Tuck Voices: Women in Leadership – Part 4
Susan Palmateer knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. As a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and director of technology programs at defense contractor BAE Systems, Inc., she works in both a field and an industry dominated by men. BAE is a global giant, with about 100,000 employees worldwide. With previous stints at General Electric Co. and Corning Inc., Palmateer came to the Tuck Executive Program (TEP) in 2009 wanting to polish her business skills to prepare her for the next level at a company where there are few female mentors. “My old boss Stephen Jamison went to TEP in the ‘90s and felt it changed his life,” she says. “Before he retired he looked at me and said: ‘Lady, you’ve got everything but you need a little more business sense.”
For the fourth installment of TEP’s interview series on women leaders, Palmateer, who now oversees about 200 people in BAE’s technology group from an office in suburban Boston, shared her thoughts on honing management skills, juggling family commitments and navigating in a field where the ‘old boys club’ is alive and well.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
Palmateer: What I do now at BAE is lead a group that identifies new technologies, like IT systems or advanced materials, and inserts them into our existing defense products. I’ve done both commercial and military work and was fortunate to be at some really great places like Bell Laboratories and MIT’s Lincoln Lab. Engineers tend to want to have everything just right and analyze and overanalyze everything. I am Type A and driven, but I broke my neck when I was 35 and if that hadn’t happened to me I wouldn’t be able to put many things in perspective. It really worked a miracle for me. We’re here right now and could be gone in 24 hours. I rarely get upset or angry now and if I do it lasts just a short amount of time.
Q: How do you balance work and home life?
Palmateer: The challenge for women is we do everything for everybody, both at home and in the work world. At work I’m now delegating more to other people, which is something TEP helped me with. Instead of going and trying to do somebody’s job if they weren’t doing something, I’m more likely to assign it and then hold someone accountable if it’s not getting done.
Doing that at home is more challenging. My family has a way of pulling the guilt routine on me. My husband works in Washington and commutes home on the weekends and we have two daughters, aged 21 and 16. I’m part of the sandwich generation as I also help care for my mother, who is 92 and in an assisted living home. I’ve learned you just juggle the balls and accept that a few of them are going to fall on the floor. When they do you just pick them up and hope they weren’t ones that really mattered. Hiring help is also important; I definitely don’t clean my house. Still, one of my daughters said a beautiful thing, she said ‘Mom you’ve always been the glue, you make the doctors’ appointments, you buy the shoes, the bras, you do everything.’”
Q: What were your impressions of TEP?
Palmateer: It was an escape and a chance to really reflect on things. I still keep the little reflection journal I started at TEP on my desk. Tuck gave me the journal to capture my key insights. That’s how I remind myself of the things I need to work on. One major thing I really learned is that it’s better to make a decision and then deal with the consequences then to make no decision at all and procrastinate. Leadership is about making decisions and you can always pick up the shrapnel later. Also, be bold and manage through change—especially in this sort of economic climate it’s hard not to follow the sheep and be afraid of the future. Those are two things I wrote right in the front of my journal.
One of the really great things about the program was the diversity of students. I wasn’t just there with defense industry people but people from different countries and industries. You got to see the leadership styles of someone who works at a company like Hershey, which is a totally different industry, and that gives you insight into your own industry.
Q: What elements of TEP have stayed with you four years later?
Palmateer: The 360 degree evaluation gave me a few really pivotal things. One was: do not manage, lead. The other was listening to be influenced—really listening to others. Especially for us engineers, you often are thinking of what you think the answer to a problem is instead of listening to somebody else’s opinion. I wrote to myself in my journal in capital letters—‘shut up and listen!’
The other thing was: ‘are you confident?’ I’m in one of the roughest fields and industries for women. On my bad days I can get pretty dismal about it. I hadn’t really been aware of the inequalities for women for many years. As a woman, you can’t win by being aggressive, and if you’re sensitive and show empathy you’re a wimp. So you have to try multiple strategies. But I really do believe I took a step forward at TEP in the confidence area and being able to speak out.
Name: Susan Palmateer
Title: Director of Technology Programs, BAE Systems, Inc. BAE Systems is among the world’s largest defense and security companies. Career History: Bell Laboratories; Corning Inc.; General Electric Co.; Massachusetts Institute for Technology Lincoln Laboratory
Education: Ph.D in electrical engineering and M.S. in materials science, Cornell University; B.S. in chemistry, Monmouth University
Tuck Executive Program Brochure
TEP is an elite three week program for senior managers. Learn more.