RIDING OUT EXPLOSIVE GROWTH
PotomacWave Consulting — a woman-owned small business that provides program management support to the federal government and has offices in Alexandria and Georgetown — launched in 2007 with just one employee. Today, it has 200, and that original employee, Emma Sopko, is the company’s president.
“I truly believe that we found a way to do difficult things and do them well,” Sopko says. “It’s not whether ideas are crazy, it’s whether they’re crazy enough. And we truly live by that.”
PotomacWave’s employees are typically stationed inside the federal agencies they support. The company specializes in mission-critical program management support, including intelligence analysis and operations; IT and cybersecurity; and financial management.
PotomacWave’s workforce is comprised largely of young people; upwards of 70 percent of employees are members of the millennial generation. In catering to this group, PotomacWave makes a point of seeking employees’ input into their own career development plans and runs an employee-led community service program called PotomacWave Outreach Program (POP).
“Really, it’s all about choices and options,” Sopko says of managing the job satisfaction among the younger set. “We have a lot of millennials in our workforce who are looking for a sense of community as well as upward mobility and the opportunity to really innovate and be creative.”
Apparently, it’s working. PotomacWave’s SVP and chief growth officer, CarrieAnne Boak, has a waitlist of prospective new employees.
“We spend time getting to know our employees,” Boak says. “Our executive leadership is set up in a way so that we can personally get involved with what our employees want to do, where they want to go in their careers, what interests them. And then we set up career paths and career development programs that will allow them to get there, whether it’s through a mentor or career development training or online courses.”
The firm’s good reputation, Boak says, emanates from the fact that PotomacWave’s employees, being stationed in the field with their various federal agencies, interact regularly with other contractors. And those other contractors see that PotomacWave treats its people well, and that workers want to stay with the company.
“We want to stand out,” she notes. “We want to ensure that our corporate values and our culture are something that prospective candidates actually see … whenever they visit our website, and we want them to see that when they come through the door and then continue to live that every day as a PotomacWave employee. One of the things that sets us apart with attracting and retaining talent is the environment that we establish for our employees, the reputation that we establish as a company.”
PotomacWave funds various types of formal training for its workers, including certifications for program management training and leadership training.
Boak suggests that millennials are not all the same, and that there’s no one secret to motivating them in the workplace. “You have to understand them and what drives them, and it’s different for all of them,” she says. “Some of them are ready to rise to the occasion and are looking for the challenge, but some of them are just looking for the nudge, and I think that getting to understand that and actually spending time understanding what drives them is what has made us successful.”
Sopko built her leadership team out of known quantities. “I have chosen an executive management team that I’ve worked with before,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of benefits in that. I think that you have established a good and strong working relationship, you know the integrity and commitment of the folks that are part of your leadership team, and everyone shares a common vision, which is critical to running any company.”
Keeping a constant gauge on the size and composition of the executive team, and on the stable of leaders and managers throughout the company, has been critical to success at PotomacWave. “As you sustain growth,” Sopko says, “you change and you have to adapt. And so the continuous improvement and the constant reassessment and assessment of the organization are all critical to making sure that you’ve got the right-sized organization, that you’re preparing for the future, and that you’re really playing the long game.”
Photos (L to R): Emma Sopko, Founder and President; Jeff Sopko, EVP and COO; Thomas (Tom) Byers, SVP; CarrieAnne Boak, SVP and Chief Growth Officer