide financial expertise, IT expertise, etc. The billion plus is the dollar value we’re trying to get.”
Being able to provide his clients with an honest perspective remains one of Stan’s most treasured traits, and the value he places on service permeates his home life as well. His wife was a social worker for 30 years and now combines therapy and design to help families in transition, and when asked what he is proudest of, Stan doesn’t miss a beat before referencing his three daughters, who have chosen service as a career themselves. As a teacher, a social worker, and a youth mentor, it is evident that they’ve all taken his emphasis on service to heart. “I think we all want our legacy to be that we made a positive difference,” says Stan. “With this in mind, I try to make my difference in a lot of different ways. Whether it’s the quality of discourse between the public and private sector on business and policy, or advancing in some small way this ethic of civic engagement, I see these things as my responsibility.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the working world today, Stan explains that it’s important to put consideration into what one’s own unique path might be. “Whatever system you’re in, you don’t need to be a lemon. There are always ways to drive change, they’re just sometimes difficult to find,” he points out. “Some things need to change more than others, but there isn’t an institution you could possibly go into that doesn’t need any change at all, so look for what you can do.” In looking toward the future, Stan says he’s noticed that young recruits today often ask him about the service component of his business, and he finds that extremely promising. “It’s something the younger generation prioritizes and has come to expect, and because of that, the potential for change is enormous,” he points out. “In government, we are going to have the biggest turnover in leadership and personnel we’ve ever seen because there are 4.5 times as many people over 50 as under 30 in the federal government. It’s the greatest opportunity in two generations to change the face of leadership in this country, so don’t be afraid to be part of it.”