By James Steele, Assistant Director, Communications
How This Started
According to AmeriCorps (2021), about 30% of Americans report volunteering in some capacity. When people volunteer their time, they are showing that they care enough about other people to invest a portion of their time making the world, or at least their communities, better. One of the things I enjoy most about volunteering for Federal Career Connection, Inc. is the ability to connect and work with some incredibly talented, good people. Their stories deserve to be told, and the wisdom they have deserves to be shared. All I needed was the right channel. And so, an ongoing blog series was begun. There was no shortage of great candidates to begin the series. But I had hoped a certain person would agree to go first….
Each month, FCC hosts a webinar designed to educate the audience about some aspect of federal jobs, featuring a speaker or panel of experts. Behind each of these events is a person who shepherds the development, ensuring FCC delivers the best educational content for the audience. That person is the Assistant Director of Curriculum, Chris Westbrook. Having collaborated with Chris on multiple projects for a year and a half, I’ve seen her leadership skills, sharp mind, and kind heart displayed in both presentation mode and offline conversations. Chris kindly agreed to the interview. As she shared her story, several themes and lessons emerged.
Understanding how someone got started helps inform us not only about what happened but also the unique decision-making factors that influenced them. Part of what influenced Chris’s career path was family. In the 1950s, her mother worked for the Central Intelligence Agency—and sharing her experiences there, and what the CIA meant to her, had a big impact on Chris. How a parent describes their career to a child can often influence their perception of that career path. But it wasn’t only family that influenced her choice. In high school, a history teacher who would become a mentor inspired Chris’s interest in world events. While pursuing an education, sometimes we are fortunate enough to encounter a person who helps us connect our learning experiences to the larger world.
Chris also described her college experience as a driving force that would shape her life. She chose the College of William & Mary for her undergraduate education to study government – only four years after the Watergate scandal that shook the country. But rather than losing trust in the government, the scandal only increased Chris’s interest in trying to make a positive difference. After completing her undergraduate studies, she came to Washington, DC. With a foundation laid, she would move into formally establishing her career.
“Life is full of choices and paths taken and not taken,” as Chris would say. One major theme that was interwoven throughout several of her stories was knowing yourself and knowing where you want to go. The first role that Chris applied to in the CIA wasn’t a good fit for her. It was the target organization, but not work that fit her. Reapplying later led to the right role at the right time. Chris actually noted that the CIA hires many people who have applied more than once. From choosing to go to graduate school in Washington, DC instead of London, to staying in DC to remain in the job market, each of these choices would influence her life. True to the principle of opportunity cost, all our choices matter. So, know what you want so you can make choices that align with your goals.
To paraphrase the novelist J.M. Barrie, everyone’s life is like a diary in which you mean to write one story but then you write another. While we can and should make plans, we often have to adapt. While Chris had applied to the CIA in college, and was recommended for an overseas role, both she and they realized that this wasn’t the right role for her. Her goal was to become an analyst. Her first job was on Capitol Hill in the US Senate, a job she obtained through a former college classmate. Serving as a receptionist for Bob Dole led her to form other connections that allowed her to do legislative correspondence—and her first management job—for newly elected Senator Paula Hawkins.
While she loved the issues, the politicking that came with such roles wasn’t for her. This led to her decision to apply to graduate school to pursue her studies in political science while simultaneously applying for a job with the CIA. She was accepted to both institutions. She decided to complete her graduate work at The George Washington University and worked part time at the CIA. Her experiences would prove that these decisions were both the right ones. She became a full-time analyst after completing her graduate degree.
Not all of our life lessons are learned the easy way. Chris shared with me that she was actually fired from that first job working for Senator Dole. Because of the stressful nature of the job, she would sometimes grumble—and she was a little too vocal. The office manager asked her to leave. In our interview she noted that she wanted me to include this because it was valuable for readers to be reminded to think before you speak and to be measured in your feedback. Another point that Chris emphasized is that, in the federal government, you have to be aware of the political context and environment around your agency and the government as well as the world. Understanding your environment allows you to make good communication choices and understand how colleagues perceive you.
Chris spoke of the importance of having a good “hall file,” which was a term used at CIA for your informal reputation. Chris would have new opportunities present themselves as she rose to senior levels in the GS ranks. One of her first management positions was serving at the team chief level for the Balkans branch. This achievement came with the challenge of supervising people who had previously competed for the position. She reached out to different mentors and received support as she moved into the position.
Continuing to serve at the chief level on another assignment into the early 2000s, she then made a mid-career switch. One of the advantages of working with the federal government, as Chris noted, is the ability to move around agencies and departments without having to step backwards. Through one of her husband’s mentors at the CIA, she moved into the agency’s Recruitment Center as a recruiter and manager. This took place a few months ahead of 9/11, which prompted the largest hiring surge in CIA history. Her final position was as the Deputy Director for the Intelligence Language Institute, which Chris described as working in a mini–United Nations. The then-director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, directed a lot of resources to develop more officers’ foreign language training. This allowed the CIA’s language school to expand its instructional force and programming and allowed Chris to grow as a manager.
Good communication skills would also be helpful to Chris when it came to the subject of advice. She has been the beneficiary of many mentors who provided guidance and advice. But here’s the sticking point: she didn’t take all of it. There were some issues she really wanted to work on as an analyst for the CIA and was told that, “This isn’t the normal path for getting ahead.” But she chose to do it anyway. By forging her own path, Chris ended up doing groundbreaking work in on weapons proliferation issues after the fall of the Soviet Union. “Following your own advice can also lead to success but you have to be willing to take that risk,” as Chris says. Accepting and welcoming advice and feedback as well as learning how to sometimes go against advice and establish your own path is a delicate balancing act that everyone needs to learn.
Continuing the Story
As one begins to see one chapter closing, it’s only wise to consider what story you want to write in the next one. Chris retired from the CIA and full-time work in 2018. But she wanted to continue facilitating the leadership and management training that was the focus of her final days at the Agency. Building up her professional network outside the federal government allowed Chris to do that. She now works with learners from multiple backgrounds. Unlike the CIA, which had a unique group of learners, she now works with people from the private sector, nonprofits, domestic agencies, and a lot of international clients in organizations such as Britepaths, Streetwise Partners, and Learning Tree, International. She describes it as “part time paid work, but full-time busy,” and is very grateful for where her career is now.
Chris’s expanded volunteer work included coming to FCC through Career Network Ministry. Some of the clients she was working with had mentioned the organization, and one of these clients convinced her to come to a holiday party at CNM. She was introduced to Alex Harrington, the founder of FCC. At that time, FCC was much smaller, and he was looking to expand. Chris came on board initially doing presentations on the US intelligence community. She would be asked to manage FCC’s curriculum based on her experience with training and development. One thing that she loves about the work is being able to expand her network—a crucial element in finding speakers for the webinars, which doubled in 2021. She continues to play a vital leadership role for FCC.
Chris is clearly an educated and informed person. But it’s also clear that she is a lifelong learner. And that willingness to keep learning and going beyond what you know is a vital part of career management. While her work with the CIA did allow her to occasionally work with and learn from people working in domestic agencies, this wasn’t the norm. You really had to work at it in the CIA, as Chris would describe it, to go beyond the traditional national security issues. Now her part-time and volunteer work brings her into contact with people from multiple domestic agencies, government contractors, nonprofits, education and more. She continues to develop her knowledge, which allows her to see a larger picture. In turn, this makes her a more effective coach and leader. No matter what stage your career is in, it is important to continue learning and developing so that you’re ready for the next chapter and able to contribute in meaningful ways.
Serve, Learn, Grow
Something that I’ve learned in my life is how motivations matter. Why people do what they do matters just as much as what they do. When I asked Chris how she would describe her experience working in the federal government, she said that it’s a unique opportunity to serve, learn, and grow in a career. She said that everything you do is for the benefit of the country, and that is immense motivation. Chris may have retired from the federal government, but that service motivation remains interwoven into the roles that she occupies today.
As I mentioned earlier, I work with some great people, and I really wanted to share their stories and their wisdom. Even as I wrote this article, and before it was published, pieces of advice that Chris had shared were already making their way into conversations I was having with other people. My hope is that as people read this, they will take this advice and put it into practice. Everyone’s story is different, and the application might look different from person to person. But the basic principles apply to us all. And in the meantime, let’s hope that all of us will find a place to serve, learn and grow.
Please follow us on Twitter @FedCareer and join our Federal Career Connection page on LinkedIn or find us on Meetup at meetup.com/mbc-cnm. To get updates on upcoming webinars, visit https://federalcareerconnection.org/events/
Author: James Steele, communication professional and educator, serves as the Assistant Director of Communications for Federal Career Connection, Inc. He is a communication instructor at Northern Virginia Community College teaching topics such as public speaking, introduction to communication, and intercultural communication. He also volunteers with Career Network Ministry as a communications consultant. You can find him on LinkedIn.