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.
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