An Inspiring Woman Leader

Mary Givvines is currently the Deputy Director for the Office of Information Services at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Washington D.C., USA. Mary’s current position involves executive leadership responsibilities for the NRC’s IT infrastructure and telecommunications, business application development, corporate IT project management and planning, along with information management, privacy and records management.  Mary manages a $100 Million annual budget and approximately 500 staff, both federal and contractor. During her illustrious career, Mary has held a number of senior management positions to include Controller of the NRC. 

Mary is a Certified Public Accountant and received a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from the University of Maryland and a Master of Business Administration from John Hopkins University.  She was a recipient of the Administrator’s Special Citation at the Department of Health and Human Services and has been nominated for the Senior Executive Meritorious and Distinguished Awards.  With more than 30 years of experience as a leader, Mary shares her leadership journey with us as well as her views on leadership.

How would you define leadership?
The role of a leader is very significant in any organization, whether private, government or any another type of organization. I believe a leader plays a critical role in setting the tone and direction from the top.  While setting the vision is important, leadership is about making decisions, looking for opportunities to advance the organization in the most effective and efficient way and coaching/mentoring staff to bring out the best in them.

Did you have a specific action plan to become a leader in your professional life? If yes, what steps did you take to become a leader?
Since I was a very young child, I enjoyed helping people, taking control of situations, enjoyed work really hard and not afraid to step up to the plate. So, becoming a leader perhaps developed naturally for me. I first became a manager at the very young age of 24.  Since then, however, I matured and developed my skills as there was always an opportunity to learn. I’ve always enjoyed being around people of all backgrounds and working with them to get something accomplished whether it was at church, in our neighborhood or at work.  So, it felt very natural for me to be a leader and feel the desire had always been inside of me.

What qualities do you think are important to be an effective leader?
I think there are a number of important qualities to be an effective leader. You have to enjoy people and have good interpersonal skills. You have to care for people in order to be a good leader because a lot has to do with the way you interact with them.  They have to feel they trust you. Another important quality is self-awareness of your style of communication since not everybody communicates and hears things the way you do.  It is essential to learn how to read people, to learn how to actively listen because we are all different. You have to be aware of your communication style and the way others communicate and then tailor the conversation appropriately.

I also believe that an effective leader needs to be able to take risks and should not to be afraid to make decisions, no matter how difficult and challenging the situation may be. A leader must have the ability to see the current and future big picture to have the skill to set a simple and clear vision that obtains buy-in from subordinates. I would like to add one more item – a leader should not feel it is beneath them to perform any kind or level of task in the organization, they should not expect people to do what they wouldn’t do themselves.

I think that leaders can be introverts or extroverts. Many times, people associate leaders with the more dynamic, outspoken people. However, introverts do make good leaders because as a leader, it is not really about you, it’s about how you impact and influence those following you. That is why it is important to be aware and model the right behavior you expect them to follow. The way you embrace people and value their contributions is by listening to them. I’ve been known to be a very fast and energetic person and talk quite a bit. Looking back throughout my career, while my intentions were always to do good sometimes I may have been misunderstood I’m so quick to respond and I talk very fast.

What I’ve learned, which is why self-awareness is important, was that I needed to slow down and listen and seek to understand since people have varying personalities and styles of communicating and may hear or feel something different than what you expected. For example, some people need more time to think, digest and make decisions and I make decisions very quickly which can be frightening to some.  Staff and other subordinates ultimately just want to feel they’ve been heard and you were listening. You don’t have to have all the answers, just opening up to the conversation goes a long way. I am getting ready to retire in a few months after 30+ years in management and leadership. One lesson I would truly like to emphasize is that you shouldn’t think you know it all, be open, listen and genuinely value the contributions of others.

What challenges did you face as a woman in your leadership journey and what are the ones you continue to face?
Even today, I often sit at the conference table with many men and very few woman, if any. Over the years, it has gotten a little bit better but I remember distinctly a few incidents where I felt that I was not taken as seriously as a man in discussions and meetings. I recall situations where I voiced an idea or opinion and received no response, and a man basically says the same thing, and gets more attention and the conversation tends to perk up.

So I do think that sometimes women, unfortunately, are not taken as seriously as men in leadership.  You have to try harder to make your points and really demonstrate that you are credible and strong. Also I believe if you are the least bit attractive, you have to work even harder to prove yourself.  Looking back over the years, I’ve definitely experienced challenges but I did not let it stop me; the more I accomplished and the more I demonstrated that I was capable, the more respect and credibility I earned.

Are there times you wanted to give up and if so, what did you do to continue on your leadership journey?
No, I never wanted to give up. It’s not in me; that’s just not who I am. Sometimes you just have to accept the way things are and recognize that you can’t change everything.  Not everything is fair so you have to find a way to work around it. It’s too big of a fight sometimes and you just have to let go and focus on the positive. I’ve had a number of challenges as a leader and some of them were directly related to men. One time for instance, an African-American man was selected for a positon over me only because he was African-American male. I know that for a fact and many would have agreed that I was definitely a better candidate, I had more experience and a better track record (by the way, after 2 years, he ended up working for me).

I think it is worth repeating, that like anything else in life, it’s all about your attitude and the way you choose to deal with the situation. While this situation was very disappointing, I didn’t fight it, I didn’t talk too much about it and I didn’t let it discourage me.  Perhaps, I’ve actually been blessed because I haven’t faced as many challenges as other women have and that may be partly because I am in the Federal Government. However, I can say with full assurance, that when you are a leader and a woman, you need to carry a different persona at times to be taken more seriously.

How has being a woman leader affected various areas of your life?
I don’t know if it’s being a leader or just being who I am but I take my job seriously and, therefore, very committed. I work very, very hard and I feel that sometimes, I have put my job before important things in my life. I have taken it too seriously and I haven’t had the right priorities in my life. My various jobs have affected my family. I feel they have suffered a bit from the lack of my devoted time and because I was stressed often which was noticeable to pretty obvious to them. I have always had quite a bit going on at the same time and the stress impacted my relationships. I believe that as a woman, when you are a leader, you play a very important role and others are dependent on you. 

However, you may not realize the affect you are having on your family when you bring work home and may not be always actively present.  My daughter has often said to me, “mom, are you even listening to me or you are not listening to me.” She used to also tell me that I loved my job more than her.  The stress that comes with that responsibility at times, or at least for me, has clearly impacted other parts of my life.  If the stress and work-life balance are not managed properly, your family and friends may suffer. Also, I didn’t have enough down time for myself. I know that my husband is proud of me and supports my career but it also bothered him that we rarely had time to cook or even eat dinner together.

Are you trying to achieve better work-life balance and if so, how?
I’m terrible at work-life balance. Again, I don’t think it comes just from being a leader. I think that it comes from the person you are, no matter what job you have. But I do think that leadership is more demanding so you have to be ready to give up and to sacrifice some things. I do believe that I could have done a better job at work-life balance and that it is possible to make it work. I do think that women in leadership have to pay attention to this aspect of their lives and that they do have a handle on their work-life balance, unlike me who didn’t.

If I looked back, that is probably one of the things that I would change. I would have learned to let go, to accept the fact that some things are not going to get done and that what I do does not always have to be A+ and that is ok.  I should have been more comfortable with not meeting every deadline and not feeling like it is a sign of failure to just take more time off to be with my family.  I should have completely shut down from work when I came home and completely paid attention to my family.  I’ve realized I’ve made some mistakes and learning and enjoying putting my family first. 

What advice would you give women who aspire to become leaders within their organization or in society in general but believe they don’t have what it takes?
First of all, they need to start by changing their thought process and having a more positive attitude and outlook.  A woman can do and achieve whatever she wants if she truly desires it.  It may not be easy but it is doable.  I worked 2 jobs, went to college part-time and was a single mom and made it.  If you desire to be a leader, don’t let disappointments turn into discouragement, learn from your mistakes, take chances and be bold.  Don’t be so hard on yourself either. 

You should also try to be more aware of the behaviors and traits of leaders you admire and ask yourself what is it about them that makes you feel that way and what can you start to do to develop yourself.  Start small with managing a few people and learn from that which will build up your confidence.  When you start to earn respect and get things accomplished, you will naturally start to feel more confident and take bolder steps.  Do not be afraid to make decisions and it is ok to step out and take chances.

What role does self-confidence play in becoming a leader? Do you believe it can be built?
You do need to have confidence to be a leader and it needs to show if you want to earn respect and influence others. You do have to know who you are. Maybe there are certain environments, certain cultures that have left women thinking they are a little less, feeling not very confident. Or it could be something in their childhood that made them feel that way. I believe that your level of confidence depends on the person you are and on the environment and culture you were raised in. If you were born in a family where your mother always told you that you weren’t good enough, you’re not going to have that confidence to become a leader. So I really think it depends on individual situations. Good leaders learn from their mistakes and it’s fine to make bad decisions as long as you learn from them.

So I think that the level of self-confidence depends on the person, their environment and how they were raised. However, a person can develop their self-confidence. They need to work at it. It’s like someone who is afraid to speak in front of people but the more they do it, the more comfortable they get with it. Before they know it, they’re a professional speaker. So I think that building your self-confidence is like anything else. The more you do something, the more confident you will be.

What message would you like to share?
It’s more on the spiritual side. I feel I have been very blessed to have had the opportunities I have had. I do believe that no matter what role you play, you should have the spiritual component (God) in your life. You have to know that you are being led by something much more powerful, no matter what the situation, no matter what the job is. I think that it has always been there for me but I haven’t been aware of it until these past three to four years. I do believe that if I was younger and in this position, I would have prayed more.

Interviewed by Aïda