On 28 Mar 14, I had the opportunity to go attend a Women in National Security event hosted by Women in International Security (WIIS). The speaker was the newly appointed Secretary of the Air Force Honorable Deborah Lee James. I learned about it only a couple days before and felt fortunate to attend. I felt pretty cool ‘live tweeting’ the event #secjamesatwiis and also scribbled notes on just about everything she said…not realizing the whole thing was being filmed by C-SPAN. I still want to share what I learned from her with all of you. It was such an exciting moment for me, to get to know our new SECAF; a women in the most senior Air Force position, and learn she is incredibly personable, intelligent, grounded and genuine.
My side ramblings will be in italics throughout…
In her presentation, with only 19% of women in the Air Force (highest percentage of all military services) she discussed the three things we need to do as a community to ensure we increase the number of women in the higher ranks; increase the number of women in senior officer, SNCO ranks, and senior civilian ranks in the AF. In order to do this, we must focus on three things:
1) Recruit high quality women.
2) Develop them properly. Ensure they have the right opportunities for growth such as command, joint assignments, and professional military education.
3) Retention. This is where the problems are, around mid-career – women are leaving the Air Force at two times the rate of men. This has a strong ripple effect because it really decreases the numbers, the pool available in senior ranks gets smaller and smaller. It takes years to groom military officers and senior noncommissioned officers. Hon James felt this was the “toughest nut to crack” and we need to retain as many women as we can to help increase our numbers in higher ranks.
Exit surveys provided the top three reasons:
1) Compatibility with spouse's career
2) Personal circumstances
3) Number of deployments
Then Hon James announced the Air Force would deploy a Career Intermission Pilot Program for women and men to be able to take 1 to 3 years off for any personal reason help a family member, pursue a degree, or have a little person; after their set time they can reenter the Air Force and pick up where they left off. It imitates the Navy’s program, won’t be open to all career fields and it is still an experimental program; when they meet their numbers, it will be cut off to others.
This is an outstanding opportunity, I’ve often heard women comment how great it would be to take a sabbatical and I also love how this will be a program open to men and women. It wouldn’t be appropriate to have a program like this available just for females. I respect anyone that takes advantage of this opportunity. My question to us all is, what about the rest? For those of us who do not partake in the above program, what are ways we can increase retention? I have some theories and believe a key component to retention is a community of support and mentorship; however, we need more concrete ideas, what thoughts do you all have?
As Gen Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, promotes, “Every Airman has a story.” Hon James shared some details about her life. Then she shared some wisdom she learned throughout her years.
SECAF Hon James’ Top 10 List:
1. Be prepared to zig zag in your life. Life throws you curveballs, personally and professionally. Learn to pivot. Whatever track you think you are on...something may happen to take you off of it; however, when one door closes, another door opens.
This is refreshing because I’ve never been a 5-10 year plan type of person. I’ve always gone assignment to assignment and felt so lucky to keep getting assignments I liked and appreciated. My career path is also not typical and I appreciate her saying it is okay to zig zag.
2. Seek a mentor - no matter where you are. Then when you have more life experience, be a mentor yourself. She has never been in a formal mentorship program; some people have talked to her about not being able to get into any formal program. Keep it informal, find a contact who has been there, done that. A mentor opens doors; you'd be surprised at what they can do.
If only I had this advice in the beginning of my career. I learned this one the hard way; I built relationships but didn’t try to foster strong mentorships. It was over halfway through my career when I realized how important it was to reach out and seek advice; develop allies for your career. I never wanted to bother anyone, but it is so important to have someone guide you and show you how to best navigate your career and operate efficiently in the culture. This is an important topic and I’ll definitely be covering it in future posts. I had a discussion about this in my Female First Friday group (informal mentorship and discussion at lunch) and we all believed mentorship and learning about how others achieved success was a critical piece to growth and retention.
3. Build and value a network, keep in touch; in and out of work, and over time with friends and coworkers. Hon James' first job was a White House internship program and she kept in touch with her first boss and no matter what, they ensured they had lunch together once a year. Later on, at a function, he happened to introduce her to people in SAIC and that meeting initiated a job opportunity; she worked for them for many years.
I think this was my favorite. It is great to build a network, but it is more important to VALUE it, invest in it and nurture the relationships you make. Hearing this, encouraged me to send an email to an old boss, now retired; we had lunch and it was great catching up with him and listening to his always entertaining stories.
4. The importance of competency: Get the extra degree, go to training, ensure on the job training (OJT), and incorporate volunteering in your life.
This is an absolute must, we should always be growing and enhancing ourselves in some way. I’ve been ‘itchy’ to start up studies again but must wait until I move to figure out what I want to do. Until then, I get a lot of fulfillment from Toastmasters, I appreciate the personal/professional development and sense of community; it also pushes me outside of my comfort zone in developing and delivering speeches.
5. Communication: Communicate, communicate, communicate. At least half of it is listening, be an active and good listener; learn from others.
This is where I elbowed my husband (He was able to go too, Hon James even gave him kudos for his support! :) because if anyone is a proponent of me improving my listening skills...it’s him.
6. Be a role model for the way you want others to be both on and off duty. In particular as you rise in rank, people will recognize you more as you go up.
I love this one because it reminds me of one of my favorite sayings “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Ghandi. It reminds me of a great conversation I had with my friend Julie when we were talking about mentoring. We recognized the challenges with gaining mentors and then it hit us that we were at the point in our career where we could BE mentors. We decided the best way to promote mentorship in our organization was to be one ourselves; we did and it also opened up guidance for ourselves too.
7. Ethics - have them, employ them. She went on to discuss how the cheating scandal in the - ICBM world was a challenge keeping her busy. The nuclear mission is safe and secure.
I thought this was a smooth segue into making a few key and necessary talking points. Many of us have noticed there are more senior leaders being held accountable for their actions. We appreciate that; accountability all around is key to a professional force.
8. Be upbeat - Nobody likes a Debbie Downer. If you present problems, bring solutions.
So important for men and women; especially women who experience more of a range of emotions within our day at work. Also, as females we can be so hard on ourselves as leaders and we may not realize the effect we have on others. Smiling and laughing is key, it makes life at work worlds better. I’d also add to this (learned the hard way), be diplomatic. It doesn’t matter if you’re right; let it go, be amiable. As females, whether we want to accept it or not, likeability is a key factor to our success. Being ‘difficult’ complicates things, there are ways to work your agenda and still be friendly.
9. Persistence pays off, hang in there, the next job will be better.
Amen Sister! Oops, I mean Ma’am! There were times I thought things were so awful I should have walked away, but I kept showing up. Things do get better and thankfully our many PCSs help us move on.
10. Along the way have fun: love friends and family, have hobbies, go to your church, participate in something different/fun from work.
Yes. Again, a must to remember, all work and no play….makes everyone miserable. To live, love, and laugh is the essence of why we are here on this earth. The work component can engulf us but it is our personal relationships that mean the most and honestly...we don't ‘play’ enough (and if you look into the histories of killers...they didn't get to play much at all when they were young...think about it - then go goof off!), relax – life wants to be enjoyed.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, Hon James even shared that she read Lean In; I think I may have swooned. She read Lean In, liked it and then mentioned she also read the article about leaning back (or Recline) and agreed with that too (FTR - Though I agree with concept of the Lean Back article, I don’t appreciate how the author tried to inappropriately ride the Lean In wave; she claims to hate Sheryl Sandberg, but it is clear to anyone who read Lean In that she didn’t even read the book! Humpf.). Then Hon James promoted her own concept, “A little Rock & Roll;” sometimes you lean into your career, and sometimes you lean back. Be flexible and in stay in tune with when you need to shift back and forth. I dig it! I do a lil rock and roll with my zig and zag....
Then my friend Mary, (Whom I hadn’t seen since college! Thanks Mary for telling me about the event!) asked a wonderful question to Hon James based off of her thesis work. Mary asked Hon James how she promoted diversity in the workplace to senior Air Force leaders who may not look like us (referring to the women in the audience). Hon James promoted “Diversity in Thought,” this encourages many from different backgrounds to contribute different views and perspectives. She said if we focused on race or gender, we are getting near quotas and that is a challenge for some to want to embrace. I really liked this view, Hon James knows her audience and the type of perceptions she must maneuver within; she is taking a creative approach to advocate for the non-dominant group. The reality is Air Force senior leadership could benefit from diversity of thought not just brought by men, women, minorities; it could also add more career fields to the mix; the majority of our senior leaders are pilots and other perspectives could add more depth.
It was a great day and I’m still ruminating on many of the things she shared. I know I missed many other points she made and I highly encourage watching the CSPAN coverage of the event. She motivated me to continue my writing, collaborating, and mentoring. It is wonderful to know someone in the most prominent position represents us ladies and though focused on the overall Air Force issues, is still truly supportive of our needs. Hon James not only recognizes our value, but acknowledges, and can relate to some the challenges we face. She makes me proud and excited to be in the Air Force right now. We are on the cusp of really making a difference!