Even as a toddler, Heather Wishart-Smith chose building blocks over baby dolls, and paired with her influential family history of service, ultimately foresaw her future of becoming a naval engineer.
“When I was just a couple of years old, for Christmas one year, I got both a baby doll and a carriage and a set of blocks,” Wishart-Smith told WashingtonExec. “I threw the baby doll out of the carriage and pushed the blocks around for a couple of months.”
It was at that moment Wishart-Smith’s mother knew her daughter had made an early decision of becoming an engineer. Wishart-Smith herself wasn’t as convinced until later in life.
In fact, she thought she wanted to be an architect. It took three years of technical drawing classes in high school for a friend to point out every building Wishart-Smith designed was an “uninspired rectangular block.”
“I realized that architecture was probably not my preferred field,” Wishart-Smith joked.
Today, Wishart-Smith is the senior vice president of technology and innovation at Jacobs, the world’s leading technology-forward professional solutions provider. She got her start in the U.S. Navy Engineer Corps, after receiving her Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Virginia in 1996 and her Master of Science in Civil Engineering from UVA in 1998. And during those undergraduate years, Wishart-Smith enrolled in Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps.
She was always pretty sure she would join the military, as her family traces its military service back to the Revolutionary War. And while the suburbs of New Jersey where she grew up wasn’t military-heavy, her father was in the Army reserves, and she was always proud of him.
“He instilled in my sister and me a sense of service,” Wishart-Smith said. “So, I think I really decided that was something that I wanted to do.”
And at that time in the 1990s, there were many more opportunities for women in the Navy than in the Army, Wishart-Smith said, so she decided to enroll in Navy ROTC, and was commissioned as a Civil Engineer Corps officer in 1998. She served as a Navy lieutenant and was active duty until May 2002. Wishart-Smith spent much of her naval career in government contracting as a civil engineer corps officer in construction and public works.
During active duty, Wishart-Smith had two main duty stations. She worked in construction management at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and at Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and she was the assistant public works officer at the Presidential Retreat, Camp David in Maryland.
Naturally, being in the Navy taught Wishart-Smith a thing or two about commitment and discipline, and she says she’s extremely proud of her service. Originally, she thought she’d stay in the military for a career, but later had a realization.
“I really appreciate everything that I learned during my time in the military,” Wishart-Smith said, “but I was attracted by the new opportunities that the private sector would afford me.”
And considering this was in 2002 — shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and she had a high-level clearance and a professional engineering license, Wishart-Smith decided to stay in government contracting.
So, that year, she joined KBR engineering and construction company as deputy managing director of its Defense Department design office. In 2005, she moved to construction engineering company Carter & Burgess, Inc., where she was vice president and area manager. There, she managed and grew the company’s presence from 40 staff to 70 in two years, and was responsible for all aspects of practice management, including profit and loss, business development, human resources and more.
In late 2007, Carter & Burgess was acquired by Jacobs. Wishart-Smith moved on to serve in various roles in Jacobs’ federal DOD market sector from 2008–2015, to include vice president and market sector leader; mid-Atlantic regional manager from 2015–2017; and senior vice president of innovation and Jacobs Connected Enterprise throughout the Buildings, Infrastructure and Advanced Facilities division from 2017 – 2019.
In June 2019, she became senior vice president of technology and innovation.
Taking Naval Lessons to Leadership
Wishart-Smith has been learning how to lead throughout her life — from team sports and clubs to enrolling in ROTC. And many of her key lifelong leadership lessons were in the military, particularly from Rear Adm. Michael Giorgione, her commanding officer at Camp David and author of “Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat.”
Wishart-Smith was the assistant public works officer at the time, and in public works — according to her accounts — things didn’t work out all the time.
“When you’re at Camp David, there’s a certain standard that you’re expected to maintain,” she said. “So, I learned how to lead in times of great stress.”
One of those moments is covered in Giorgione’s book, and illustrates a situation that, as Wishart-Smith put it, normally would have had any other leader yelling at her for messing up and being an embarrassment.
Rather, Giorgione asked Wishart-Smith to tell him what happened from start to finish.
“I was prepared for a real talking to and it allowed me to really take a step back, think about the situation, what I could’ve done differently. And it was very disarming,” she said. “It went from being me just getting defensive, to really trying to get into the leadership lesson.”
At the end, Giorgione told Wishart-Smith she had done everything she could, and that she had done a good job.
“Rear Adm. Giorgione really demonstrated a high degree of both clarity and commitment to truth over impressions in this incident,” Wishart-Smith said. “The way he handled the situation — staying composed and listening while operating in a high-stress environment — has stayed with me as a lesson on how to lead and get the best from people.”
But learning leadership lessons is a bit different in industry than it was in the military.
“There’s a lot more leadership by influence; the hierarchy is often a lot less clear. There are times when you get promoted from amongst your peers,” Wishart-Smith said, and that was something she had to get used to when she shifted into the private sector.
And she did have a mentor in the industry — her boss at KBR, Gene Jones, a project director and retired Navy captain also from the Navy Civil Engineer Corps. Jones would call Wishart-Smith into his office in his free time to show her the business side of government contracting.
“I would go in and he’d just start writing on his whiteboard and he would describe to me things like overhead rate and terms and conditions,” she said. “It was really invaluable to me. He knew when he hired me — because he had a similar background — what I didn’t know, and he just took the time periodically to sit me down and teach it to me, which I really, really appreciate.”
Learning the business side of industry was very much on-the-job training for Wishart-Smith; she asked questions, learned from her mistakes and makes a point to return the favor so others can avoid them.
Plus, having worked in government contracting on the government side prior to industry, Wishart-Smith was given a lot of responsibility at very early stages of her career, managing large contracts as a young ensign in the Navy.
“I knew I had a lot more responsibility and that was a great way for me to learn about the business, about the industry, get some great high-level experience at an early age,” she said.
Leading Enterprisewide Innovation
Wishart-Smith’s job is all about innovation, and it’s centered around the fact that to be successful, Jacobs needs innovation to be a pervasive part of its culture.
“Not all innovation involves technology,” Wishart-Smith said, “and not all technology is innovative, so we need to get to the point where it’s part of our culture and that we’re innovating out of habit.”
To do that, Jacobs includes everything from ownership at every level, so innovation isn’t a corporate mandate, but rather, it’s owned, embraced and accelerated by individuals at all levels, not just top down. It also needs to be internal and external: innovating for clients while innovating internally.
“Adopting a culture of continuous improvement, automation and change management, so that we improve the way we run the business,” Wishart-Smith said.
Another aspect of this is to lead with innovation.
“It’s sometimes easy to focus on technology when we talk about innovation, but some of the most enduring and impactful innovations can come from changing a process or how we’re using the tools we’ve already deployed or even taking a completely different approach to solving a problem,” Wishart-Smith added.
She currently focuses on Jacobs’ initiative of opening innovation centers around the world. These centers will bring together people from around the business and across Jacobs’ five technology focus areas: applied geospatial science, automated design, internet of things, predictive analytics and cybersecurity.
In the centers, teams will be co-creating with clients, with each other and with partners to innovate new and different solutions. The initiative is beginning with an innovation accelerator and “Innovation as a Service” facilitation services in 2020.
And Wishart-Smith sees herself continuing to advance Jacobs innovation strategy, working to stay ahead and drive change. She finds unlimited professional opportunity and growth within the company and has never ceased to be challenged and rewarded in each new role she’s held.
Plus, she’s excited about the current convergence of technology and what was previously disparate technology services in industry right now.
“It’s all really coming together and it’s just incredibly fun and exciting to do with Jacobs because we have done all this for a long time, we’re not a newcomer,” she said. “As an industry leader, it’s a really, really neat place to be.”
Finding a Sense of Greater Purpose
Innovation at work is one of many passions for Wishart-Smith, but it’s not the only passion she spends her time on.
“I think you spend far too much time at work not to enjoy what you do and who you do it with. I’ve found that the times that I’ve been happiest in my job, have been when I’ve felt a sense of greater purpose,” she said.
That sense of greater purpose has varied throughout her years, but she’s happiest when she’s doing things that are in direct support of the military and their families, of national security or the environment, and when she’s leading and mentoring others.
“That’s really what tends to drive me,” Wishart-Smith said.
Wishart-Smith is passionate about STEM, and is the national president-elect for the Society of American Military Engineers. She will serve as president May 2020–May 2021.
SAME’s mission is to build leaders and lead collaboration among government and industry to develop multidisciplined solutions to national security infrastructure challenges. Among other things, SAME is involved with developing and producing STEM professionals for the nation.
The organization holds engineering camps for high schoolers, and fosters mathematics competitions and science fair scholarships. And personally, Wishart-Smith speaks to K-12 and college groups about the importance of STEM, and to professionals entering STEM careers in military engineering to encourage retention.
She’s also passionate about mentoring and counseling others. In March 2019, Wishart-Smith was awarded the SAME Gerald C. Brown Mentoring Award.
“Mentoring is a big focus of mine, in part because I’ve had such terrific mentors and also because I just feel like it’s important to give back to the community, the industry as well,” she said.
She mentors young professionals and college students, and has held onto longstanding mentorship relationships of 10 or more years. So, winning the award was particularly meaningful.
But perhaps one of the most rewarding volunteer mentoring roles Wishart-Smith has had was as a job mentor for five years for the homeless at the Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria, Virginia. She helped clients in the shelter write resumes, job search, mock interview and apply for jobs.
“I would do that again in a heartbeat,” Wishart-Smith said. And though she had to stop for various reasons, she said it was one of the most rewarding things she’s ever done, and finds true value in giving back to the community.
She’s also been involved in advocacy to help students with disabilities access special education services in the public school system, led a Girl Scout troop, spent time as a “somewhat” competitive triathlete and teaches Sunday school at Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, where she and her family attend.
But mostly, she’s spending time with her 12-year-old twins and 5-year-old daughter, preferably relaxing at their cottage on Devils Lake in Michigan, where she and her family live for most of the summer.