GDIT’s Leigh Palmer Blends Communication with Technical Skills to Lead Defense

Leigh Palmer has a passion for learning, great pride in her team and a respect for diverse perspectives that led her through a government contracting career founded by family military routes but grown from leadership and experiences.

Leigh Palmer

Palmer serves as the senior vice president of General Dynamics Information Technology’s Defense portfolio. But growing up, “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she said.

Something Palmer was familiar with was the public sector. Her father was in the military, and after, a civil servant.

“I knew something about the industry just having grown up in a family that was in the industry,” Palmer explained.

She attended the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, better known as Virginia Tech, and graduated in 1991 —just in time for what Palmer referred to as a horrible recession.

When she couldn’t find a job, she decided to go to grad school. After receiving her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, Palmer swore to herself she wouldn’t move back to Washington, D.C. — or so she thought.

“I was going to move to New York, I was going to move to Boston, I was going to do something cool and not go back to D.C.,” Palmer said. But since her dad was in the industry, she had a strong group of mentors and landed her first job as an intern in the D.C. area.

And from there, Palmer has led a career path based entirely on government contracting.

Growth to Leadership

The position that launched her career was as an internship at Virginia-based ICF International, a consulting and technology services company. Palmer then worked for INDUS Corp. as a senior member of its technical staff, then landed at Northrop Grumman as a department manager.

In 2004, after six years at Northrop, Palmer went to BAE Systems, where she held multiple senior-level positions within its intelligence business, including vice president of national information technology mission solutions, vice president of advanced programs, cybersecurity director and other management roles overseeing technology deployment programs.

Palmer spent the bulk of her career with BAE Systems — 11 years — before leaving at the end of 2015 to serve as the executive vice president of CSRA’s Intelligence Group. There, she supported mission-critical needs within the intelligence community by delivering a broad spectrum of IT services.

And in 2018, GDIT acquired CSRA, merging two large industry leaders.

Since the merger, Palmer has served as the senior vice president of GDIT’s National Security Division, where she led the delivery of programs supporting homeland security and the intelligence community.

In her current role, as senior vice president of the company’s defense portfolio, Palmer oversees the delivery of mission critical services and solutions to Defense Department and government customers.

Drawn to Defense with the Right Skills, Right Mission

Being in a military family meant Palmer was always a little bit drawn to the defense field, but her educational path didn’t start that way.

“I started out in a technology degree, and I didn’t like it,” Palmer said. “So, I ended up graduating with more of a liberal arts degree. Then I went to Penn, and had a very diverse multidisciplinary degree, and here I am, in a technology field,” she shared.

But Palmer views her education as a huge benefit because, well, “so many technologists can’t communicate,” as she put it.

She said it’s important to develop leadership and communication skills along with the technology skills, especially in this industry.

“If you only have one, you’re going to be missing part of the equation that it really takes to lead an organization and lead a team,” Palmer said. And though it wasn’t part of her grand plan, it has worked in Palmer’s favor.

“I now have experience in many different aspects of the industry,” she said.

And as the industry changes, Palmer said it’s a particularly exciting time to be a part of federal IT and government contracting. There are traditional contractors, non-traditional contractors and non-traditional entrants coming into the marketplace, and the government is trying to move from stodgy and slow-to-reform to modernized organizations.

“They want to really lean in on the innovation front,” Palmer said. “So, there’s so many complex problems to deal with all at once, and that’s exciting.”

But what really excites Palmer is the ability to impact and have real lasting change.

“Some of the things we’re doing here at GDIT or doing for our customers, there’s only so many times in your career where you’re like, ‘I can really do something that builds a foundation for the future.’ I feel like we’re really doing that work today,” Palmer said.

Beyond the Bullet Points

And Palmer’s responsibilities as a team leader and place in GDIT expand far beyond her job description.

“My job is super simple and super difficult at the same time,” she said. “I have to surround myself with great people. I have to build a great team. Then, I have to create the right culture and the right environment for that team to succeed.”

And there are many intricacies associated with that, especially when bringing together companies, teams and cultures. After deciding what culture works and how to succeed with that culture, it needs to be worked on every single day.

“That’s my No. 1 job here,” Palmer said.

She also makes a point to remain true to herself. Palmer has had many great mentors along the way, but she has also learned there’s good advice, and there’s just advice — and not all advice is right for everyone.

“You figure it out along the way and you just have to be true to yourself,” Palmer said. Otherwise, as a leader, you can seem unauthentic.

“I think when people work with me or see me or see me speak or anything around here, one thing I think that they would say about me is that I know where I stand, ‘Leigh’s authentic.’ Because I’m terrible at hiding things, so why try. Just put it out there,” Palmer said.

But these responsibilities and tasks don’t come without their own challenges, and through those challenges, lessons learned and successes.

Adapting to Change

In the last four years, Palmer has become an expert on bringing together organizations.

“I never thought that I would be here,” she said, “with just merger after merger and acquisition after acquisition and organization realignment to organization realignment. It’s really, really exciting.”

But if you told her five or six years ago she would be at GDIT doing what she is doing, she probably wouldn’t have believed you.

“I think some of it goes to the change and how much change is going on in the industry, and how leaders have to really understand how to adapt to that change and get confident with bringing it together,” Palmer said. “We’re going to do the best we can. We’re going to move forward. So, that’s both the challenge and the opportunity side.”

And the biggest reward has been her team.

“I personally think I have the best team in the industry,” Palmer said, a team that operates well together and tackles challenges head on, rather than backing down from them.

Plus, having a team of people with different expertise and perspectives helps her keep up with the fast-paced evolution of technology — they each bring a piece of the puzzle. And bringing those teams together, and creating an environment for collaboration, debate and ideas is the best path forward to the right solution.

“I’m a big believer the only way to really address a big, thorny problem is to get a lot of diverse perspectives on it. Hash it out. And then determine the path you go,” Palmer said.

It also doesn’t hurt that her team can joke around, thanks to Bitmojis — personal, custom cartoon-like expressive avatars with a library of stickers. When it has been a long, challenging or frustrating day, Palmer can send a team member a silly Bitmoji to fit the mood.

“You have to enjoy being together when you’re going to go do something hard, you also have to just like talking to each other and joking with each other. And saying, ‘Yep, yesterday was a bad day. Tomorrow’s going to be better,’” she said.

And ultimately, Palmer believes if you surround yourself with great people, everything takes care of itself.

Constantly Learning

Palmer is a big believer in learning everywhere. She loves to read and finds a learned diversity of perspective from reading and researching. But one area she finds particularly fascinating to learn from is her two teenagers.

“You learn from your kids. You learn from the activities that your kids do,” she said. And not just her kids, but the entire generation.

“The fact that they’re going to be the future workforce and how they work and how they operate and what they do is really informative on what we need to do to be able to attract,” she said.

But she also feels passionate about making sure her kids learn and understand life, leadership and communication skills — not just math and science.

And she finds it best to learn these skills from something that you love, like sports and theater, which her kids are involved with.

“Whatever your passion may be, if you have that open mind learning mindset, you’ll learn something every day,” Palmer said.

Her kids may call her a nerd for taking six books to a summer breach trip, and they might be a bit embarrassed by her Bitmoji use — but gaining perspective and always learning is what Palmer is most passionate about.

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