Wednesday’s lunchtime panel for the Young Professionals Group Hub, Best Career Advice for 2022, brought together a sterling group of seasoned professionals from the fields of intelligence and technology. Panel moderator Ellen McCarthy, former Assistant Secretary of State at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, set the tone for the discussion by asking each panelist to share some career advice they’d received.
Tony Frazier, Executive Vice President of Global Field Operation at Maxar Technologies, counseled listeners not to be afraid to take risks. “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. When I started in this industry, I had no knowledge of the national security mission and little background in geospatial, but I had confidence in the skills I had built over the years.”
Similarly, Kevin Meiners, Former Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Enterprise Capacity at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, talked about pushing boundaries. “A couple of my mentors approached me and said, ‘Hey, we’d really like to stretch your rubber band.’ I told them I didn’t really want that job and they said think about it. Well, I took that position. Without that advice, I wouldn’t be where I am today because learning about how money works and where a program manager can influence the resourcing process made me a 10 times better program manager.”
“The best piece of advice I ever received was never take a job you are completely ready for,” shared Letitia Long, Chairman of the Board at Intelligence and National Security Alliance. “If you do, you’re going to be bored and you’re not going to do the best job.”
McCarthy offered some gems as well. “The best advice I ever got was work hard, play hard, sleep smart. But the worst advice I ever got was, ‘You’re too nice for this job.’ I later went back to that person and responded to their advice in a not very nice manner. I won’t tell you the words that I used, but my point was that I think that empathy is an incredibly important leadership trait and so, if that is being ‘too nice,’ I’m fine with that.”
Several themes coalesced as the panel proceeded. Here are a few highlights:
Cultivate qualities and skills that will stand you in good stead.
“I know on my team alone, we have over 100 open positions,” said Frazier. “We are looking for a wide variety of skills from geospatial analysts, data scientists, software developers and DevOps engineers. With the pace of innovation you’re hearing about here at the conference, there’s multiple ways you can contribute to that. The common denominator is curiosity. We are looking for talented people who aspire to do more and are always trying to learn and extend themselves.”
Working with mentors and developing networks.
“Get multiple mentors,” said Meiners. “At this event, don’t focus on just one thing, spread out and get as many business cards as you can.”
Long agreed. “Folks are flattered when they are asked to be a mentor or asked for advice. And if they don’t have the bandwidth, they will help you find a mentor who is a good fit. And have multiple mentors with multiple perspectives. You need diversity of thought. Seek out mentors who don’t look like you, who don’t have your background and are going to challenge you. I have walked out of any number of mentoring conversations thinking, ‘I would never do that,’ and then went home and reflected on it. You know, if all your mentors are just like you, it’s like giving yourself advice.”
Play to your strengths and follow your passion.
“Certainly, work on things you aren’t super strong on but know your strengths and play to them,” said Long. “I like to create new things. Some of you might say, ‘Then why spend so much time in government? You don’t create things.’ To which I’d say, sure we do. After 9/11 we completely recreated Naval Intelligence and how we supported the Global War on Terror.”
Diversify your experience portfolio.
Meiners pointed out that having varied experience is a plus. “If I see a résumé showing the candidate has a couple years in sourcing and a couple years in analysis, I really resonate with that. Because what you’re looking for is a person who is well-rounded, who can apply different perspectives.”