Earned, Not Given

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James Villa, corporate secretary and chief ethics and compliance officer at Versar

In a photograph that sits on Jim Villa’s desk, a man stands outside a tiny mud hut not far from Guadalajara, Mexico. The photo may seem at odds with Villa’s C-suite office, but it’s an important part of his story. The man in the picture is Villa’s father, who was drafted during WWII, during which he earned his US citizenship. Villa credits his father with the value he now places on hard work and service.

Today, Villa serves as senior vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary, and chief ethics and compliance officer for Versar, Inc., a global project management company. From the company headquarters in Springfield, VA, he oversees all of the publicly held company’s legal activities and establishes the organization’s strategy regarding legal and ethical requirements. While Villa’s responsibilities extend to his company’s external and internal operations, his obligations go beyond legal and ethical concerns. Like any executive, he oversees individuals within his organization and has had to develop his leadership style—a task for which Villa draws upon his experience in the army.

Many of the steps Villa took to reach this point follow a normal career pattern: he worked as an associate at Washington, DC-area law firms, a trial attorney at the Department of Justice, and counsel at AOL. But several other steps along his path are unique. Villa joined ROTC while studying at the University of Michigan and was commissioned as a reserve officer before he attended law school. He decided in law school that he wanted to go into private practice, but remained a reservist after he graduated. “In the American military, you learn that while individuals are important, the group and the mission is the most critical thing,” Villa explains. The military police company he commanded was activated for service during the Gulf War, and he was awarded the Bronze Star after serving as an Army captain.

Villa’s time with the military taught him invaluable lessons in leadership and management, and gave him a different perspective from that of his colleagues. While serving as a captain, Villa spent five days of his week in a private practice, surrounded by accomplished, intelligent lawyers and other legal professionals. During his drill weekends spent at his reserve unit, he worked with a variety of people from policemen to mechanics, to truck drivers. “All of these folks were as smart, devoted, and talented [as my legal colleagues]; they just had different perspectives from those people with whom I worked on a day-to-day basis at the law firm,” Villa says.

Learning to work with people from different backgrounds and in different sets of circumstances is a skill Villa couldn’t have picked up anywhere else, and it serves him in his role today. Those management skills have translated into many methods that define Villa’s style. Often, a supervisor will say, “I’m giving you a raise.” But in the military, such things are not given­—they are earned. That attitude, Villa believes, should exist in corporations, as well. “It’s more than semantics,” Villa insists. “You don’t give people praise or constructive criticism; they earn it. I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase, ‘I’m giving you a review.’ That’s patronizing and paternalistic, like it’s something I have in my pocket. No. You earned it, and it’s my job to recognize you for what you’ve done.”

Another lesson he learned in the military, which he says is unique to the system, relates to supporting those on the operational side. In the military, the soldiers performing a task are considered more vital than the officers overseeing them, Villa explains. Soldiers get the coats, beds, food—all of the things they need—before these items are given to their leaders. “Those performing the missions are the most critical,” Villa notes, “and are those the leaders must support.” That principle translates for Villa, though less dramatically, to being a lawyer, where it is no less important to realize that he serves someone above himself.

Colleagues have noted Villa’s unique style of management. While many fellow attorneys get bogged down in the academia of law, Villa has practiced placing a goal ahead of himself since his early days as a cadet. He knows how to distill information, manage the people working with him, and always keep the client at the forefront of his decisions. “Every day, everything I touch has a certain amount of newness and challenge to it,” Villa says. “That’s both exhilarating and frightening, all at the same time.”