Chris Scott joined Cherokee Federal in 2017 as director of business development and has since ascended the ranks to his current position as vice president of defense markets, a role in which he oversees strategic direction, customer engagement and sales for the U.S. military services and other Department of Defense agencies.
His leadership is predicated by a commitment to Cherokee Federal’s culture and support for the U.S. government as well as a strong belief in the organization’s mission to give back to the Cherokee Nation.
Scott recently sat down with ExecutiveBiz for an Executive Spotlight interview, during which he highlighted Cherokee Federal’s core values and explored the ways in which these beliefs intersect with talent acquisition and retention, collaboration and the pursuit of contract wins.
Tell me about your company’s culture. What aspects of the company do you think are contributing most to its success while helping to attract and retain top-level talent?
At Cherokee Federal, our culture is very collaborative and team oriented – we have several groups that work collectively to build the business. We have the win group, which is our business development team, an innovation team, which represents our innovative practices group and contains subject matter experts in specific discipline areas that are part of our service offerings, the delivery team, which is our operations team that supports program execution and what we call a shared services or frontline agile support team (FAST), which covers proposal operations, finance, contract management, human resources, marketing and information technology. My team of senior account executives directly supports the mission solutions defense market, which is a high growth area for Cherokee Federal.
I always say that it is a total team effort. That’s a mantra around Cherokee Federal, and it is how I’ve been successful within the company. I’ve been here for six years, collaborating with all the internal stakeholders, which reaches our external stakeholders when we win a program.
Our client and mission focus is a driving force that has helped us grow and attract top talent, not only through the pandemic, but also in the post pandemic environment. Our growth has been meteoric my entire time here and we’ve outdone and outpaced ourselves year over year, which has been phenomenal. I’ve never worked for another organization that’s grown at this pace, so it’s truly been an honor and a humbling experience being here and actively contributing to this tremendous growth.
Another driving factor for us in attracting and retaining top-level talent is giving back. One third of all revenue goes back to the Cherokee Nation citizens to elevate their standard of living in various ways, such as healthcare, infrastructure, scholarships and community programs, and to preserve and secure the Cherokee culture for future generations. We’re also leading in the industry in terms of competitive compensation packages.
I think our biggest differentiator when identifying top talent or those looking for a higher purpose through their professional endeavors is that we don’t need to tell folks, ‘hey, you need to be motivated’ – that desire and inspiration comes from within. Our higher purpose and our give back to the Cherokee Nation resonates with a lot of people that are looking for a higher purpose in their professional endeavors and daily life. We certainly try to hire folks who believe in that mission as we’re serving not only our government customers, but also the Cherokee Nation. Folks that succeed within our organization really buy in and feel a very close bond to that purpose, and that’s certainly why I’ve been here for six years.
We’ve hired many people over the past couple of years that have come up from much larger organizations, some publicly traded. Not to take anything away from publicly traded organizations, but a lot of times it’s all about the bottom line – more revenue, more revenue, more revenue. I think folks are often looking for something that’s a little more altruistic, and there are a lot of people that are self-motivated with that type of purpose in mind.
What are your company’s core values? How do you think these values translate into continued success and growth in the GovCon market?
Our vision is to become the top tribally owned organization, not just in the government contracting space but overall within the marketplace, and we have steps in place to ensure that we come through on that vision. Our mission is to empower people to relentlessly pursue and serve the mission of the U.S., simultaneously serving and inspiring Cherokee Nation citizens to enable cultural preservation and improve the quality of life of future generations.
We have six specific values – integrity, drive, determination, service, passion and ingenuity – that we look for within the people we want to bring into our organization. These values are core tenets to any successful person, and of course, any successful organization. In the market, every government customer out there is looking for companies that exude those values to ensure their critical missions do not fail and that their complex challenges are solved.
We have a mantra here at Cherokee Federal to build, solve and serve, and we are rapidly evolving into a solutions-oriented provider to some of the government’s most complex challenges. We’re called upon time and again to help our customers out in very challenging situations, and we’ve come through successfully by being deliberately focused on what a specific customer’s mission is. I think that has helped us to perpetuate our success and our growth in the marketplace right now.
In retaining top talent, it is up to individuals to search within themselves to see if those values fit with their own, because if personal values end up in contrast or conflict with an organization’s values, you can get disgruntled and disengaged employees. Individuals who believe in our six values, our mission and our vision will certainly be successful here. We have seen a lot of folks like myself that have transcended and been here for nearly an entire career.
How do you set your priorities around limited capture dollars? What goes into the decision making process of what contracts you want to go after?
We’ve developed a very regimented, structured approach to prioritizing pursuits, which we call our Win Board gate review process. This process was developed and honed over the past several years since our chief growth officer and my boss, John Boyle, came on board and introduced the concept back in 2021. In its first year, the process was in the research and developmental phase. Last year, we really fine-tuned it, and this year, we’ve been streamlining the process, so there is a fair amount of due diligence, competitive intelligence, customer intimacy and technical solutions development that goes into what we call our tier one pursuits, or anything above a $20 million total contract value. That can range from $20 million up to a billion dollars and beyond.
The process has six gates overall, and each gate builds on the previous one. The pursuit team, with representatives from our win, innovate, delivery and the FAST teams, continuously researches the competitive landscape, learning about the customer’s challenges, hot buttons and desires and uncovering the future state of a program instead of providing a history lesson. When we pursue a bid, we always aim to analyze the future state of where that program is heading or how we can actually lead a customer to what they hope to achieve.
We are constantly shaping our win strategy, which can be a host of different types of items that may give us a higher probability of winning as we pursue opportunities. Each one of these gates improves and questions the pursuit team on their particular win strategy, where they are at with customer intimacy and what the competitive landscape looks like. A big part of my role is to bring and ensure that all of our internal stakeholders from the win, innovate and delivery teams are not only aligned with our corporate goals but also constantly questioning how we win the opportunity. We try to focus on how we win from multiple aspects, whether it’s teaming, customer intimacy, technical solution development or concept of operations.
This strategy has definitely elevated the amount of wins we’ve achieved because the three-year enhancement process we have gone through has led to a cultural paradigm shift where everybody is thinking about how to win the opportunity before we even consider pursuing it.
As far as the decision-making process, my team develops and presents account management plans annually, which is a primary driver for their pipeline development within a particular account. That plan covers a host of different account variables, including strategic direction and priorities, spending habits, preferred contract vehicles, competitive landscape and upcoming contracts over the next two to five years, and serves as a roadmap to help the account executives further mature their pipeline by aligning their pursuits to capabilities. If we identify a gap, we bring on a teaming partner, but it’s all about getting buy-in from the rest of our teams internally on those particular pursuits as we move forward.
What is your strategy for attracting and retaining top-level talent in the midst of ongoing talent shortages in today’s highly competitive market?
This is a huge challenge for businesses of any size given the post-pandemic world. Now that we are out of the pandemic, people are trying to figure out the ideal work policy. Is it hybrid? Is it full remote? Is it back into the office at pre-pandemic levels? Everyone is struggling with this paradigm right now. For us, it is about going back to the vision, our mission, our values and the higher purpose for us overall at Cherokee and prioritizing quality over quantity when it comes to top talent.
We’re looking for qualities within candidates that align with our values and individuals who are driven by an altruistic higher purpose, serving not only the U.S., but also the Cherokee Nation citizens. As I mentioned earlier, the talent shortage affects all of us.
Often, we find ourselves competing with mid-size and much larger organizations. We’re highly competitive in the marketplace, bidding to execute our contracts when pursuing competitive bids. We don’t aim to be a low-cost provider. There are some out there that will drive to the bottom and expect it to be a volume business, and that’s not our operating model at all. It is about being very client mission-focused. We certainly don’t want to win a contract only to fail or bid on a contract if we know we can’t successfully execute and deliver on.
That mindset has also helped us ensure that we find the right talent for that particular contract and hire and retain individuals seeking security within the marketplace or are already looking for the next opportunity.
One of the driving forces for me in staying with Cherokee and enjoying what I do is a sense of autonomy and empowerment that my supervisors have afforded me since I started in late 2017. I believe most employees enjoy an environment where they’re empowered to make decisions and chart their own course when it comes to their professional day-to-day activities. I’m not a micromanager, my boss isn’t a micromanager and the multiple supervisors I’ve had here were not micromanagers. If you allow folks to be empowered to make decisions, they thrive. People are not always going to make the right decision, but that is the only way you can learn in both your personal life and professional life.