Speaking Up about Leadership in the Technical World
Weiqun Shi, a nationally recognized expert on subterranean sensing technology, has taken advantage of MITRE's leadership training initiatives, such as the shadowing program and LeadFirst, to strengthen her management and communication skills.
MITRE sensors systems engineer Weiqun Shi is a national voice on subterranean sensing technology. Wired Magazine and Homeland Security Today trumpeted her research on deploying radar-equipped robots underground to search for the tunnels used to smuggle drugs and immigrants across the border.
Yet when she first came to MITRE in 2003, she spoke softly and was reluctant to be too assertive in conversations with her colleagues. "As a new employee without experience in government work," says Shi. "I lacked confidence."
A Good Life in the Big Easy
She had no reason to lack confidence at her previous job for Shell International Exploration and Production. She had risen to lead scientist in charge of analyzing deep sea seismic data to discover and chart oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. "My specialty is in wave propagation—acoustic waves, electromagnetic waves, seismic waves. Although they are fundamentally different in physics, they share some basic characteristic properties and behaviors."
She had joined Shell, after graduating from MIT with a doctorate in geophysics, because she and her husband both wanted to experience living in New Orleans. Five years and two children later, however, it was time to pull up stakes. "Both my and my husband's parents live in Boston. They wanted to be closer to their grandkids, so they asked us to move north."
A New Home
Shi's husband, Stephen Theophanis, had spent his career working with the defense community, so he soon found a home for his experience and skills at MITRE. The stories he brought home to his wife about life at MITRE piqued Shi's interest. "He told me that MITRE was a place with many talented people with strong technical backgrounds. He said he just walked into a coworker's office to chat, and the next thing he knew they were filling a whiteboard with radar range equations."
After her stint working for a commercial company, Shi was eager for a different experience. "I wanted to be where I could apply my research and analytical skills. I wanted to work with top scientists in an inspiring environment. I wanted to perform interesting work both in the lab and in the field."
In 2003, MITRE offered Shi a position in its netted sensors program, and her skills plus good timing soon saw her rise to the level of principal investigator on her project. The increased exposure to senior leadership that came with her new position made her realize that she would have to strengthen her communication and technical leadership skills. So Shi took advantage of several MITRE leadership training programs.
Following the Leaders
The first was MITRE's shadowing program, where she had the opportunity to participate in several sit-down meetings with a senior-level manager who shared his business strategies and decision-making processes. The second was MITRE's internal LeadFirst program. Based on research that suggests leaders learn best through on-the-job experience, LeadFirst is a 12-month program combining assessment and classroom instruction with on-the-job activities.
These leadership training programs helped Shi build her confidence in her leadership, personal communication, and public speaking skills. "MITRE has encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and to develop my own leadership style. As a leader, you can't be soft-spoken. You need to communicate with people to understand their needs, their strengths, and their weaknesses. You need to be able to inspire people and to help guide them so their career stays on the right track."
Finding Balance in a Busy Life
As MITRE has presented Shi with new and greater responsibilities, it has also helped her meet her greatest responsibility: being a mother. Her sons are now 9 and 12 years old. "They have a very busy after-school schedule. It's challenging accommodating that schedule with both parents holding down full-time jobs. Plus, my project responsibilities require me to travel frequently.
"But MITRE's flextime program has kept everything manageable. Flextime allows me to leave work early enough to pick my sons up from school and drive them to their activities. It also allowed me to participate in the community by serving on the PTO board for a few years."
A leader at home, in her community, and at work, Shi will tell you, loud and clear, she's glad she took advantage of the opportunities she found at MITRE.
—by Christopher Lockheardt
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