Some might say Donna Morea couldn't make up her mind. After getting a high school education at what she describes as a "geeky" New York City school focused on science, she earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts. Then she attended business school before embarking on a career path that led her to her current position as president of CGI-AMS.
Morea prefers to view her varied background as a sign of versatility. "I try to knit a broad set of perspectives and capabilities together," she said. "Perhaps they're unorthodox combinations, but they work for me."
Her career path has been more straightforward. After earning her degree in fine arts from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., she worked for a photography agency. She left that job after two years to earn her master's of business administration from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. She joined CGI-AMS, then called American Management Systems, in 1980.
"I tried to support myself in the arts-related field," she said. "I worked at a stock photo agency and sold photographs on commission. On occasion, I was able to sell some of my own photographs through that venue, but only on rare occasions."
Although business school was a decidedly different direction, Morea said that the two sides of her background have melded in her professional life.
"I had this idea — and I still believe it's fundamental to who I am today — that I could find a way to combine my creativity and my analytical foundation in business," she said.
Morea was attracted to AMS, which was 10 years old at the time, because of "the philosophy and culture of the place," she said. "I really love to collaborate. I love to work on teams. I thought the entrepreneurial spirit at AMS was unique."
She started as a business analyst and soon built a new set of responsibilities for herself, she said. "The environment was very, very entrepreneurial, and within six months of my joining, I had convinced a client to launch a new project," Morea said. "We did, and I became the project manager."
The client was the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation. At the time, district officials had implemented a new financial management system. However, engineers didn't like it because they could not access contract and project information to correlate with the financial data, she said.
Morea's innovation added that capability to the system, allowing engineers to track a project's progress relative to costs. The success of that initiative gave her higher standing in the company, and she moved to Denver for three-and-a-half years to help open and manage a Rocky Mountain regional office for AMS.
Creativity supported by sound analysis is one way to convince customers to take risks, she said.
"In order to work with a client to take on a breakthrough idea, you need an analytical foundation, a business case that appeals to the analytical side of your client's decision-making," Morea said. "But there's always an element of a leap of faith in a relationship, of trust in a relationship, of optimism and enthusiasm that gives people the courage to move forward."
After Morea returned to Washington, D.C., AMS' public-sector practices were merged into a single organization, with her at the top. That's where she was when the company merged with Canadian firm CGI Group earlier this year.
Merging the two cultures was easier than Morea had expected, she said, but she again needed to draw on her diverse background. "One thing that made it easier than I ever imagined was the fact that the cultures, even though they were countries apart, were so similar," she said. CGI "was like going home again. When you have that, you have a lot to work with. Despite that, we had a lot of work to do."
The challenges were mostly logistical because the two companies needed to combine relatively quickly, she said. They had similar cultures but different roles and relationships with customers. Morea was one of the leaders who had to help create an identity for the newly combined company.
"The cultural affinity made it so easy for the new leaders to meld as a team," she said. "We needed to be creative about our positioning. The creativity came in how to make one and one equal three."
Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, knows Morea well. "She's exceptionally bright," he said. "She has a very good business sense and understands the civilian [agency] market. Not everybody in business has all three of those" attributes.
In reflecting on her career so far, Morea credits others she has met along the way — both inside and outside CGI-AMS — with shaping her character and approach.
"I've learned a lot of things from a lot of people," she said. "Some of them have to do with putting life in perspective and achieving work/life balance. Some have to do with making the transition to management. Some have to do with just being a woman in a male-dominated environment."
The common message she's taken from every mentor is that the critical thing in life, at work or not, is "being able to be who you are, to enjoy being who you are," she added.
After all, Morea said, "the reason you come to work every day is because you feel you're doing something of value with people you value."