In this monthly column, Defense Daily highlights individuals from across the government, industry and academia whose efforts contribute daily to national defense, from the program managers to the human resource leaders, to the engineers and logistics officers.

Catherine Kessmeier is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve affairs and is currently the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. In this role, she is responsible for overall supervision and oversight of manpower and reserve component affairs in the Department of the Navy.

What are some challenges you faced working through your career?

The challenges I face are no different than other working mothers – balancing the demands of work with the never-ending joys of parenthood, without guilt or regret.  Working women represent a small fraction of the CEO-level leaders and no one disputes that these numbers are even lower for working mothers. I enjoy practicing law, delight in taking on new challenges and being a high-performing employee, and am passionate about supporting our Sailors, Marines and civilians.

Without question, first and foremost, I cherish my family.  To that end, I take seriously the criticality of being a visible example to my children, particularly my daughter. Moreover, I want to make sure that every employee, regardless of where they are in their career or organizational structure, is afforded opportunities to develop their talent and advance in the workplace. Much has changed over the course of my career in terms of a woman’s ability to integrate the demands of a challenging job and being an engaged parent. It took me a while to recognize that being a good wife and mother is not incompatible with work.  If the number of women working in leadership positions is going to change, I know I must be part of the conversation, I need to drive necessary changes in the workplace, and must demonstrate to my sons and daughter that it is possible to find a balance between the two.

Did you feel like you always had sufficient mentors and leaders to help guide you? Why/why not?

I have been very fortunate to have had engaged leaders and mentors, men and women, who coached me, admonished and counseled me, advocated for me, and pushed me to try new things – one of the most valuable things I learned along the way was to embrace my mistakes and become comfortable being uncomfortable.  At every stage of my career, I sought out mentors, including people who had chosen different paths or who were different than me—and not all were in a superior position. These relationships helped me realize early on in my career that only you can define your path and no two individuals follow the same trek to success.

Some of my best female mentors were willing to be very candid about my weaknesses, perceived and real. They worked hard to achieve their success, and they did not sugar coat or hide the candid feedback I needed. They taught me not only to be self-aware, they also made me appreciate that perceptions (even unfounded ones) can serve as a barrier to your success. Similarly, I have had great male allies who willingly offered guidance and encouragement, and more often than not, advocated for my advancement. This is key – a good mentor and advocate is invaluable.  These are the people who will not only praise you when you are in the room, but also will encourage others to work with you, take a chance on you, and help you land those opportunities that you least expect. My current position enables me to provide a platform to men and women, military and civilian, where I can promote mentoring opportunities – hopefully, cultivating positive relationships that will result in a more inclusive and diverse workplace.

How did you get involved in the defense industry or community?

After graduating law school, I moved to Washington, DC, where I knew I would be able to blend my passion for practicing law with my interest in public service.  Attending a government-wide training event, I met an attorney who worked for the Navy. I instantly was intrigued by the opportunity and the breadth of the challenges and, the rest was history. I began working for the largest Navy Command, NAVSEA, focusing on our Sailor’s safety, quality of life and ability to perform missions with the latest technology. Most of my time was spent working personnel matters – at the core of the Navy’s operations. I was afforded an opportunity to work incredibly challenging matters, actively practicing law while supporting the National Defense Mission. That day, more than 20 years ago, paved the way for me to now have the privilege to lead programs and policy related to military and civilian personnel, promoting some of the same priorities – quality of life programs and personnel readiness.

How do you work to be a mentor yourself to younger counterparts?

Having had great mentors, I believe it is imperative that I do the same for those that follow.  As a mentor, I try to provide frank, candid and helpful feedback.  I share honestly what worked and didn’t work for me; encouraging mentees to recognize and own the importance of competence, confidence, agility, and resiliency.  I also search for opportunities to provide mentoring moments that are accessible, not only to individuals but also larger segments of the workforce via networking and virtual events.  I encourage my leadership team to be engaged mentors and to facilitate mentoring relationships.

Did you feel like you always had sufficient mentors and leaders to help guide you? Why/why not?

I was one of the lucky ones in terms of having people around me who provided open doors to help me and my career development. Interestingly, many of those mentors didn’t look like me; rather they were men – men who mentored me and who also advocated for me and on my behalf when I wasn’t around.  Recently, we hosted a series of “Lunchbreak with Leaders” sessions that offered candid conversations with the top female leaders in the Navy and Marine Corps as well as one session devoted to research done (by Dr. Brad Johnson and Dr. David Smith) on the value and importance of men as allies.  In discussing their research, it drove home the value of men as allies, real-life effective practices that support women and other leaders, and how many of the mentors that I had along the way had exhibited those types of supportive behaviors.

What do you see as the future of your sector in national defense?

My portfolio centers around leading the “people” part of the organization, to include critical policy affecting military (active, reserve, veterans), their families, and the civilian workforce.  People are core to effective operations and meeting the National Defense Strategy. Our Sailors, Marines and civilians bring with them a wealth of talent and experiences, ensuring the national defense.  People drive innovation, research, agility and mission success.  We have been tested and will continue to be tested from all fronts; our team stands ready to learn, serve and produce.  The future is bright in terms of the myriad opportunities that lie ahead, recognizing that the future calls on us to be faster, better, brighter than before…quick to adapt and certain to course correct, while keeping the eye on our target.  I have witnessed many transformative events and know that more await us—it is exciting, exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, but ultimately rewarding.

How has the culture changed around diversity within your career?

Each day, each month, and each year, I experience the criticality of promoting a positive and diverse culture and workplace. I believe these changes have resulted in greater effectiveness of our organization and better decisions.  My anecdotal observation is borne out by the research, which indicates that greater diversity within an organization leads to improved outcomes, agility, innovative solutions, positive engagement and higher-performing employees.  To make the best decisions and be a strategic leader, I believe we must embrace and advocate for a diverse workforce and workplace environment.

What is your advice to new entrants to the defense/military community?

Learn your organization. Get connected. Seek mentors. Build your competencies. Don’t fear failure. Embrace change. Always remain focused on mission – the defense of our Great Nation and its freedoms.

Who are the Force Multipliers in your community? Let us know at [email protected].