Susan Penfield’s Humble Beginnings, Curiosity Define Her Leadership Success

Susan Penfield, Booz Allen Hamilton

Susan Penfield, Booz Allen Hamilton

Susan Penfield has several career moments to be proud of, but she wasn’t necessarily shaped by those. Rather, she attributes the type of leader she is to humble beginnings, a developed sense of empathy, technical curiosity and meaningful professional relationships.

Penfield, an executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, grew up in the small town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where women mostly worked in retail and health care. There also wasn’t much of a tech industry she was interested in pursuing.

So, when she graduated from Lock Haven University just 30 miles from her hometown in 1983, she took the jobs that were available — working at a couple of radio stations, writing commercials and doing on-air production.

Penfield had a degree in technology management and was schooled in computer languages like BASIC and Fortran. She had used computers in labs in college and graduated during the beginning of the personal computer technology era, but nobody really had PCs yet.

So, when she was transferred to the Washington, D.C., area while working at a merchants association, she started scanning The Washington Post classifieds.

“For me, having grown up in a small town, there were so many jobs, it was almost overwhelming,” Penfield told WashingtonExec. “I didn’t really know what the government contracting industry was, but I applied for a bunch of different things as sort of an entry-level person.”

She landed at a small woman-owned government contractor that provided technology consulting services to science-based clients like NASA, the National Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation. She was with the company from 1987-1994, eventually serving as vice president.

“That’s how I entered into that world,” Penfield said.

And because Booz Allen had a large prime contract with NASA to which Penfield was a subcontractor, she worked with and established relationships with members of the firm.

Working with a small company gave Penfield the opportunity to learn a little bit of everything — from proposals to finance, to running operations and internal growth. After seven years, she was ready to take that experience to a larger firm.

Penfield was referred to Booz Allen by a mid-level manager, and she joined the company as an associate in 1994 — at the beginning of the tech wave. She compared the position to a project leader on technical jobs.

“It was sort of the best thing that ever happened,” she said. “I loved the environment, I loved the culture, I loved the people, I loved the work that we did.”

She didn’t even mind the 2-hour commute downtown every day. Instead, she focused on the “small town girl makes good” opportunity.

It was a decision that helped her realize some important goals — and she even has the colleagues to vouch for it.

Memorable Milestones

Penfield’s career progressed rapidly within Booz Allen. With a focus on adopting the right technologies and tooling the workforce for the needs of the future, Penfield’s leadership pioneered a culture of continuous innovation at Booz Allen.

Booz Allen’s culture is steeped in the belief that a diverse workforce bringing tech skills and human ingenuity together in partnership with the technology ecosystem will create solutions that make the world a better place.

When Penfield joined Booz Allen in 1994, it was the era of client servers. She heavily focused on health care and IT, and watched the firm grow from 2,600 people to 16,000 in a matter of 8-9 years.

“I rode that tech wave and we had so many significant technology contracts,” Penfield said. “I was there at the ground.”

By 2002, she was one of the firm’s first female technology leaders and instrumental in shepherding the transformation of Booz Allen’s Software Delivery business through the stand-up of its Software Delivery Center of Excellence.

The same year, she was named partner — a memory she won’t forget.

“Inside Booz Allen, becoming a partner is a big thing. It’s part of our culture,” Penfield said.

She was able to share that milestone with her late parents — and a room of wedding guests.

“I went to my cousin’s wedding that weekend, and she married a guy from Booz Allen, funny enough,” Penfield said. In fact, Penfield and the man her cousin was marrying had been coworkers for a while.

But when the groom stood to toast the bride, he ended up toasting Penfield instead to recognize and congratulate her new partner status.

“Which is a really nice thing to do, but I don’t think my cousin who was the bride thought it was the greatest thing,” Penfield joked, “but we always laugh about it.”

Becoming a partner was huge for Penfield, especially as she saw herself as a “small town girl from Pennsylvania [who]goes to work for a prestigious firm in Washington and makes partner,” as she put it.

And as a woman coming up through the ranks within a large firm, she got to represent women in technology and those who wanted to be in technology.

Sometime during the upward progression of her career, Penfield also found time to earn her executive leadership certificate from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 2007.

That same year, she became one of the first female partners to lead the firm’s largest business sector. As the health market leader and client service officer, she drove technology and transformation initiatives for almost every major federal health-related organization in the U.S.

Then came another pinnacle of her career: Penfield made senior partner.

And in 2015, Booz Allen transitioned from CEO Ralph Shrader who retired Dec. 31, 2014, after 40 years with the firm to his successor, Horacio Rozanski.

Rozanski has been with the firm since 1992 and played a central role in Booz Allen’s 2010 initial public offering, and its 2011 expansion into international and commercial markets. He’s also been one of Penfield’s mentors and sponsors over the years.

When Rozanski took over as president and CEO, he began creating and reorganizing his leadership team with a focus on innovation and a strategy for the future. In 2016, he called on Penfield to join the leadership team and become chief innovation officer, leading the firm’s Strategic Innovation Group — marking her most recent career milestone during a time she’ll never forget.

“I kind of sat there and just kind of took it all in,” Penfield said. “I had little tears in my eyes because you’re so excited about the potential and the opportunity.”

With elevation to the firm’s leadership team, Susan became the second woman to serve as the firm’s chief innovation officer.

Susan Penfield with Booz Allen’s Chief People Officer Betty Thompson and CEO Horacio Rozanski at the 2019 Booz Allen Excellence Awards at Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

In the years to follow, she was instrumental in launching the firm’s DC Innovation Center and one of the architects of driving its own corporate transformation beyond a management consultancy to a technology firm.

She drove the firm’s innovation agenda to build and scale differentiated technical solutions in fields such as digital transformation, artificial intelligence, advanced cyber, and augmented and virtual reality.

“My focus was simple: Catch the right tech waves, invest appropriately, position ourselves in the ecosystem to be relevant and good partners to high-tech firms and develop an ecosystem of partnerships with starts-ups and incubators,” Penfield said.

Under her leadership, she developed new business models, sales channels, and infused a start-up culture into Booz Allen’s corporate brand. Through her vision and direction, the firm implemented a future-forward process to develop a scalable approach to identifying, accelerating and delivering viable solutions to market.

Within the last two years, Susan was instrumental in defining Booz Allen’s status as a product-driven company with the launches of District Defend, Recreation.gov and Modzy.

Frank DiGiammarino, executive vice president of solutions and innovation strategy at Booz Allen, has witnessed the impact of Susan’s leadership.

“Susan has an unmatched blend of both IQ and EQ, and the humanity she brings to her leadership style creates always-growing mutual trust and respect for each person’s abilities, which in turn fosters an environment that encourages calculated risk-taking and fast-paced innovation,” said DiGiammarino.

Gratitude and Empathy

Penfield says there are two factors that make her the leader she is today: her humble beginnings and strong leaders as mentors.

“I grew up just in a different world,” Penfield said. “My parents never owned a home or a car or brand-new anything.”

She attended a small, Catholic school growing up. When her father had a heart attack in his late 30s, he had to take time off work. Her family relied on others for help, used food stamps for a period of time, and the school paid for Penfield’s tuition.

“I really developed empathy around people who need help and need support. And I’ve always sort of found ways to give back to those who are less fortunate because I went through it myself,” Penfield said.

After a rough patch and with the support of others, her family did get back on track. Penfield has since worked to pay forward the support and help her family received.

“Everybody has a story, everybody copes differently,” she said.” Everybody needs support and help. And the No. 1 thing to me about being a good leader is to be empathetic, to be transparent, to be true to who you are, and to be a good listener.”

And now, being a senior leader, Penfield has the platform to do a lot of good, and the time, energy and resources to give back.

Susan Penfield with Booz Allen volunteers at a holiday event at the Children’s Inn at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.

For example, she has sponsored tuition for underserved children, and has been working with The Children’s Inn at NIH since 2006, currently serving as vice chair of the board and trustee. She’s also the national board chair for social good accelerator SEED SPOT, works with Girls Inc. STEM Girls for Social Good, with Booz Allen’s Partnership for Public Service, and has sat on boards for the American Red Cross — National Capitol Region, The Women’s Center and Healthy Women.org.

SEED SPOT CEO C’pher Gresham first met Penfield when his company was expanding from the West Coast to D.C. to support social entrepreneurs in the region. He says he admires Penfield’s dedication to enabling positive change, saying she saw the power of supporting diverse entrepreneurs solving societal issues to make an impact on the world and specifically in D.C.

Since their first meeting, Penfield has jumped in to support the growth of SEED SPOT in D.C. and nationally, Gresham said, and through her leadership and impact, SEED SPOT was recognized as a Top 5 Global Accelerator at the World Incubation Summit in Doha, Qatar.

Gresham also noted Penfield’s support of those with diverse backgrounds and her ability to remove barriers for them to reach their goals.

“Her unique perspective and life-long dedication to creating a more equal playing field for underserved groups has further helped SEED SPOT achieve our mission of serving all impact-driven founders, entrepreneurs and small businesses owners,” he said.

DiGiammarino can attest to Penfield’s dedication to community work.

“On top of her full-time job, Susan can put her whole self into her board memberships. She is always an active participant and is never just going through the motions,” DiGiammarino said.

Penfield also spread that community outreach mission internally. She asked Julie McPherson, an

Susan Penfield with Booz Allen Executive Vice President Julie McPherson and Booz Allen tech volunteers at a pro-bono event at the Children’s Inn at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.

executive vice president who has been at Booz Allen for 25 years and worked with Penfield for five years, to help create a Women’s for Inn community.

“She championed, supported and helped launch a group of 80 and growing strong successful women who feel passionate about this inn’s mission,” McPherson said of Penfield.

Mentors as Sponsors

Penfield’s leaders and mentors also played a major role in the leader she is. She views these mentors as more of a sponsorship: people who really take an interest in you.

“Horacio was one of those people for me,” Penfield said. She worked with him on different initiatives over the years, and he’d pick her to collaborate with on projects or plans around strategy.

And forming these types of relationships in big companies is important. “You need that sponsorship, that advocacy and for someone to tell your story, when you can’t,” Penfield said.

Colleagues have found that sponsorship in Penfield, too.

Kristine Anderson, an executive vice president and civilian services group lead at Booz Allen, said she met Penfield in 2005 in the back of the bar at the Tysons Ritz Carlton one night.

“That meeting was the beginning of a multimonth recruitment and led to one of the best decisions of my life — to come to work with her at Booz Allen to help her build a health care business,” said Anderson, who’s worked with Penfield since.

Jennifer Riley, a principal/director for the Strategic Innovation Group who has worked with Penfield since 2016, has a similar story. She has experienced much growth and opportunity under Penfield’s leadership.

“Susan made space for my voice, welcomed me into leadership, took the time to understand my work, championed and secured funding for my initiatives, and opened doors for me to present up through the CEO and board of directors,” Riley said.

Similarly, McPherson said Penfield is the single most influential woman in her life, having sought opportunities for her to learn and grow while celebrating her successes openly and loudly.

And around the office, Penfield is known for being an advocate by nature, making colleagues feel like family.

“When you have Susan in your corner, that means that there is nothing that she won’t do for you. She uses her limitless passion and intellect to help you to be your best you,” Anderson added.

In fact, many of Penfield’s colleagues share that same sentiment. Abby Vaughan, Strategic Innovation Group business operations lead, has worked with Penfield on a regular basis since 2015, helping her run the operation of the Strategic Innovation Group. Vaughan compares working with Penfield to taking a masterclass in “heart-led leadership,” and that Penfield is always the positive “we can do this” voice in the room.

“I don’t think I knew what a ‘good boss’ was until I met and observed Susan Penfield in action,” Vaughan said. “She truly cares about her work and its impact, which wouldn’t be possible without her dedication to the people she inspires and empowers every day.”

Susan Penfield with Booz Allen’s Chief People Officer Betty Thompson at a STEM Girls for Social Good event at Booz Allen’s Innovation Center in Washington, D.C.

Penfield is also passionate about feeding that pool of future technologists across the technology sector, especially women. That’s why she’s involved in various STEM-related initiatives, like Girls Who Code and STEM Girls for Social Good.

It’s around trying to get girls excited about a technology career, Penfield said.

“And that’s one of the things that, in terms of my own legacy, I want to focus on, now and into the future to ensure that we have great women who will be technology leaders in the future,” she added.

She does this internally, too. Vaughan said Penfield is extremely generous with her time to mentor employees in the trenches, set them up with coaches or new connections, and give them candid feedback when needed.

And her efforts don’t go without notice, or impact.

“I used to say the only way to get more women in STEM is to have more women in STEM; research and development is hard enough without the added challenges that the first woman on a team faces,” Riley said. “Working for Susan has made it clear to me that women at the top can be such a force-multiplier for that. No matter how few women are in any given team or meeting, we don’t feel like an exception when there’s a woman in charge.”

Penfield also helped create the firm’s first Women’s Agenda in 2010, which is when she first met Betty Thompson, chief people officer and executive vice president at Booz Allen.

Together, they created a strategic plan to focus on the identification, development, support and advancement of women in the firm. Their work resulted in going from no women on the leadership team to a majority and with all four business groups led by women.

Penfield also drove the firm’s engagement with Girls Who Code, Girl Scouts, and its Tech Excellence program which is focused on increasing diversity technology talent.

“She is an authentic leader — humble, empathetic, insightful and the word I always use when I talk about Susan — generous,” Thompson said of Penfield.” She is generous with her time, knowledge, resources and wisdom.”

Penfield will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award on June 17 at WashingtonExec’s virtual Chief Officer Awards.

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