A trio of women in senior IT leadership spanning the top ranks at Federal agencies counseled that hard work, skill in making key relationships, taking career-changing opportunities, and remaining authentic have been among the key steps in their paths to the highest levels of tech leadership in government.

“It’s all about relationships and performance,” said Essye Miller, principal deputy CIO at the Defense Department, who participated in a panel discussion on women in IT leadership at the Gartner Security and Risk Management Summit on June 19.

Being “your authentic self … makes it easy to develop that sphere of influence” and the ability to pick up the phone and get help when it’s needed, she said. “It will always come back to who you are and how you show up,” she added.

“Stay your authentic self in all situations,” agreed Jeanette Hanna-Ruiz, deputy CIO at Georgetown University and former CISO at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “Some days you will be that lone voice” in leadership discussions that stands apart from the rest, she said, adding, “It’s scary … But government needs those voices from women.”

“Influence is the secret sauce,” said Margaret Graves, deputy Federal CIO at the Office of Management and Budget. She explained that organizational influence is gained through trust, delivery of quality work, and “people seeing you every day with your sleeves rolled up” and ready to solve problems. “Your career expands, but these truisms remain the same” no matter where you work, she said.

“It’s all about relationships and performance,” agreed Miller.

“It’s key that we recognize that bias and stereotypes still exist,” and that no one person can correct those problems on their own, said Hanna-Ruiz. “But how you work and show up” is what will drive career success, she said.

She also advised that women need to help each other to achieve advancement. “You need a support network … You have to have those connections with like minds,” Hanna-Ruiz said.

And she counseled, “Don’t discount the men that are your colleagues – they are evolving and changing, and they can be your allies.”

Graves urged women to take big chances, including career changes, to pursue better opportunities and avoid “self-limiting themselves.” Her career has spanned the fields of nuclear chemistry, investment banking, and IT.

“What you studied in college is not what you will end up doing,” she said. “You should never self-limit before you put your hat in the ring [for other opportunities] – that’s a sure outcome,” Graves said.

Sometimes, “take the leap of faith,” she advised. “Be constantly curious, and do what interests you.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.