This is the second part of my personal story that’s meant to share the most valuable lessons I have learned over more than 20 years in business development, from my earliest days as a foreign student from Uzbekistan struggling to find a job, to today, the CEO of my own government business development company. It is my hope that in telling some of my experiences you may find useful career advice or professional tips and relate them to your own journey.
Today’s lesson is the one I learned at my job at Lockheed Martin: that even entry-level employees can make a big impact on a project and take charge. Do the job you want, not merely the job you have. It doesn’t matter if you are not paid for it – trust that you will be, eventually.
After defying the great odds and getting my work visa, I started a government contracting job at Lockheed Martin, which I covered in my first story. I started as a multilingual office manager to support a project dealing with the design and construction of three low-level radioactive waste volume reduction facilities in the Russian North and Far East. I spoke six languages at the time, and it was my job to do the administrative work and help our interpreter and translation firm translate among the various parties working together to design and build the new facilities, which included Americans, Russians, French, British, and Norwegians.
But it quickly became obvious to me that I was going to have to do much more than translate if these projects were ever going to get off the ground. Through a variety of circumstances, the program cycled through five program managers in less than a year. There was no sheriff in town.
The second program manager (who took over the job from the general who had originally hired me) empowered me. When I had just started the job, he said: “Olessia, you have free reign to make this job whatever you want it to be. You can literally run this place if you feel you’re up for it.” He departed soon after, replaced by another lead. But I took his words as a mandate.
I had a mess of a program on my hands at that point. We were over budget and behind schedule. Our customer relationship with the U.S. government was suffering. The meetings were devolving into multilingual, foul-language screaming matches over design drawings. Americans were yelling at the Russians, who were cursing back just as enthusiastically. The French engineers eagerly added to the cacophony, and the Brits and Norwegians resorted to passive-aggressive behaviors.
I got tired of the chaos, and I realized I had to do something. I started separating the people who had the most conflicts. I would privately ask our engineers about the technical disagreement, and then have a separate discussion with the Russians. I would memorize the problem area on the design drawing, brainstorm a solution with the right person, and then work it out with the respective counterpart. Then, I would facilitate a constructive discussion, no longer limited to mere translation.
I quickly provided the program with a thread of continuity during the tumultuous first year. I decided that I would learn every single thing that went on with the program and get the involved parties talking to make sure that the work proceeded as scheduled. I learned the scheduling software, Primavera, so I could report on progress. I fixed areas of budget overruns by performing detailed analyses and implementing corrective actions. One of the corrective actions included sending our brilliant, but expensive, engineers back to the National Labs where they originated. I had them visit on occasion as needed, instead of working out of our offices nearly full time. It was a scary decision, but it worked out well. I would also translate many technical documents myself instead of sending them to the translators, which enabled me to commit all technical issues to memory. My to-do list grew large, and I was burning the midnight oil.
“Running the place” required managing up and creative translation. For example, a Russian nuclear engineer on the project had a habit of insulting the intelligence of others. He’d add barbs like, “Of course you should already know that.” I took the sting out of his comments when I translated them, making him sound polite and witty. As I learned more about the project, I also added a good amount of additional context as I was translating. Many of the people I worked with would often jump from A to Z without much explanation of how they reached their conclusions. To facilitate conversations, I filled in gaps as I translated, helping all the parties communicate better.
With each change in management, people began to rely on me more. Our fifth and final program manager legitimized my position as his de-facto deputy with a letter to the subcontractors, telling them to officially report to me and take my direction. This untied my hands and gave me free rein. He looked after the technical side, and I did everything else while helping him with technical communications.
The U.S. government customer also recognized my role on the project and began calling me to get the latest updates. I was invited to go on-site visits to Russia, far from the office in Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, where my office manager job duties resided. I answered programmatic questions just as much as our program manager did.
While my salary started at a meager $32K and was raised to a whopping $38K, I was doing work well above my pay grade. Instead of fretting, I was grateful to be able to do the work, thinking to myself that my pay just hadn’t caught up with my position yet, and I was gaining invaluable experience.
All the subcontractors, including the American ones, were okay with my new position, save for the Brits. They said they didn’t want to report to some 25-year-old office manager. I had to tolerate snubs and veiled insults. I had to shelve my ego: the project wasn’t about me. I had to focus on the end goal: getting the work done. Since I couldn’t get a straight report from the Brits who managed the construction site, I had to be creative in finding oversight solutions. When a Russian colleague who was helping our site manager keep eyes on a construction site told me that some workers were not regularly wearing hard hats, I brought up the issue to the British contractor. But they blew me off, as usual.
I would not tolerate the risk of an injury – or worse, a death – at the worksite. My Russian colleague who told me of the issue, worked with me to hatch a plan. We paid $200 cash to a Russian safety manager at the shipyard to perform a gonzo anonymous safety inspection at the site and issue to us a pedantically detailed report. He found every safety violation possible, including the hardhat problem, missing scaffolding, and every imaginable trip-and-fall hazard. The site indeed was a mess.
I translated the report and presented it to the Brits. They could dismiss my requests, but they could not ignore that report. They fixed the safety issues, but passive aggression intensified. I finally put together a long list of issues we were running into on the program, thanks to their poor management of the project, and presented it to our program’s contract manager. He turned around and fired them off the project for non-performance. The project took a turn for the better, as the final measure of the toxicity and discord on the international team was suddenly gone.
A leaner, well-functioning team completed the project on time and within budget, with a happy government customer. All three facilities are still in hot operation.
Looking back, I could have simply shrugged, performed my assigned duties, and punched the clock. After all, it was not my job as the office manager to fix these major issues. Not at a pay grade I was at, for sure. However, this job gave me confidence and helped propel me into a decades-long career in business development. Guess what people do when their project at a large company ends? Yes, they get roped into proposals.
Hope you take this story as a reminder (and permission, if you need it) to make your job whatever you want it to be, no matter what you do now. Seize the freedom to shape your role to align with your passions. Or get the credentials you need to do what you have always dreamed of doing. If your company doesn’t allow you to do it, then fire your company and get a better one. Life is way too short.
I would love to hear your story. Have you ever defied a status quo in a position, and what did it do to your career? Is there a change you have been postponing that would result in a more fulfilled and successful life? What’s holding you back? Are you in a workplace that affords you the opportunity to grow and the freedom to take on more responsibility when you try to improve the way your company works?
Olessia Smotrova, CF.APMP Fellow
OST Global Solutions, Inc.
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