News | Feb. 24, 2017

Leaders share experiences, advice to commemorate African American History Month

By Dianne Ryder

Leaders from four McNamara Headquarters Complex agencies shared their leadership experiences to celebrate African American History Month and this year’s theme, “Success always leaves footprints.”

The Defense Contract Audit Agency, Defense Logistics Agency, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Defense Technical Information Center and DLA Energy hosted a panel discussion in the McNamara Auditorium, Feb. 22.

The panel featured Daryl Witherspoon, DCAA general counsel; Lisa Hilton, director of DTIC’s Enterprise Content Management directorate; Patrick Wright, staff director for security and emergency services at DLA; and Rob Turk, director of DTRA’s Cyber Security Division.  

“I always remember my family members telling me I was going to be an attorney. They based that on the fact that I was very argumentative as a child,” Witherspoon said. “It’s amazing [how] when people tell you something over and over again, it sticks.”

Witherspoon said one of his biggest influences was a high school teacher and coach whom he admired and wanted to emulate. He also credits his high school principal, also an officer in the National Guard, with encouraging him toward military service.

“I spent many a day in his office, and not for good reasons,” Witherspoon said. “For that person to see my potential [while] having known my past — he turned out to be the person who had the biggest impacts on my life to guide me where I am today.”

Hilton, the youngest of six girls, said her father shared wisdom with her that she imagines he also would have given to a son: to be independent. This advice stuck with her even after she married a military man and entered the male-dominated field of information technology in the early 1990s, she said.

“Being a military spouse and moving around every two to three years, I felt like had to be a chameleon,” she said.

Hilton said she experienced many financial or cultural challenges but was able to rise above them.

“[I had to] take those experiences, build relationships with people, remove the barriers and stereotypes and be an example,” she said. “You don’t even realize sometimes that a lot of the struggles that make you stronger help you and help others.”

The other panelists agreed that their parents and other family members were influential in achieving their life and career goals.

“The most important inspiration came from my mother. She raised six boys as a single parent and worked two jobs,” Wright said. “Over the years, I used her as an example — her hard work, perseverance and positive outlook inspired me to achieve my goals in military, corporate and Civil Service jobs.”

Turk said his parents divorced when he was four years old, and though his father wasn’t absent in his life, an uncle who was in the military influenced his decision to enter military service.

“I wanted to be an Army officer … and that’s what I did,” he said. “I owe that largely to him.” 

Though some panelists credited their struggles to external factors, Wright said the key to his success was self-actualization.

“The greatest barrier I had was overcoming myself,” he said. “I gained understanding of my full potential and embracing the struggles as opportunities for learning versus getting discouraged.”

Turk explained that he encountered more challenges than actual struggles or barriers. One he said is as relevant today as when he was college-bound is the financial challenge. Initially, he received a scholarship based on his basketball skills.

“I had two things going for me: I was a decent student and a better basketball player,” he said. But he soon realized he couldn’t keep up with his studies and basketball, so he dropped basketball. He decided to pursue a military career and was awarded a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship.

All panelists agreed that mentoring could be formal or informal, that mentors could be older or younger and that they received mentorship at different points in their careers.

“You don’t always know when you’re being mentored, but you’ve got to know when to listen, in spite of who the message might be coming from,” Witherspoon said. “I’ve found that I probably get mentored more now by trying to be a mentor to others.”

Hilton said some mentors taught her the importance of work and life balance, some were technical mentors and some were simply people she approached for advice.

“Mentors don’t [often] come to you easily, especially if you want a recurring mentor,” she said. “Sometimes you have to reach out to people yourself and look out to people you emulate.”

Hilton also said the mentor-protégé relationship is not necessarily about the mentor getting you to an advanced position, but teaching you things you need to know.

The panelists were like-minded in the advice they would give their younger selves and those who now work for them.

Hilton said she gives her daughter the same advice she would give her younger self.

“Work hard to achieve your goals, and no matter how many obstacles that come your way, you can overcome them,” she said. “Don’t settle. Push past uncomfortableness. Enjoy life; it’s short.  Recognize that you’re standing on the shoulders of greatness, and you have an obligation to be your best.”

Wright added that focusing on failures early in his career often prevented him from moving forward.

“Learn from and acknowledge your failures, but focus on your strengths and successes to achieve your full potential,” he said.

Witherspoon’s advice focused on abolishing fear — fear of asking for help and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.

“None of us got to where we are in life on our own,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to walk in the footprints of others to make your life easier; to get to where you want to be.”

Turk said leaders should attribute success to their teams, not to themselves. He also encouraged employees to market themselves.

“Make yourself an asset, not just an employee. Get out of the framework of just coming to work and getting the job done,” he said. “You can manage your career really aggressively, you can update your resume … but you are your own biggest advocate when it comes to promotion potential.”