Sanders: Lessons Learned from My Marine Service & 15 Years in Government Contracting

  • 07/15/2021
  • Interactive Government

Sanders: Lessons Learned from My Marine Service & 15 Years in Government Contracting
Semper Fidelis - Always Faithful. I can still hear the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps echoing in my head, nearly three decades after enlisting. I remember the loyalty of the Corps to one another and to our country in duty stations from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, to the prestigious 8th and I Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. I learned valuable lessons from my years in the Corps, including seeing the challenges and opportunities of government contracts firsthand.

Following military service, I sought to forge my own path in government contracting. I launched Interactive Government Holdings in 2006. It was an exciting time, but it was also very stressful. I didn’t have any contracts to show for my first five years in business. It was easy to get disheartened, but in 2011 I won my first subcontract, followed by my first prime contract in 2012. This served as a turning point, and I continued to win smaller prime contracts over the next several years. They were not lucrative, typically low-margin contracts that were difficult to manage, but it was much-needed experience that ended up paying off in the end.

In 2015, I won my first large prime contract and started working with organizations like Defense Human Resources Activity (DHRA), Family and Employer Programs and Policy (FEPP), and the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP). Through our work with these groups, IGH was recognized in Inc. Magazine’s annual ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in America in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Here are a few lessons to take with you if you’re considering a career in government contracting:

Business Development 
  • In the early stages of your company, aim to be the best at one thing and really good at two others. This establishes your company’s value and allows room to grow capability and capacity as revenue increases.
  • Be persistent, prepared, and patient, especially when an award is under protest. Government contracting can be compared to a marathon: mark potential opportunities that align with your strategy, even if you discover them when they are just awarded because you will see them again.
  • Articulate what differentiates you from your competitors. Everyone in your field provides the same basic services—so what is going to make you stand out? What is your secret sauce? This could be any number of things, from agility and responsiveness to unique capabilities or past performance.
  • Lead with your capabilities and close with socioeconomic designations and how easy it is to do business with you.
Recruiting and Retaining Top Talent
  • Build a team that amplifies your strengths and mitigates your weaknesses. A well-put-together team has members who complement one another and bring out the best in each person.
  • Hiring well is more important than hiring fast. It can be tempting to just try and fill a role quickly, but you want Mr. or Ms. Right, not Mr. or Ms. Right Now. This means investing in strategic hiring practices and ensuring “A-team” players have the opportunity to work with other top tier talent. After all, an expert is more likely to get on board if they think they will have the autonomy, flexibility, and trust to execute their own expertise. If you cannot afford to hire experts, you sure as hell can’t afford to hire amateurs.
  • Be Generous with your time and experience. IGH, wouldn’t be where I was today without amazing advisors and a high-performance team supporting the enterprise.
  • Develop mentors and mentees—it’s both rewarding and useful!
Fiscal Responsibility
  • Business financing is easy to get when you don't need it, but hard to find when you do. As such, it’s best to get it early on rather than wait until you really need it and have to do without it.
  • Letters of creditworthiness are valuable; they reduce risk and assure source selection committees you can fund a contract with a value that greatly exceeds your revenue.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has made companies rethink what they need to operate effectively. Aim to grow out of your office space rather than grow into it, otherwise you risk limiting your company’s scope.
  • Always ask yourself, “Does it make us money?” If something isn’t adding value you to your company, then you don’t “need it,” no matter what common knowledge might suggest.
Forming a Board of Advisors
  • You don’t need “yes” men, your sister’s boyfriend, or your friend’s dad who just retired. (Unless it happens to be Jeff Bezos— then gladly accept.)
  • You initially want a tight-knit group of trusted colleagues, mentors, and folks who are further down the road than you and can tell you where the landmines are hidden.
  • Thank you to everyone who has served on my board as advisors and friends over the last few years: Tim, Jeff, MSK, Joe, Genet, and Laura. The support, advice, perspective, and willingness to ask the hard questions have helped IGH thrive through shutdowns, shortages, COVID, and more. I could not be more grateful.
Joining a Board of Advisors
  • I always learn a tremendous amount at each meeting in addition to spending time with exceptional people like Barbara Ashe and Gigi Godwin. I have learned a ton from listening to questions from brilliant legal minds like Pam Mazza and brilliant accounting minds like Christine Williamson while sitting with other CEOs going through similar situations in one way or another.
  • Three Organizations Close to My Heart:
Veterans in Procurement (VIP), sponsored through the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, as well as SBA and many more fine donors who make it possible for Veteran Business Owners to take a 27-hour class over three days learning from the thought leaders around the Beltway.

The School of Business at George Mason University – Center for Government Contracting – Bridging the gap between Government, Industry and Academia. - Rescuing Victims from Human Trafficking
  • Silent Bridge exists to provide recovery and reintegration support for victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation throughout the world. Our goal is to end this grave injustice against the most vulnerable while working to restore communities and those ravaged by the global human trafficking industry.
  • Together we will guide them to safety and to the hope of a brighter future - a future that lies just beyond that bridge. Silent Bridge is a nonprofit dedicated to saving the women and children of foreign brothels.

Final Thoughts
Treat your employees like you would treat your family. Compensate them well, acknowledge their victories in public, and give them the time and tools to work on their weaknesses in private. Be transparent about your own weaknesses and be self-aware enough to say, “I don’t know,” I could really use some help with xyz. “I’ve never implemented an enterprise-wide performance management system” (last one is true, and I had an excited volunteer that is helping me execute.) “I don’t know,” says I’m secure enough in my authority that I don’t have to know everything in order to have the respect of my peers. 

Michael V. Sanders, Interactive Government Holdings, Chief Executive Officer

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