The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Chief Officer Awards were announced April 15, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually May 27.
Next is Chief Information Officer Award finalist Rebecca McHale, who’s CIO at Booz Allen Hamilton. Here, she talks career turning points, professional risks, career advice and more.
What has made you successful in your current role?
The CIO role has changed substantially over the last several years. The drive for IT organizations to be more closely aligned with the business, and to ensure a user experience that truly advances productivity, requires new or evolving skills.
Having spent most of my career in direct service to the clients of companies like mine, I come armed every day with a perspective of wanting to understand and continually improve the day in the life of those that serve our clients.
I want to drive efficiencies. I want to help functional areas of the business deliver on their core missions. That drive for value-add, mission-empowering technology to make a difference for people is what powers me every day and the passion for that has ultimately enabled a truly satisfying career path.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
There were several critical pivots I made throughout my career — the first was to leadership. All the others that followed involved taking a chance to learn something new. If it was shifting from a cybersecurity-focused role to broader IT management, shifting from government contracting to working at a commercial software company, or moving from client facing roles to internal corporate roles — in each shift, I knew I would learn something that would give me a point of view I did not previously have.
The shift to leadership for me, however, was the most profound. The realization that I could play a real part in helping someone achieve their goals, in getting teams to work together and see the value of the whole as compared to each part, and how each leadership interaction could give me insight into new and diverse perspectives and shape the way I show up every day — fulfilling only begins to describe it.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
This last year has been a challenge at every turn. We came into 2020 knowing as an IT organization that we had two very high-impact and high-intensity priorities with the onset of the Department of Defense’s Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification and, separately, the transformation of our financial systems. Then COVID hit. And within days we were making decisions and implementing strategies to empower a workforce to move, in large part, to telework.
No one priority could be sacrificed and so the lever we could pull was simply ensuring laser focus on those three key priorities — ensuring every team member understood the role they played in realizing these initiatives, the impact that successful execution would have on the organization, and being willing to push aside obstacles and other less critical initiatives to ensure the success of the imperatives.
I am most proud of how the team was able to maintain that focus, and of the trust, vulnerability, accountability and true teamwork that required.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
Years ago, while overseeing a team of hundreds, I was offered an opportunity to step into a highly visible and high-impact role in support of a government client, but it would mean a return to serving as an individual contributor. Leading people was one of the most meaningful parts of my day, and I was faced with a decision to step into a role where that would no longer be part of it.
In exchange, however, it would give me an opportunity to have a significant impact on a critical government mission. I would be required to exercise skills that hadn’t been as critical in previous roles, leading technical direction and influencing mission-critical decisions.
I took that leap and found that it wasn’t long before I had acclimated to my new responsibilities, but those around me recognized that my passion for leadership would be useful in this new role as well. It was a step that, for me, would ultimately help me see a path for myself to CISO, and then ultimately to CIO.
When I look back on what prompted me to make that leap it was one simple thing — is the next step one where I can provide even more value than the one before? Can I bring what I know and what I have experienced and make a difference? As long as that answer has been yes, the professional “risk” has been well worth it.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t worry about whether the next step is the perfect one and be willing to take a little risk. If you lay out a prescribed path for yourself, you will most certainly end up disappointed.
The best decisions I made took me in a direction I never knew they could. I made those choices based on a personal reflection on the kind of impact I could have and the value I could provide. And I wasn’t always right. But when I failed, I learned more from that failure than all the successes combined, and it made the next success that much sweeter.