Transformational Leadership: A Conversation With Chuck Harrington

As 2020 comes to a close and the company prepares for an exciting 2021, we sat down with our chief executive officer, Chuck Harrington, to discuss the importance of leadership and adaptability, especially during COVID-19; the power of core values and community engagement; his reading list; and the bright future of Parsons.

What does leadership and being a leader mean to you?

Chuck: Leadership can be developed. There are people that naturally become leaders and others that develop into leaders over time. I don’t think of universities and colleges teaching leadership; however, the military does impart leadership practices and principles, and companies can benefit from hiring veterans.

I think of leadership in terms of three principles: having a vision of a future state that is compelling; the ability to communicate that vision to a team that moves them to action; and inspiring each person to achieve more than they thought possible as an individual in pursuit of that vision.

What are the keys to CEOs building a high level of trust in their organizations?

Chuck: I see trust-building emanating from three cultural tenets: honesty, transparency, and integrity. Team members build trust when leadership and management are behaving in ways that are consistent both with what they have been told and with the values of the organization.

What have you learned about yourself that surprised you since becoming a top executive?

Chuck: Throughout my career—like many others—I worked for great leaders who were also my mentors, and they inspired me to believe that there were no limits to my career unless I imposed them.

As the CEO, that support structure evaporates until you build a new and similar structure with your board of directors.

I have relied heavily on leaders I worked for and my board directors in gaining insights on creating organizational balance. That is the balance between taking risks that are necessary to support growth and simultaneously recognizing the risks that are present and implementing appropriate controls to mitigate or minimize the impacts of the risks should they actualize. As CEO, I am often the last decision-maker.

This is where a well-developed strategy comes in as the bridge that links opportunity with risk and defines the path forward. This was a learning journey.

What role should a CEO have in the community?

Chuck: As the most visible person in the company, it is important for a CEO to lead by example. This allows the community to understand what the organization stands for and how the company’s values can positively impact a local community. As a global company, it is important to me that Parsons gives back to all the communities we are a part of, not just those in our personal backyard.

Our Parsons Gives Back Program continually evaluates the ever-changing needs of the communities where we live and work, providing support to educational, cultural, and civic organizations. We are careful to support those programs that align with our core values, our expertise, and our mission of delivering a better world.

I was fortunate to have led and participated in many charitable, non-profit, and educational programs throughout my career, including Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, Congregation for Kids, 24 Foundation, United Way, American Cancer Society Tournament for Life, California Science Center, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Wounded Warriors, and to have served on three university boards, two chamber of commerce boards, Charlotte Regional Partnership, and many others.

Giving back is an important part of our role as leaders.

Are there recent accomplishments that you are most proud of?

Chuck: This is a difficult question when you are blessed to work for a great organization comprised of extraordinary people that have accomplished so much to make the world a better place.

One of my most satisfying years was 2019. It was a big year for Parsons. We celebrated our 75th anniversary as a company and went public for the second time in our corporate history. We were named one of Ethisphere’s 2019 World’s Most Ethical companies, an honor which we repeated in 2020, bringing us to 11 consecutive years of walking the talk on ethics and integrity. We were honored by the National Safety Council with the prestigious Robert W. Campbell Award for excellence in environment, health, and safety efforts. And, it was also the year that millennials became the largest employee base in the company replacing baby boomers, who had held the mantle since 1979.

These accomplishments are all equal and essential in different ways and speak to what sets Parsons apart: a diverse group of passionate people with the drive to create innovative solutions and deliver a better world in the process.”

How is Parsons changing or adapting to prepare for the future?

Chuck: The future is bringing with it three linked global shifts: changes in the speed, sophistication, and adoption of technology; changes in the geopolitical environment; and changes in cultural attitudes and norms. These shifts have also been impacted in a significant way by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parsons views these changes through the lens of defense, intelligence, and critical infrastructure and is investing and recruiting accordingly.

Our investments focus on technologies and companies that change the offerings we bring to market. We recruit talented people with technology backgrounds, consistent with our vision for the future. And, we have been and will continue to invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning, including data analytics, autonomous systems, cloud computing applications and migration, and the Internet of Things sensors and sensor networks.

We believe these technologies, along with 5G wireless and the ever-increasing efficiency of computer processors, are integral to the global transformation that most companies and government entities are experiencing.

What top piece of advice would you share with other CEOs?

Chuck: I was once told by a friend that CEOs are always confident and occasionally correct. That is a bit of humor, but there is a modicum of truth to it. CEOs, as leaders, are confident by nature and by necessity.

The best leaders also incorporate humility into their leadership to encourage and accept contrary opinions and master change and adaptation.

As the CEO, I recognize that confidence alone will not always produce the best result. By building a trusted team of collaborators and communicating regularly with other leaders across industries, academia, government, and other organizations, ideas are honed and perfected in a way that increases the probability of success while increasing understanding of the challenges that are likely to be encountered.

What is one of the best books you’ve read recently, and why?

Chuck: There are two books I have read that have been very insightful to me. The first is a bit technical and philosophical: The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World by Pedro Domingos. I found this book very enlightening as it explores artificial intelligence and machine learning and the ongoing research of government labs and companies to advance this computer science.

The second book is Great By Choice by Jim Collins. Jim Collins’ books are always insightful, and in this book he builds upon his Good To Great legacy of books with a new analysis into why some companies thrive in uncertainty and chaos and others do not. Given the confluence of the technology revolution, geopolitical evolution, and societal transformation, Jim’s book is highly relevant in today’s markets. I have had the opportunity to meet Jim on several occasions, and he is a gifted speaker and passionate presenter.

What has been the biggest leadership challenge presented by the pandemic, and how have you addressed it to keep Parsons moving forward?

Chuck: The first challenge was ensuring that our employees, customers, and suppliers were safe and that we were meeting our obligations. We quickly responded and met that challenge within a few days late last March.

The next challenge was to instill confidence in our teams, who were now working from home across the globe. We filmed daily videos reminding our employees that as a nation with over 200 years of history, we have endured pandemics, wars, and other global challenges before, and we would endure and come through this one as well.

Secondly, we talked about Parsons being a company with 75 years of success and that we, as a company, had weathered many challenges in our history. We were continually doing advanced planning around scenarios like the pandemic, and that I was completely confident we would not only endure the pandemic, but our amazing team members would bring us through stronger than we were before the pandemic.

Lastly, and still ongoing, it is learning to connect with a global workforce, 90 percent of whom have worked from home full or part-time for nearly nine months. We are making sure they feel connected, understanding their challenges, and creating pathways to connect with existing and new employees and ensure they understand our core values, vision, mission, and strategy. It’s important they feel like they are working within our company’s culture and don’t feel like an appendage to our culture.

What have you learned about yourself in the pandemic that will make you a better leader going forward?

Chuck: I continually learn to be thankful for all that we have. My heart goes out to those families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. I genuinely believe the pandemic and its impact on our economy could have been much worse if it weren’t for the technology that we have access to today and the actions performed by frontline workers in healthcare, public service, and public safety; and the actions taken by companies and governments to flatten the curve and protect the health and well-being of people.

Being a leader is doing what’s right for the right reasons, not only when no one is looking, but also when everyone is looking.

About The Author

Chuck Harrington is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Parsons Corporation. Chuck joined Parsons in 1982 as an engineer working on projects for the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense. He progressed into business development and sales to federal government organizations. He later became Vice President and Program Manager of a multibillion-dollar engineering project with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site. Before his appointment in 2006 to Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, and Treasurer, he was the founding President of Parsons Commercial Technology Group—one of Parsons’ global business units—and led Parsons into the biotechnology, semiconductor, and wireless communications markets. In 2008, Chuck became CEO and then Chairman.

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