Senior women share stories on their roles as leaders
March 8, 2012
By J.D. Leipold
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 8, 2012) -- A panel of two senior executive service Army civilians, an Army major general, a colonel and a sergeant major, all of whom are women, shared their personal stories on what drove them to be in the positions they are today.
The five women offered their leadership perspectives and gave tips to a nearly full house of Army civilian employees and Soldiers of all ranks as well as those from allied countries as part of a two-day Joint Women's Leadership Symposium March 5-6 at National Harbor, Md., on the Potomac River.
While several of the women said they were always geared toward leadership roles, the others said they didn't set out to be leaders; they more or less fell into leadership positions by being recognized for their hard work by their seniors.
Sgt. Maj. Tammy Coon, who serves as Army liaison to the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill, grew up on a farm in Illinois and joined the Army out of a desire to simply be patriotic. She planned on a four-year hitch, but 28 years have passed since she signed on in 1984.
"In the Army we grow leaders, and that's what happened with me," she said. "As a leader I feel you can mold folks, see them grow and for me that's important, so I took leadership roles because first of all I needed to develop and grow, face new challenges and be part of the bigger picture. While serving in those capacities I always strove to make sure I influenced and molded folks in such a way for the betterment of the Army and for the betterment of Soldiers."
25 JOBS, 18 COUNTRIES
Ellen M. Helmerson, a senior executive who serves as Army Training and Doctrine Command's deputy chief of staff for personnel and logistics, began her thus-far 31-year Army career as a GS-2.
"I don't know that I chose to be in a leadership role; I think that I demonstrated through competency that I had potential," said Helmerson, whose career has taken her through 25 Army jobs and 18 countries. "I found that just by doing a good job and working hard that I was going to get recognized and then I was selected as a very junior person to lead a study on reorganizing the Army in Europe for a four-star general whom I had to brief weekly.
"I know my boss saw leadership ability in me, though I didn't necessarily see it in myself yet," she recalled, adding that part of being a good leader involves not only being recognized by seniors, but also recognizing subordinate leaders and passing that on.
"We need to be looking at that staff sergeant and junior officer, recognize their abilities, then mentor and enable them," she said. "You also have to put yourself out there, and as women sometimes you had to grab opportunities that were not offered, but raise your hand first and say that job is for me, I don't care if it's hard."
Hailing from Puerto Rico, Col. Irene M Zoppi, a reservist presently attending the Army War College, remembered when she was a private first class in 1985 and how her Army journey started with little self-confidence.
"Number one, I had a lot of things against me -- I was Latina, and number two, I had a really bad accent because I could barely speak English," said Zoppi who holds a doctoral degree. "But one of the things that drove me was the slogan, 'be all that you can be' and the other was the NCOs (noncommissioned officers) who drove and taught me about confidence."
Zoppi, who was selected one of the top 100 women in Maryland in 2009, said she gained all the desire to succeed, but the opportunities weren't there.
"I told my grandpa that I wasn't getting opportunities and he said, 'then make the opportunity.' He said, that means if you knock on the door and the door doesn't open, either break down the door or go to a window and try that."
"Know thyself, because if you don't know yourself you can't lead," she said, also advising the audience to take a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and a Myers-Briggs personality test, then develop a plan of attack. "I want you to add fun, family, travel and take care of your health."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
"Hispanic and African-American women -- we were pretty much told while we were in high school that we were not college material," remembers Assistant Secretary of the Army (Financial Management & Comptroller) Mary S. Matiella, who also earned doctoral degree. "I've wanted to make a difference in the world ever since I was small watching my father show leadership -- I wanted to be like him."
Matiella said she knew in order to make a difference there would have to be change -- there would have to be change in the way people interacted with her and that first meant to prove herself more than capable of doing a particular job. That all boiled down to the critical words -- trust, integrity, confidence and education, she said, advising the crowd to avoid the easy jobs if they really want to make a difference.
"If you want to be a leader, you have to be trusted and when people trust you, you're perceived to have integrity and they perceive you to care," Matiella said. "When you're trusted, you're also perceived to be confident and you're perceived to be confident when you have an education and experience. And, take the hard jobs, you will make a difference in those areas that are hard to do."
EYE FOR DETAIL
Maj. Gen. Marcia D. Anderson, the first African-American woman to achieve her current grade, credits her leadership abilities to the Soldiers and the noncommissioned officers who lead the way and by just plain being attentive and sharp eyed.
"I've always made sure I was observant, that I saw what worked, what motivated people and followed my instincts," said Anderson, who holds a law degree and presently serves as deputy chief of the Army Reserve for Individual Mobilization Augmentees. "I talk with Soldiers and make it clear that I care, that I'm genuinely interested in them by just remembering little things about them," said Anderson.
"You learn from good leaders and bad leaders, and sometimes you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time," she noted. "The bottom line is you learn and then you move on."
"Admit where your weaknesses are, while capitalizing on your strengths and express what you've learned along the way," said Coon. "Make every experience your own and never be satisfied with the status quo. Make it better than what it was, even if it isn't broke."