The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Chief Officer Awards were announced April 15, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually May 27.
Next is Chief Legal Counsel finalist Stuart Young, who’s general counsel at Amentum. Here, he talks professional achievements and risks, proud career moments and turning points, overcoming career struggles and more.
What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?
In 2019, I helped form Amentum as a standalone company after we were spun off from AECOM. In 2020, we acquired DynCorp International. In a 2-year period, we’ve had to form a standalone legal department, and then integrate a team with a long standing history. It’s been a busy 2 years!
What has made you successful in your current role?
Achieving excellent results in pending matters is important, but it’s only part of the equation. It is equally important to communicate with company leadership, and consider business imperatives. Weighing financial consequences against reputational issues and customer relationships is also a key element to success.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
I was a government attorney at GSA for 8 years, and my initial transition to the private sector was challenging. I had great mentors who helped me through the process. As one example, I realized that I was empowered to form strategies and make decisions on a real time basis — of course with input from key stakeholders, but without some of the more formalized requirements that are necessary in a government setting.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
Without a doubt, I am most proud of the legal team I’ve helped put together. Not only do we work as a team, we enjoy each other’s company and share the same goals and values. We spend so much time together — even during the pandemic — that a positive working environment is a crucial element of success.
What are your primary focuses areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
While it is important to protect our company’s interests, it’s more important to perform our contracts well, and to demonstrate commitment to our customers. I want to focus on selective use of bid protests and contract appeals —sometimes there’s little choice except to be involved in litigation, but the more efficiently matters are resolved, the less distraction to all involved. Our effort can then be focused where it needs to be, meeting the needs of our customers.
How do you help shape the next generation of industry leaders?
While mentoring younger members of our department, I stress involvement in professional associations and continued academic learning. Understanding the big picture can be just as important as resolving discrete issues. The fact that our nation has a structured process for resolving contract award and performance challenges differentiates the U.S. procurement system from every other system throughout the world.
What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?
My toughest loss was defending a bid protest at the GSA board of contract appeals. Although I was upset by the outcome, I was shocked at how many people expressed appreciation for my efforts. Instead of being a detriment to my career, it ended up being a positive. You can’t win every case, but you can always represent your client both zealously and professionally.
Which rules do you think you should break more as an industry leader?
Communication, communication, communication! Every so often, it’s important to directly get input from key stakeholders in order to perform well. As attorneys, we can’t advocate breaking rules, but we can find a way to get input from both internal and external stakeholders.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
I left a secure job as a staff attorney at DynCorp in 1999, and jumped several levels to become general counsel of EG&G. The first few days at my new job, I stared at the walls, wondering if I had gotten in over my head. Over 20 years later, staying in essentially the same position through numerous corporate transactions, I guess that I made the right move!
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
Two things, without a doubt. First, my track record in bid protests. Selectively bringing challenges and aggressively defending protests helps both our company and our customers. Second, development of younger attorneys. On many occasions, I’ve hired attorneys straight out of law school, or even while still in school. Not all of these attorneys are still on my team, but those who have moved on have taken on key roles in other companies.
What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?
I’m shy and sometimes socially awkward. Early in my career — as a 20-year-old paralegal for a Wall Street law firm — I learned that if I could overcome my natural tendencies and reach out to others, most people are more than willing to talk and provide sincere input.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
It’s important to keep up with industry trends and develop business acumen. Staying active in professional associations is a good first step. I always encourage continuing education and participation in events held by the ABA Section of Public Contract Law, Association of Corporate Counsel and other similar groups.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that your opponents in a matter one day may be your allies the next day. Government contracting can be a small community, and it’s important to have the ability to draw upon good relationships and resources.
Meet the other Chief Officer Awards finalists here.