Thomas Kiernan Coaches Empathy at VSE Corporation

VSE’s Thomas Kiernan wants others to understand that leading good teams means sharing and listening to different perspectives while staying humble

Thomas Kiernan, VSE Corporation Photo by Sarah Drewry Photography
Thomas Kiernan grew up playing team sports, and he raised five sons whose own teams he coached over the years. So, he understands well that being part of a winning team requires the ability to build trust by listening to others and understanding their different personalities and perspectives, and how they can be directed toward a common goal. It’s a philosophy he has brought into his legal work as well, particularly in his current role as the vice president and general counsel at VSE Corporation.

“There are parallels in the corporate world because we each have different roles, but ultimately we’re all trying to create value for the greater good,” Kiernan says. “Both in sports and in real life, as long as you can get everyone focused on a common goal, the whole team will be more successful.”

This idea has been particularly relevant over the course of his time at VSE, which he joined ten years ago as its first in-house counsel. Kiernan had reached out to the relatively small, publicly traded company after having spent several years in a similar role for Intelsat, and he was hired not long after to oversee SEC compliance and provide counsel for leadership of the company. Coordinating with three different group presidents, with three separate lines of business, he has often focused on building relationships in order to work well together.

“We have a unique company, in that we don’t have silos; the group presidents are aligned and not competitive with each other,” Kiernan says. “I’ve tried to foster that existing culture and that teamwork approach.”

Photo by Sarah Drewry Photography

Kiernan only learned the term “emotional intelligence” recently, but he says he has long relied on the skill—both with his own teammates and with his opposition—to foster VSE’s team culture. Focusing on his empathy for others has helped him work closely with various groups to ensure that they’re aligned in managing concerns related to third-party disputes, business operations, compliance and ethics, and human resources. “Acting with integrity and understanding different perspectives has given me the courage to discuss difficult issues and share advice,” he says.

He’s also focused on taking this approach to work out some of the company’s thornier matters, including the resolution of issues with third parties and insurance carriers to avoid protracted litigation. “You have time to establish long relationships with people you work with, but negotiating with an external party with whom you don’t have a preexisting relationship can be more challenging,” Kiernan says.

He cites one particularly difficult case with a former government client with whom VSE was resolving a dispute. When researching the opposing side, he found some reasons that it would be interested in coming to a swift resolution. “I’ve found it to be more effective to show my cards a little bit, so I explain my position, explain what I think is their position, and see how we can get to a mutually agreeable solution,” Kiernan says. Rather than continue with meetings between his team and the team of the opposing counsel, he invited the other side’s deputy general counsel out for coffee. Over a series of five personal meetings, after developing a level of trust, they were able to facilitate a resolution that worked in both sides’ interests.

Taking a personal and empathetic approach is something Kiernan has not only made a part of his own work philosophy, but also tried to pass on to others. He supports VSE’s Leadership Program, which was founded by the CEO several years ago. In addition to connecting younger leaders with executives, the program includes strategy teams that connect staff members across different divisions in the company, enabling them to get to know one another, and it also includes former members who have participated in the program to support the new leaders in developing corporate initiatives.

Kiernan has also personally mentored a number of young leaders, and one of the things he stresses most is that they should work to be respected on a peer-wide level. “I try to focus them to look at the big picture,” Kiernan says. “It’s important to support each other and make a good impression on your peers as opposed to managing up. If you’re respected among your peers, you’re going to be respected by the senior management team.”

By coaching others to be self-aware, to connect with one another, and to be conscious of being inclusive, Kiernan continues to help develop strong new leaders in the company who he knows will support its values. “Connecting, building trust, and communicating are very important attributes,” he says. “It’s a combination of staying humble while being courageous and self-confident. I’ve found that people gravitate to strong but humble leaders.”