Three highly accomplished women shared their advice for achieving success in careers and leadership during a Center for Homeland Defense and Security Emergence Program panel on Thursday, March 30, coinciding with the closing days of Women’s History Month.
CHDS Instructor and alum Dee Neely (Master’s Program cohort 1801/1802), Program Manager for Delta Airlines Campus Security Programs and a retired U.S. Secret Service Agent; retired U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division Ltn. Jennifer Vines; and former Golden, CO, and Lompoc, CA, Fire Chief and CHDS alum Alicia Welch (Master’s Program cohort 0403/0404) offered tips on how to navigate career challenges and how to serve as a leader.
CHDS Emergence instructor Cynthia Renaud introduced the panel and said its members would offer insight into how to pursue career advancement while also “having a life.” Renaud noted Neely’s 30-year career in law enforcement that elevated her into top leadership positions, Vines’ recent retirement during which she said she is now managing her family’s life in the same way they managed hers during her career, and Welch’s successful career in the still male-dominated world of firefighting.
Neely said she was pleased to participate in the panel while it was still Women’s History Month, noting this year’s theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”
“That’s what we’ll do today,” she said, tell our stories.”
She recounted the story of her grandmother asking her what she wanted to do for a career, and Neely, who is Black, told her a police officer or a lawyer. She said her grandmother, who was born and raised in the South in the 1920s, told her to choose lawyer because police officers “don’t treat people who look like you and me very well.”
Nevertheless, Neely said she chose a career in law enforcement and wanted people to know “police are not all bad,” noting they all swore to uphold the Constitution.
Vines, who was born in North Carolina and moved to Maryland as a child, said she planned on a career as a police officer or in the military but ended up joining the U.S. Secret Service instead.
Welch said she “lucked into” her firefighting career after working with Long Beach Parks and Recreation, and said she saw a Long Beach firefighter recruitment notice on her city paycheck and decided to look into it. While she said she had never considered a firefighting career, she realized almost immediately that was what she wanted to do.
Welch told the Emergence class that she pursued any and all educational opportunities early on, in an effort to develop educational and technical skills that would serve her well during her career. She said she also developed study groups with colleagues from different backgrounds to practice oral interviews and pursue promotions. ”You’re building on that foundation right now,” she told the class, “and you’ll rely on that.”
Neely said it’s important to build a “diverse network,” that includes both folks who look like you and people who don’t and to seek out mentorships, and to pursue opportunities even when they’re not offered. “It’s important to take ownership of your career,” she said.
“Leadership should be centered around your core values. But you have to have your own style. You should be thinking about how to get your people behind you. That’s why you’re here, to learn how to step up.”– Alicia Welch
Vines told the class about working the White House security detail the night George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, where bricks and urine were tossed at her officers. She said she told her colleagues that everyone had to do their jobs and if they had any second thoughts about it they weren’t needed. “It was an amazing night,” she said. “Everyone stuck together. Then we came back the next night and did it all again.”
Neely said she was working in Atlanta the night Floyd was killed, and it “opened a lot of conversations.” At the same time, she said people were continuing to do their jobs under very difficult circumstances, adding that “it’s not a Black and white thing, it’s a human thing. It’s about upholding the Constitution.”
Welch told the class that they were all already leaders in their various professions and should be thinking about how to lead during difficult times. “Leadership should be centered around your core values,” she said. “But you have to have your own style. You should be thinking about how to get your people behind you. That’s why you’re here, to learn how to step up.”
Welch also urged the class not to “self-eliminate” from potential promotional opportunities, arguing that they should be willing to be “uncomfortable” if they have the chance to influence their organization through leadership.
At the same time, Neely said it’s essential to prioritize life-work balance, have conversations with family about your career, and “be very intentional.”
“The family thing is hard,” Vines said, “and don’t make any promises you can’t keep.”
Neely recounted working a security detail in Europe when she called home with two weeks still to go and her husband told her that her young daughter asked him, “Remember when Mommy used to live with us?” That, she said, was tough to hear but prompted some introspection on her homelife. “When you’re home, be home,” she said.
Welch told the class, “You’ll all be promoted and you’ll all have a plan for that promotion. You need a plan for home, too.”
The panel answered a series of questions from the class, including about workplace harassment from both men and women, and how to respond. And the panelists urged men to step up in support of their female colleagues.
“It’s up to you as leaders to step up and say something if you see colleagues being mistreated,” Welch said. “We all want to have people in our corner. Model the behavior you want to see in others.”
CHDS Emergence Program Career and Leadership panelists on the importance of speaking to a group of young leaders: