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Strength in diversity

First-hand accounts of what it is like to lead in defense and national security

How can the nation be ready for the varied challenges of future conflict without tapping fully into the varied experiences of the whole population? True military readiness demands leaders with unique experiences and a diverse workforce where everyone feels free to be themselves. So what’s it liked to serve as a woman in the military? We sat down with our senior defense leaders to find out.

Women in defense and national security

My work in the Department of Defense (DoD), most recently as the special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense on readiness, has centered on analyzing and improving our military’s preparedness to conduct operations across the full spectrum of conflict. Since its inception, the DoD has studied the readiness of our force, specifically the primary drivers of readiness and root causes of ‘unreadiness’—a constant finding being that the quality of our men and women in uniform represent the strongest variable.

In recent years, women have assumed a historically high number of very senior roles throughout the national security enterprise. This has yielded a more diverse leadership cadre in both perspective and thought, contributing to fresh injects into strategic decision-making. On the industry side, data shows that a company with a more diverse workplace outperforms its competitors and achieves greater profits. Given my federal and corporate experience, it should be no surprise that I highly value diversity, not for the sake of it on principle, but because it increases DoD’s profit line: Readiness.

To solicit the views of top female leaders in Deloitte’s Defense and National Security practice, I sat down with a few of them to get their personal perspectives. I chatted with:

  •  Wendin Smith, former deputy assistant secretary for Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • Deborah Golden, US Cyber Risk Services leader for Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory, an
  • Kathleen Purtill, former Navy officer and principal in Deloitte Consulting’s Government and Public Services practice.

What’s it like?

Lacey Raymond: If we are looking for defense leaders with wide experience, you three may be a perfect group with experience in uniform, as government civilians, and commercial leaders. So, perhaps the best place to start is with your own personal experiences. Coming from very different backgrounds, what drew you all to defense work?

Deborah Golden: For me, what drew me to the work was the mission. There is no better mission than to give back to agencies that defend our country.

Deborah Golden
Deborah Golden, principal, Risk and Financial Advisory, Deloitte & Touche LLP

Kathleen Purtill: In a way, my story also starts with the mission—and keeps coming back to it! I started as a surface warfare officer in the Navy. When it was time to leave the Navy, I was initially attracted to doing something completely different, something in the commercial world. But over time, I found that I got more satisfaction out of helping our government clients, and particularly our defense clients, solve some of their most complex problems.

When I was serving in the Navy, I never had a sense of all the things that were needed to make the Navy run or the problems that can get in the way. Now, in my consulting role, if I can bring our expertise to bear on those problems, that lets our officers and sailor focus more on the operational mission. Being able to see that impact on a space where I have shared values and a shared sense of purpose is important. That mission makes what I do every day even more compelling and enjoyable.

Kathleen Purtill
Kathleen Purtill, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Wendin Smith: It all started with mission for me as well, just a different mission. As a young science geek in Michigan, I saw an article in National Geographic about how the Soviet Union was polluting Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world by volume. With the great lakes in our backyard, that article really struck me and so my mission growing up was that I was going to go save Lake Baikal from the Soviets. I studied both Biology and Russian in college, eventually ending up studying in the then-Soviet Union. While living there I realized that many of the problems were from the military industrial complex, so when I came back I did my masters and PhD in security studies which quickly led to a career in the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) space."

Wendin Smith
Wendin Smith, managing director, Deloitte Consulting LLP

LR: That is a fascinating mix of experiences. Now since you all started your careers, there has been an increase in the number of women leading in defense and national security. How do industry trends compare, in your view, and where can we do better?

DG: You know, there’s never been a better time to celebrate women in this industry. There’s a significant, continued gap in representation in the industry. Women are hardly new to the industry, however it’s an exciting moment to see women move into leadership positions at such a fast pace.

KP: As Surface Warfare Officer, I was among the first generation of women to serve routinely on ships. I remember betting pools about how long I would last in engineering on my ship. The problems were quite blatant in those days. In many ways we have significant progress since then, but issues still remain.

LR: Absolutely, it is easy to forget that as late as 2010 women were barred from submarines, and that ground combat positions were only opened to females in 2016. And while these policy changes are significant, we are seeing very small numbers in women actually stepping into these roles.

KP: Exactly. Even though you change policies, real change is slow. Nine years after allowing women on submarines, there are still only about 93 women serving on submarines. Back when I was first going to sea, the policy was to put a female officer on a ship first before any female sailors, so many of my peers were the only woman on their ships.

KP: And that slow pace of change is not unique to the military. I see it as a leader in the commercial world as well. Despite all the progress we have had, there are still a couple of biases that remain around expectations of how a female leader should communicate or show emotion. Sometimes those expectations get in the way of giving truly useful professional development feedback.

LR: I would argue to that many biases that surface in the workplace are separate from those around gender. As a senior adviser in a high-profile office, for instance, I noticed some unconscious age-ism—I was the youngest on the advisory staff and a bit sensitive to that. Nevertheless, what I found was that showcasing competence quickly combatted that.

KP: Exactly, what I found was that, even in those early days on ship, once people respected you for the job you did, it was interesting how quickly they forgot you were a woman.

WS: I had a similar experience as a civilian in a military world. There were always those early meetings where there would always be that one person who would still be a jerk for whatever reason. But I was always competent, on top of things, always had the facts at my fingertips, and what I found was that they quickly ended up looking worse than me.

Stronger workforce, stronger military

LR: I notice that we’ve all cited competence again and again. So how do we balance the need to increase diversity and representation at all levels with the pressing demands of the mission today?

DG: I would argue that those two things are not necessarily in opposition. In fact, increasing diversity can directly improve our mission accomplishment. In order to tackle emerging issues we need to think about a broader ecosystem of talent. For example, if you want to find new technical skills, you need to have new types of talent in the workforce. And to find that different talent, you are going to have to find different ways to look at the training and education of the workforce.

KP: Other nations may be ahead of us here. Perhaps because their militaries are smaller, they can be more agile. For example, I did a rotation with the Australian Navy, and they were well ahead of the US Navy on both integrating women and other minorities aboard ship. And the US is taking note.

WS: Totally. There was an interesting experience from near the end of my time as a deputy assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) where we were sending out letters to the Defense Ministers of International Partners and I was reviewing them just to make sure they were correct, and the first three we all “Dear Madam” and I got worried that we had made a mistake, that someone had accidentally cut and paste the header from one onto all letters, but it turned out that it was right. Many of these international leaders in defense were women.

LR: So how can the US make similar progress given the sheer size of our military? It seems a much harder challenge to change the culture within the world’s largest organization.

WS: We should have aspirational goals to cause change, even if we take incremental steps to get there. In nuclear weapons we can set the goals of no nuclear weapons and global zero, but strategically we are probably going to have nuclear weapons for a long time. Similar situation on diversity, we should have aspirational goals of complete diversity and having boards that reflect our population, but at the end of the day competency has to be the number one thing.

KP: Ironically, I think even the biggest cultural change starts with the smallest actions. It all starts with interpersonal interactions, making sure we provide mentorship and apprenticeship to our people. Arming them with people who can give them the guidance and help them navigate their careers. One perhaps more aggressive way we have tackled it at Deloitte is that whenever we are looking at a leadership role, we want to make sure that we at least have women on the slate. All that did was force people in the decision-making process to be a little thoughtful. So while there is a natural instinct to just look for people like ourselves, taking that extra moment to think about who may be the best fit for a position can actually turn up some great talent.

LR: I oftentimes wonder if our long-term goal with diversity efforts should be ‘how do we put ourselves out of business’—the idea that considerations around gender evaporate because we become completely blind in making key decisions around talent management. What is best for the individual and what is best for the organization.

KP: Yes, I think a key is to give individuals back the power over their own careers. Encourage people to see themselves in that next role. When I was a junior officer, I certainly did not see myself as a Captain or flag officer. Even when I served under the first female commanding officer of a surface combatant, I did not see myself in that role. Those early women tended to not be married, not have families, and since those were important things to me, I didn’t see myself in that role. So we need to encourage people to be open about who they are and what is important so a variety of women can see ‘oh, that is me’ or ‘I could do that job.’”

 

All comes down to people working with people

LR: I’ve had an amazing opportunity to witness the power of what you can achieve through building strong interpersonal relationships—you three are a testament to that. How do we go about cultivating those relationships to help women in defense?

DG: I will share one example from personal experience. At an executive leadership meeting a few years ago, everyone was standing up and sharing their stories. A fairly new executive stood up and told a story how he was only standing there today because someone believed in him as a junior consultant, and that changed everything – little did I know at the time that the example he was referencing was me and my actions to support him at this early stage of his career. I continue to make it a point to try and take junior staff into spaces that would offer them an opportunity to experience different work environment and scenarios, including executive management meetings and decision-making efforts. So it was a humbling moment to hear about the massive impact those little actions can have on someone’s life and career.

WS: And those mentoring relationships can also be important to your performance as well. One of the greatest challenges of the Deputy Assistant Secretary role is the criticality of coordination. To get anything done you have to coordinate across the departments, commands, and even other agencies. So I put a lot of my energy into building relationships so that when we had a crisis or wanted to prevent a crisis, it was easy to pick up the phone and call a counterpart at FBI or Surgeon General’s office where we already had a connection.

KP: That is a great point about the knock-on benefits of mentoring and diversity initiatives. In fact, we found the same thing at Deloitte. I have heard some leaders say that women’s inclusion efforts at Deloitte were the best thing that ever happened to our male partners. Meaning that by putting a focus on women, it created an open discussion about the personal challenges that many of us face in our home lives. We found that our male partners had a lot of the same challenges and wanted the same things, but were unwilling to be open about that until the inclusion initiative opened that conversation.

WS: I think it is incredibly important to keep those conversations going and keep the focus on interpersonal relationships. At a time when technologies like social media, conference calls, or video, can connect more people across the globe, they can also take away some of the true human-to-human interactions. There is something lost in those non-personal conversations that is important to working at our peak in any group – whether at work or at home.

 

Technology too comes back to people

LR: That is a great transition, because so often we think of the future of defense as being defined by technology. What do you see as the trends driving the future of national security?

DG: Cyber security is my specialty, so you might think that I would see a future shaped purely by technology– technology is everywhere and cyber is everywhere; however in order to advance these capabilities, we need people who will ultimately make the difference to the mission.

KP: That really gets at the heart of US defense strategy. Take the Navy as an example: there is a growing recognition that we are not going to “out ship” our competitors, that is simply overwhelm them with assets and technology as in the past. Rather, success becomes a question of how are we going to make decisions faster than adversaries. How are we going to use sensors, integrate data, and get to the decision to act quicker. And decisions are fundamentally a human thing.

WS: You see the same story in the WMD space. If in the past you had a 25 minute decision window from launch to weapons hitting US soil, with the introduction of hypersonic weapons, in the near future you could be down to something like 4 minutes to make a decision. You absolutely have to have dependable, verifiable Artificial Intelligence (AI) if you are going to make a decision within those 4 minutes.

KP: Exactly, but the story cannot just be about the new AI technology, it has to be about our people as well. The Navy recently launched an Aegis weapon using AI. Now clearly there is new technology involved there, but there is also a workforce dimension, an ethical dimension, and so on. And those new technologies and new dimensions will mean that we need different skills: programmers, AI ethicists, and so on. And that means finding new people and going to new sources of talent. As my colleague Juan Garcia, former Under Secretary of the Navy for Personnel and Readiness, says, “the Navy has to get used to hiring people with face tattoos.” The idea being that we need to get very comfortable with different career models and different source of talent to get those skills. Those may challenge the comfort zone we have had for the last hundred years.

LR: That is a great point, and one that relates to being ready for the next war. Historically, the military has always valued homogeneity—through uniforms, grooming and physical fitness standards. How does DoD accept and even encourage diversity and inclusion while also retaining its value system around uniformity? It seems that DoD is at a bit of an inflection point here.

KP: Right, and the military increasingly realizes that. The challenge is just making the change. We see from industry that change can be slow until you get senior leaders that see things differently. And while corporations can hire in executives from outside, the military can’t just hire generals and admirals. So the military needs to figure out how to get diversity at the top. The military wants breakthrough solutions to its toughest problems, but when you look around the room and everyone looks the same with the same experiences, finding new thinking is hard.

WS: But I do think there are some concrete steps we can take today to accelerate that change, and the first step is simply for the military to try and reconnect with wider society. Unless you grow up in a military family or in a few key locations like Arlington, you are not really around defense professionals or leaders. If young women – or young people in general - are going to consider defense as a career, they need to be able to have a human connection. They need to be able to meet a leader and see what it is all about. For me, the question is how do we get those speakers out to those schools in other locations to make kids aware of the great careers they could have in this space.”

 

Looking into the future

LR: If past is prologue, the DoD’s ability to remain the world’s preeminent fighting force revolves around the strength and character of the warriors and leaders themselves. With that in mind, what advice would you give to young women hoping to shape the future of national security?

KP: I would say ‘don’t be intimidated.’ Nothing about national security organizations should be more intimidating to women than any other industry.

DG: Exactly. It all starts with having self-confidence, while at the same time being open to learning experiences and evolving your perspectives - especially as situations become more complex and answers aren’t always so clear. Confidence isn’t always inherent and so I also encourage patience – and also awareness and practice! I encourage everybody to always have a seat at the table and be present in the conversation because whether you know it at that moment or not, it’s likely a learning experience.

KP: Confidence can be tricky. A term used in the military a lot is “command presence,” and the traditional interpretation of that term is confidence and a domineering personality. Over the years, I have witnessed many different styles of effective command presence. Some of the most effective leaders are those who are quieter and more thoughtful. So you need confidence and command presence, but the style in which you deliver that can be your own.

WS: Completely agree and finding that style that is all your own requires some self-reflection. My advice is to know your passion, pursue your passion, and know that your passion might change. For me, early on it was water and environmental issues, and if you hadn’t heard that full Soviet Union story and just learned that I was an environmental security person who now does WMD, that might seem like a disconnect, but it does makes sense. Having the passion, a path that is fulfilling your passion, and being open to the change, that is the key to success.

KP: Be honest about what you find important and what is going to make you happy. Focus on fulfills you in life and seek that out. Be honest with yourself first, and then be honest with others.

LR: Confidence, honesty, and passion—all important ingredients for women in defense to succeed today and tomorrow.

Endnotes

Andrew Swick and Emma Moore. “The (Mostly) Good News on Women in Combat.” Center for New American Security. April 19, 2018.

ii William Cole. “Navy Boosts Number of Women on Submarines.” The Honolulu Star Observer. May 8, 2018.

Meet the leaders

Deborah Golden is a principal with Deloitte & Touche LLP and the US Cyber Risk Services leader for Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory. For the past six years, she has served as the Government & Public Services (GPS) Cyber Risk Services leader, as well as the GPS Advisory Market Offering leader, GPS Empowered Well-being leader, and the lead principal for a major federal government health care provider.

Kathleen Purtill is a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP's Government & Public Services (GPS) practice. She is a former US Navy officer with more than 20 years of consulting experience, focusing on delivering enterprise transformation to defense clients.

Dr. Wendin D. Smith is a managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP. Her prior roles include service to the US Special Operations Command as the Senior Advisor for Countering for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD), and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for CWMD. Wendin’s 25+ year background includes service in the private and public sectors, including the formation and operation of two separate woman-owned businesses focused primarily on defense and national security programs, as well as regional expertise in the former Soviet Union.

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