Leading Others to Lead: Mary Gillam

By: Yadira Y. Caro

The journey of Mary Gillam to become an Air Force Colonel and a leader was not exempt of multiple challenges. However, Mary, who also holds a PhD in Management of Information Systems Technology, enjoys sharing her story, challenges and lessons she has learned to help others become leaders as well.

Dr. Gillam was raised by her paternal grandmother alongside her brothers and sister. But her academic skills enable her to get a scholarship from Dow Chemical to study Chemistry. However, Mary was also interested in joining the Air Force. She would later join the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). After college, she was commissioned into the Air Force as a Second Lieutenant. Through tenacity and hard work, she forged a career of over 20 years where she rose through the ranks to become a Colonel, something only a small percentage of officers achieve. The percentage is even smaller for women and people of color.

After a career spent in the world of Telecommunications and Information Systems Technology, she shifted her focus to teaching leadership, management and organizational development. She became an Amazon bestsellingauthor, a host and producer of the TV show Leadership Table Talk, and even designed a board game on the topic. In this interview, she discussed her career journey, her challenges in the military, and gives advice on what it takes to become a leader.

As you described in your book Gifted to Lead you came from a household where you seem to have had a lot of challenges along the way. What made you join the military?

I love to share this story because I was raised by my paternal grandmother who married at age 14. She had 17 children, and then she was widowed at age 48. Afterwards, she was later given sole responsibility for my three siblings and myself.  It was my grandmother who taught me what it means to strive to be the best that you can be regardless of your circumstances.

Having graduated with honors from high school, I went off to college. I got a scholarship in Chemistry from Dow Chemical, and then I picked up a scholarship from the Air Force. But how I joined the Air Force is really interesting. One day, some ROTC students were out recruiting and invited me to speak to the professor of Aerospace Studies. Because I was already committed to going to work for Dow Chemical, I was facing a dilemma. The end result is that the professor of Aerospace Studies met with the Chairman of the Chemistry Department, and the Dow Chemical representative to discuss my situation. After the discussion, I was allowed to keep both scholarships and pursue my dream of joining the Air Force. I often say that Dow Chemical values military service.

How many years were you serving in the military?

Twenty eight and a half.

Can you describe some of the challenges that you’ve had throughout your career in the military?

I really hate to say this, but a lot had to do with my ethnicity and my gender and I wasn’t about to change either one of them (laughs). Sometimes you just have to really buckle down and say, ‘Okay, regardless of the challenge here, I’m going to work hard.’ Given my faith in God, and hard work, I was able to succeed.

And you made it through the rank of Colonel. Not a lot in the military get to that rank. How was that journey for you?

It was very interesting, I would say, because you’re right, not a lot of people make it to the rank of Colonel. Although you have General that comes after that number is even smaller. But when you make it to the rank of Colonel, especially as a female, you have done very, very well in the military. And so I just said ‘I’m going give it everything I’ve got, to become the best military leader.’ Because you have to have the right jobs, and be wiling to work hard. But, then you really have to have people willing to give you an opportunity. If you don’t get the opportunity, I don’t care how hard you’ve worked, you still have to have the opportunity to show what you can do. I really thank all the mentors along the way that I’ve had who encouraged me to just continue to work hard.

You’ve got to get past the fear element and really put yourself out there.

Dr. Mary Gillam

From those experiences, do you have any particular example that you remember of any deployment or leading a group of people that you consider successful?

As a military officer, I had the opportunity to deploy to many locations. As a telecommunications and information systems technology officer, I was responsible for ensuring that our forces had the capability to operate in a mobile environment as if they were at home. However, one of my greatest experiences was when I served as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Director of IT for a very large organization. I had the opportunity to build a team, deliver IT services, and create a win-win situation for all of the stakeholders. My goal was to deliver value to the organizations and customers that we served, and we were very successful.

Was your track primarily Information Technology? Why Information Technology?

When I was commissioned in the US Air Force, there was a shortage of communications-electronics officers. This career field was the equivalent of the telecommunications and information technology career field in the civilian sector. Although my undergraduate degree was in chemistry, I had the math and science necessary to serve in this career field. I would later earn a Masters Degree in Computers and Information Systems Management. Although the career field would undergo numerous name changes over the years, it was the equivalent of the information technology field today.

How long ago did you leave the military?

I retired in 2010.

How was that transition from the military career? Did you decide to continue with the IT field?

When I first retired from the Air Force, I continued working in the IT career field. I worked as a government contractor for a major consulting firm supporting the Air Force CIO. I later returned to the government as a Senior Executive serving as the Director of Technology, Innovation, and Engineering.

You have a lot of different publications in IT and also on the topic of leadership. What made you decide to focus on leadership?

As an officer, you were constantly receiving a lot of training in the leadership space. When I was a teenager and when I was in college, I led a lot of organizations. I guess you could say that leadership was in my DNA. It is a given for me to continue learning and studying in the areas of leadership, management, team-building, and organizational development. As a result, when I found myself wanting to transition from the IT field, I looked at potentially providing training, coaching, and consulting services in the leadership space. So I went to Georgetown and got a Masters in Executive Leadership, even though I had all kinds of leadership experience. I just wanted to ensure that I had the latest information on the topic. I’m very passionate about it.

I host a local cable TV show called Leadership Table Talk. I invented a game (The Leadership Build Zone) in the area of leadership development, so I’m finding myself really enjoying helping people to grow and develop their leadership skills and talents.

What do you think is one of the main factors that prevent people from exploring more of their leadership skills?

What I’ve found in my research, working with people for so many years, and leading organizations, unfortunately is fear. A lot of people are afraid of failure. I remember a young lady who I wanted her to lead a project for our organization and the first thing that she said was ‘Dr Gillam, I am just afraid that I might fail.’ And I said ‘well, you might succeed (laughs) How about looking at it from that respect, because I know you can do it and I’m not going take no for an answer.’ She ended up doing the project, and did an exceptional job. So I would tell people, you’ve got to get past the fear element and really put yourself out there. If there is a skill that you are lacking, then you can learn that skill set. But, don’t just refuse to lead because you are afraid. Who knows, you might just succeed (laughs).

Do you have three resources you recommend that have helped you either in your career or that help others in either the areas of leadership or in the areas of IT?

I would say The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by Dr. John Maxwell, in the leadership space, has always been a good staple for me. I use a lot of his materials. The book that I really like from an IT perspective is People Centric Security: Transforming Your Enterprise Security Culture. It’s an easy read but at the same time it really does address how we can help to change the dynamics of what’s going on in the cyber security space. It’s just a book that I use a lot as a reference guide today and I really enjoy.

A third one that I use in my executive coaching is Crucial Conversations. I love that book because it really does get people focused on how to conduct those crucial conversations. You may not want to have them, but you need to have them especially if you are a leader. You need to know how to talk to people, and in ways that will build your team and not destroy it.

You mentioned that you’ve had a lot of challenges in the military, primarily based on gender and race. What advice would you give to any woman particularly, who wants to start a military career or who is in her military career right now?

That is a great question. I would tell ladies that if they have an issue, there are a lot of resources available. Don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out. I believe that the #metoo movement has brought to light a lot of things that have happened that should not have occurred. In the military, sometimes people will not speak up because they don’t want to be labeled as complaining. Yet, if people don’t speak up, things will not change
So, don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out because you have earned the right to serve in the military like anyone else.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Life Lessons from a War Virgin: Laura Westley

By: Yadira Y. Caro

War Virgin is not an archetypal war narrative of how protagonist vanquishes the enemy through a series of battles. Instead, Laura Westley describes her personal path as a military grad and recruit. The path covers her strict upbringing in Florida, attending the U.S West Point Military Academy, where she graduated in 2001, and her deployment to Iraq in 2003. She describes her day to day: the arduous and the redundant tasks, the restrictive discipline, the expected gender roles, the temptation and the harassment, all done with humor and candor. It also addresses life after the war and mental health challenges she confronted.

War Virgin was also a musical play, where Laura performs as singer and actor. These artistic endeavors helped Laura to raise awareness of the many struggles experienced by soldiers and veterans.

Aside from being an author and actor/singer, Laura has a seasoned IT career. She is currently a Technology Services Senior Manager at Johnson and Johnson. I asked Laura about her years in the military, her motivations to write War Virgin, and what she has learned along the way.

What made you go to West Point?

I kind of joke when people ask me that, ‘Do you have a leather couch for me to lay on and talk about my daddy issues?’ (laughs) I think a lot of it could have stemmed from the fact that my father really wanted a son and he got two daughters. I was the first born and I felt like his love wasn’t unconditional. Whenever I would do something that was more perceived as masculine, whether it was excel in sports or do something more traditionally masculine, I just felt like I got more positive affirmation from him.

I remember when he was reading from U.S. News and World Report an excerpt about West Point and I just liked the way he was trying to paint the picture ‘imagine you doing that Laura.’ So I think at a deep level I thought I’d be more accepted and loved. Other reason I think is because it seemed like the ultimate challenge. I used to be all about doing the absolute most difficult things in life. I’m definitely not that way anymore (laughs).

” I wanted to tell a true story, I wanted to write the book that I wish I would have read before going to West Point, before going to war. “

Laura Westley

What was one of the greatest challenges you had there?

I think the hardest part is sleep deprivation. There were definitely some academic geniuses there, but I felt like the people that did the best overall were able to survive on such little sleep. To me that would be the absolute number one struggle: it’s just not having enough hours in the day to get everything done and then also get a good night sleep.

You spent your time in Iraq. How long were you there for?
I was deployed for seven months: I deployed in January 2003, in Kuwait in the middle of a desert, in a camp made up with tents and porta potties. I was there for two months and then I was a part of the Invasion. I went in March 21, 2003, and then came home in August.

Scenes of War Virgin: The Show

From your experience there, how much did your expectation differ from what was going on there?
I could not believe that we were at war. It was really surreal. I think my top expectation would have been preparedness and to take war more seriously. We didn’t train sufficiently, the gear that we had wasn’t sufficient. Even the way that we were making plans and the way information was disseminated just seemed like a big joke to me.


I remember wanting to go practice the range on my weapon more and my supervisor being like ‘No, you need to work on the spreadsheet for me,’ and me getting into a fight with him since he just would not let me go. I remember that was the first time I publicly cried, because I was seriously worried about needing potentially to use my weapon, not being skilled enough at it, and dying because he wanted me to work on some spreadsheet. We just didn’t seem to take it very seriously, and at the same time, it’s like most of the people, especially the leadership, conveyed that they could not wait to go to war. They were glorifying it, but they weren’t taking the right measures to properly prepare for it.

You detail a lot of your experiences in your book War Virgin. What made you want to write that book?

I wanted to tell a true story, I wanted to write the book that I wish I would have read before going to West Point, before going to war. I feel like now with technology and social media, and now that some people have put books out there, I see the real authentic stories are more accessible, but they didn’t really exist before. I got so sick of every military story being written by some male who’s this stereotypical hero charging off the platoon and winning victory. I feel like that’s actually only a tiny percentage of who serves.

I feel like my experiences, as absurd as they were, might actually be more common than those other experiences, like the boredom that I talk about, and the lack of preparedness, or how you’re confused during war and information’s not being passed along and you don’t know what the hell is going on. Another really common theme, I think, is the feeling of wondering whether or not you’re actually being a productive member of the military, if you actually should be there and questioning your role instead of just being like, the stereotypical ‘I served my country. I fought for your freedom.’

How was the reception to the book? Were you surprised in any way?
I was prepared to receive more backlash. Now when something gets posted on social media, I don’t comment. I was trained by a Washington Post editor, because I remember publishing my first op-ed back in 2012, I read comments and laughed and had a good time with it, but he was like, ‘don’t engage.’ Since then, I think trolling has become much, much worse.

But the feedback that I was aware of was overwhelmingly positive. I thought that there would be more negative ramifications. I definitely took measures to make sure that I changed names (in the book); I didn’t want anybody to get in trouble. So I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more backlash. It was overwhelmingly positive.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them find the right resources to make sure that they’re happy, that they’re enjoying what they do, that they feel like they have a good future ahead and that they are nurturing their talent.”

Laura Westley

How was your transition into the corporate world?

It was interesting because I fantasized about War Virgin allowing me to become a full time author or performer speaker. That was a very far fetched fantasy, especially for being financially practical (laughs). I kind of beat myself up for a little bit thinking ‘Okay, if I have to go back into the corporate world, I failed at War Virgin.’ But then I realized I had this professional IT career before this and I was building it. I did take time away once the book was being published and once I went on tour. But I had to go back to that.

I also wondered, ‘what can I go back to doing?’ I want to make sure that whatever I do is in alignment with my values, that I don’t compromise who I am. When I go back to the corporate world, I don’t want to have to be shut up and not expressive. I also was wondering, ‘Does having War Virgin out there will impact me getting a job?’

I spoke to a fellow West Pointer who was interested in hiring me for this associate vice president position. I just had the feeling that we were not a good match and I said ‘I want you to read War Virgin and then come back.’ He had concerns, but he was very conservative. Interestingly, he also has a sister who went to war and went to West Point and he’s like ‘I didn’t even know what it was like for women.’ It just wasn’t going to be a good match.

What ended up happening is I got a good (referral) in for my current job by someone who knew me because of War Virgin. She was from the first class of women who graduated from West Point. And so its ironic that War Virgin actually helped me get the job that I have now, which is a really good corporate job.

How do you describe what you’re doing right now?

I lead a new software development department at Johnson and Johnson. I take care of software developers, software testers and project managers, trying to make us a really valid force to be reckoned with.

Really, everybody else, they’re the doers. I joke that they do the real work around here and it’s my job to take care of them. So I actually tell them that they’re all my bosses. My job is just to whatever obstacles might be in their way, let them be able to fully focus on what they need to do, even if that is something beyond the work environment, even if there is something that they may be struggling with at home. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help them find the right resources to make sure that they’re happy, that they’re enjoying what they do, that they feel like they have a good future ahead and that they are nurturing their talent.

Are there any resources that you recommend that have helped you throughout your career?

When I wanted to learn how to be a better storyteller in my writing, it was almost like an academic pursuit for me. All I had known was academic writing and so I did take a comedy writing class. It was helpful for me to understand that if you’re going to write a book to be consumed, you can’t write in this high brow or dry academic (tone), you have to write as a story teller. In order to be a better storyteller I took a comedy writing class, and I joined a story-telling competition group in Massachusetts. One of my favorite books is called The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker and it was hilarious. Before she wrote her memoir, she did stand up comedy and so she perfected the art of story-telling orally and that translated to the page. That got me thinking and got me into doing the live story telling. Then it eventually evolved into the show.

There were definitely some people that came into my life that helped me to know more about storytelling. I was taking it all in, and working with theater professionals. Now I am really obsessed with an author named Jo Piazza. She has a podcast called Committed and my favorite book of hers is called Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win.

I’m trying to think of books about IT career and I know that there’s a lot out there. But I find that I’m running into the same frustration that I did with military books with respect to how boring they could be, or how masculine they can be. I feel like there’s a lot of books written by super successful women like a billionaire CEO, or COO, but it seems like those are the books that get published, by these very privileged highly educated, multibillionaire white women. I would love for there to be books that are written by more normal women. Why can’t I read a book by a mid level manager? Those are the kinds of jobs that are more popular than the super crazy executive positions. I’m probably going to have to write the book that I want to read with respective to navigating a corporate environment, especially in a traditionally male-dominated environment.


If there is anything in the future, I want to collaborate with other women.

Would you recommend any women to join either the military or go into West Point?

It’s hard because when I think about it, I get a little knot in my stomach like ‘it’s going to be brutal.’ But I don’t want to say, ’No, don’t do this’ because sometimes that’s just your calling in life.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Podcasting to Empower Women: Greydaliz Rivera

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Greydaliz Rivera calls herself a “bicha cool” or its closest English translation, a “cool bitch.” Through her daily Spanish language podcast, she speaks and shares daily inspiration to other “bichas cool.” The name refers to a woman who does not care about being nice or expresses unpopular opinions. However, she does enjoy doing good through entrepreneurship.

Greydaliz first recorded her podcast in January 2018 from a closet in her apartment in Texas. Originally from Puerto Rico, she had moved to Texas with her daughter and then boyfriend to find a better future after Hurricane Maria hit the Island in 2017. A year and over 400 episodes later, she is back in Puerto Rico living in a house she built on her own. Surpassing her goal of a year of daily podcasting, she is now able to earn a living from her various passion projects including mentoring and coaching, podcast workshops, and now her own line of inspirational t-shirts.

Just as thousands of women in Puerto Rico and abroad, I also became an avid listener of these 10-15 minutes podcasts. The subjects include tips on becoming an entrepreneur, time management, tools you can use and other topics based on multiple books she has read throughout the year. She also shares her daily struggles of dealing with entrepreneurship and motherhood, relationships and self-care. In this interview, we talked about her experience of empowering women through podcasting.

How would you describe what you do?
I am a researcher and I want people to find what they are a capable of. I am mainly a podcaster now and I want to use my voice and my experience to be a model to other women. For me, the best way to help other people is just showing how you do it.

What made you decide to do a daily podcast?
I wanted to make content creation a habit. I know that if you want to learn something, you have to do it daily. I wanted to create content as a lifestyle, not just as a hobby I do once a month or whatever. I wanted to do it every day because for me that is the best way to learn something.

When I first listened to the first podcast that you did, I loved it because it was not a “perfect” podcast. You decided to just launch it and improve throughout the way. How do you feel the podcast has changed from that first episode?

A lot, I’m more fluid, more real, more spontaneous. Its now part of my day and I have changed a lot in the past year. I adapted the format to my new lifestyle, to my new routine, to my new needs. It has changed a lot but it feels more real, more connected, more me. It involves less planning and more about documenting (daily life).

How you pick the topics for your podcast? It must be a challenge doing it daily.
For me it is not that difficult because I read a lot. I have a big community now: a lot of women ask me many questions and I use those questions to make an episode. I get inspired with my experience as a mom and businesswoman. I mix everything: some days I want to talk about something and I just think of a perfect podcast with the perfect situation and I put it all together for an episode.

What has been one of the greatest challenges that you’ve had in the past year since you started this podcast?
I think the most difficult challenge that we have as humans to overcome is our mind. If you want to do exercise or have a healthy life, want to do a daily podcast or whatever is your goal, your mind is going to say ‘no, not today, maybe tomorrow, you are tired, why don’t you have a cookie.’ You have to control your mind. If you control your mind and you build a habit, you can do whatever you want.

You also have given workshops on how to podcast. What’s a key piece of advice you give to those people who are interested in making a podcast?
The first one is that you have to be comfortable with yourself. You have to be you. You have to take whatever you are, and be proud. You have to speak to the world like you are and then you will be able to be fluid, to express more comfortably. Like me, I don’t speak English! I am not thinking about the pronunciation or the verbs, I try to do it with intention. As a person, I do my best. People love that! Be real.

“You have to control your mind. If you control your mind and you build a habit, you can do whatever you want. “

Greydaliz Rivera

How would you describe what you’re doing in terms of mentoring and coaching?
For me mentoring is that you know some things, that you are ten steps ahead me and you have the good intention to help me and to help out other people. Ultimately is to have some knowledge and just want to share it with the world.

What kind of projects do you have coming up that you combine with your podcast?
I have my t-shirts and I want to do other products like boxes and bags. This is just the beginning because I am a very ambitious woman. I am also working with an application that is taking me longer than what I had planned, but it’s coming this year, and I’m preparing an online course on podcasting.

What are two or three key resources you recommend?
In the podcast area I am always listening to new programs. I just recommend you go to the search bar and put the topic that you are interested in. You are going to have many choices because every day there are more people in this podcasting world. In the book area, I just read three very good books: Profit First, This is Marketing from Seth Godin and The Power of Now.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!