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!

Advocate for Military Spouses: Jamie Muskopf

By: Yadira Y. Caro

The day of my interview with Jamie Muskopf from her home in Washington state, she received a called from school saying her kids would have no class that day. Even with that unplanned event, she still went through her day as usual managing her responsibilities as a Project Manager for Microsoft’s Military Spouse Technology Academy, recording an episode of her podcast S.O. Unbecoming, and this interview. Jamie is also completing her Doctor of Social Work studies at the University of Southern California while taking care of her three children and her active duty Navy spouse.

This was another typical day for a military spouse. While significant others perform their jobs at home or abroad, these military spouses must manage their households and in many cases, their careers as well. Jamie has made her mission to advocate for them.

Before marriage, Jamie had started her started thriving career in technology as a developer in college, a job she learned “accidentally” when her supervisors at her summer job at the University of California Santa Barbara asked her to create a website. A few years later, back at home in Hawaii, she became a Director of Web Services at Pacific University and completed a Masters in Information Systems. Later she joined the U.S. Pacific Fleet to develop their Knowledge Management program. At her job she met her future husband. She continued working until the demanding schedule at work and at home forced a career break. In the meantime, she completed her Masters in Knowledge Strategy from Columbia University with the goal of one day returning to the workforce, which happened last year.

During our conversation we talked about her career in tech and Knowledge Management, her mission to use what she has learned for social good, and her weekly podcast S.O. Unbecoming, where she interviews military spouses who are “unbecoming one version of themselves in favor of another.”

What made you realize that knowledge management was important?

As you know, the military is full of different tools and they’re all there for interesting reasons. But there’s always this assumption that “if I use this tool everything in the world will be better.” And really you need more of an understanding that the information you work with and create are part of a larger eco-system. Where I was working at HQ at Pacific Fleet, it was definitely always tied into decision making.

I learned to be very empathetic ultimately to the Commander because there are all these people generating a lot of information (for him). I happened to have a commander that said “pump the brakes, you are giving me all this stuff, tell me why it matters. You can’t just give me a bunch of raw data. I need you to collaborate, and I need you to create something that is just a higher level than what you’re giving me right now. It’s good information, but it’d be richer knowledge if you put it all together first.” I listened very intently to what he wanted. He eventually took high notice of that and he became a really big supporter of knowledge management because he just got it. He understood what we were trying to accomplish. 

When did you take a break in your career?
My husband was my boss’ flag aid. I had no intention whatsoever (to go out with him) but he kept bugging me (laughs). A year later, I was like fine (laughs). We got married and then a month and a half after he went to Connecticut for school. I was pregnant at the time, so I ended up staying in Hawaii. I worked after getting married for the next two years. Then I had two babies who are 18 months apart. Once I had my daughter, he was on a sea tour.

My career and his career were way too competing because at that point I was traveling once or twice a month. We had built a knowledge management program to be pretty wide and all across the fleet, and I was doing a lot of speaking engagements. But it was just not sustainable, so I left. It definitely had a huge impact on my life. It definitely taught me how much my identity centered around my career. I felt kind of lost for a little while.

I loved being a stay at home mom. It was something I dreamed about because I was a single mom for a while and then I was working. I loved my job, but I also hated the fact that I was gone from my son, even though my mom and dad were in Hawaii, so I didn’t have to worry about that so much. But it was tough making the switch from being very career driven to being mommy.

What were your assumptions about military mothers before?
I just had this assumption that it would be easy. I really felt “what could be so hard about having someone else pay your bills and staying home with your kids?” Overtime I learned, on the other side, there are people thinking the same thing about you “they have it so easy, they work, they have their own money, not have to worry about all of these things.

What prompted you to switch to social work?
Because that is knowledge management. People don’t understand that really, at the core of knowledge management, is people and behavior and a culture. If you don’t have a culture that supports good knowledge management, that supports the idea that people need to collaborate and share, we don’t have good knowledge management, that is impossible. You might have semi decent information management but you don’t have knowledge management. If we’re going to really do knowledge management in the world, something more has to be done about how we address behavior. That is not psychology, it’s not necessarily education, it’s a little bit of all those things, but what is it?

When I was still at Columbia University, a friend of mine who’s a social worker was always telling me “you should be a social worker.” (I thought) I would cry every day; I get too emotional over things (laughs). But she said “Look at the Doctor of Social Work program.” So I did and I realized that the program is an innovation program. It almost should be like a Doctor of Social Innovation because what we’re learning right now is what is social innovation, what does that mean, and ultimately, how do you address or how do you identify social norms. The program is bringing me a completely different set of research and lenses. I love that because of what I care about now, which is advocating for the military spouse community. There’s a lot of crazy social norms involved in that, that keep us from working.

How would you describe what you’re doing now at work?

I’m the Project Manager for Microsoft Military Spouse Technology Academy. Right now I’ve been working in the Pilot Program Classroom. It’s been interesting watching this whole process unfold; seeing from both a participant side and being empathetic to it because I am a military spouse. Then seeing from an employer side: what social norms are in place there, what culture, what things are operating in the norm, and the norm being that military spouses unemployment rate is 54%. That norm is very much on purpose. It’s part of a culture around military spouses that has been there since the beginning of the military; your number one job is to support your spouse.

The military spouses now, they want to work, they are working and if the military wants to retain active duty people, they’re going to have to really figure out how do we support working military spouses.

Changes have to happen inside the culture that is the Department of Defense, changes have to happen inside the culture of military spouses. Then there’s also changes that need to happen inside employers and potentially inside the law when it comes to employers creating more innovative ways other than just saying “why don’t we just make all jobs remote.” That is part of an answer, but its not the whole answer. I might suddenly had to pack up-house, I might suddenly have to prepare my household for an unexpected deployment and I need my employer to be flexible about those things.


If I need to move, I would like my employer to be flexible, either allowing me to continue remotely or maybe helping me find another position in our company. Maybe connecting me with a partner in the location that I’m at. Employers need to be incentivized to do such things by the local state governments and potentially, the federal government.

I feel like being in the DSW program is going to give me that lens and that science background to really look at that whole problem or the series of problems, and come up with a model or multiple models that can provide solutions.

“The military spouses now, they want to work, they are working and if the military wants to retain active duty people, they’re going to have to really figure out how do we support working military spouses.” – Jaime Muskopf 

Why did you start a podcast on the topic of working military spouses?
My whole point in that podcast is do three things: one is to give to military spouses who are going through the process of getting back into their careers or maintaining their careers, the opportunity to share their stories. I want military spouses of diverse backgrounds; I want to see the diversity in the military spouse community that I see day-to-day, represented in some platform.

Number two is I want to give other military spouses the opportunity to hear those stories, and be inspired by them, or at least, have community with them. As the show goes on, not all the stories are going be great, some of the stories are really heart-breaking and are really frustrating. I know that there are stories that other military spouses will connect with because they’ve had a hard time getting back into the workplace or continue their education.

The third piece of it is definitely to educate civilians, educate employers on what these people are going through, and how are other employers innovating or how are they operating in a way that is supporting military spouse careers. I’ve been very surprised and not surprised at how little people really understand about the military spouse experience, and the kinds of stereotypes and biases that people have about military spouses. It’s been very eye opening.

What are three resources or pieces of advice that have helped you in your career?
My number one thing is to always be growing and tending your network. The way that I have done that over the years has been LinkedIn. Now it is more widely used and it’s a great way to build your professional network. I got recruited for the job with Microsoft over LinkedIn.

The second piece of advice is to always be in learning mode and to have a growth mindset. Even when I was home with babies and sitting there wondering if I’m ever going to get more sleep, I took every opportunity I had to keep up with what was going on, to learn, to read. I listened to the Tony Robbins podcast, Gary Vaynerchuk, Side Hustle School. I love listening to Malcolm Gladwell, Hidden Brain. There are just so many podcasts out there, you can put it on even with your baby on (laughs).

The third thing is just be kind to yourself. It is a hard lesson that I had to learn. I never really give myself grace to be like “it’s okay, you don’t have to be going and going and going all the time, you’ve done that for a long time.” Being kind to myself also has meant changing the perspective of failures to opportunity. I think once you start recognizing that you may fail at things or things that you do may fail, it is just about getting an opportunity to learn something and then try something differently again. That to me is being really kind to yourself.

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

Covering the Military Stories: Howard Altman

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Unless you read Army Times or other military publications, stories about the military members are not common in mainstream media. However, at The Tampa Bay Times in Florida, Senior Military Staff Writer Howard Altman has found his niche, building trust among this community and traveling across the world to cover their stories. These include conversations with generals in war zones, struggles of the veteran population or the toll of military life among family members.

His career as a journalist and editor spans over 30 years covering a variety of topics for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newton-News Tribune, City Paper and The Tampa Tribune. I asked Howard about building relationships, and how he continues innovating in a challenging industry.

When you became a journalist, did you have an idea of what type of stories you wanted to cover?

I knew I wanted to shine a light on bigger issues, bigger problems. Just looking back at some of the coverage we did such as mayor race in Philly, or how the high rises where not required to have sprinklers and some firefighters died. We did a series of stories on that and it changed things. That kind of thing has always been important to me.

You cover a lot of stories about the military. Is there anything that has surprised you or anything interesting that you have found in your coverage?

It’s all fascinating. We have a military base (McDill Air Force Base) which has two Combatant Commands. It has component commands, it’s got two air force wings and mission partners. So there is a wide range of things to cover. I’ve traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain and other places. I’ve been embedded with special forces groups. This week I wrote a series of stories about World War I, World War II, current conflicts, and even the sickening of embassy workers. I cover the VA all the time. We have two of the busiest VA hospitals in the country and one of the busiest VA claim centers. There is so much stuff going on.

How do you identify a good story?

My phone rings pretty much 24/7. I like the human element, I like stories about technology. I wrote a story about the drones that can deliver blood. You know fascinating stuff. [Building relations] is really challenging. The military doesn’t always like to talk to reporters, especially a lot of the special forces. So I kind of always approach it like a Green Beret ODA [Operational Detachment Alpha]. When they are traveling outside the wire, they go out and sit down down with a key leader and find out what is going on. For me it’s similar minus the body armor, the MRAPs, the M4 and people shooting at me. You meet key leaders, you build networks, build trust over time, and trust is very difficult to build.

I think people know I have no particular agenda, I’m not anti-military or pro-military, I tell the stories as they are. That is where the trust is. Probably twice a year I talk with the SOF [Special Forces] at the Joint Special Operations University about the various issues that we face and how can we work better to tell their story; about what frustrates me and what frustrates them. I go to all kinds of events such as Operation Helping Hand dinner and people see me out in the community a lot. So I build trust and people come and tell me stories constantly.

What do you think makes a good journalist?

Somebody who is curious, who is skeptical, who is willing to work hard to dig up the facts. Someone that will challenge their own assumptions, challenge own thesis, not cut corners, not make stuff up, either people or quotes. Who makes sure that the documents they are getting are the provenance, that are real. You have to have a passion for this job because lets face it: it does not pay very much and everybody hates you.

How do you survive to all the changes in journalism? How do you adapt?

I was always an innovator. I worked in one of the first newspapers to go online. One of the editors, around 1993, said “one day, people will be able to see how many people look at each one of your stories and for how long.” That was crazy then. So I’ve always been atuned to where the audience is. That is one thing.

The other thing is, when I took over the Philadelphia City Paper, I thought it was very important to find vertical niches. Then identify which one would be popular and really own the politics, media coverage, urban design and those kinds of things. I continue to believe that in the terms of the military coverage.

The Tampa Bay Times did great covering Veterans issues but they were not able to crack the military. After they took out the Tampa Tribune, they brought me on board knowing that I had this audience. It’s a lot, and its conservative; people who would not necessarily read The Times otherwise. We cover their issues. I try to go vertical and try to own it.

Would you recommend anyone to become a journalist?

I always say run away (laughs).  For democracy to succeed we need good journalists, strong journalists, accurate journalists, unbiased journalists. Now more so than ever. I’ve done all kinds of things, I’ve met all kinds of people: cut up jokes with Mel Brooks, sat down with generals and presidents, met princesses, go to places people don’t go, see things people don’t see. Its fascinating and I highly recommend it.

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