More work is needed to reach our full potential for women in STEM. We must first make STEM fun and accessible in the formative years of young girls. Then we must show women their career potential by highlighting relatable role models in the public. Representation matters and we see an influx of influencers trailblazing the aerospace industry to make sure more women are in leadership roles. Social media has been great for this. We also need to respect the unique experiences and ideas from our female colleagues, and equally important, we must share the compelling missions where their ideas make a real difference.
As a part of my series about “Women Leading the Space Industry,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Hiza, Ph.D., VP Fleet Ballistic Missile Program and Deputy General Manager, Strategic & Missile Defense Systems.
Hiza is the vice president for Lockheed Martin’s Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) Programs. In this capacity, she oversees the design, development, production and sustainment of the sea-based leg of the U.S. nuclear deterrent program. Hiza is responsible for a team consisting of nearly 3,000 employees at 14 locations around the globe and for maintaining a decades long partnership with the U.S. Navy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Hiza! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town near the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains called Galax, Virginia. Galax is known for bluegrass and old-time mountain music, which is celebrated annually at the “Galax Fiddlers Convention” where I had my first “job” selling programs in the grandstands. Much of my spare time as a child was spent doing activities with my family, being with friends, playing sports and participating on academic teams. To this day, I still thoroughly enjoy playing a good game of “Rook” (one of my favorite games from childhood) with my husband, family and friends, and I am deeply grateful for the values instilled in me.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There have been times in my life and career when I felt battered by a storm. When these times come, I have always found perspective in the outdoors … on a long backpacking trail or a backcountry skiing climb along a steep ridgeline. When I read A Pearl in the Storm by Tori McClure, her setbacks resonate with me. Her strong will, determination and perspectives shine as she rowed across the Atlantic Ocean … twice.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night,” from author Sarah Williams.
I learned I was not selected as a NASA astronaut, after having gone through the extensive process of interviews and screenings. This was something I had dreamed about and was incredibly disappointed when it didn’t happen.
Knowing this, one of my dearest friends, Laura Snyder, sent a handwritten card full of friendship, sympathy, encouragement and sisterhood with that quote on the front. Her card with that quote sits on display in my bedroom today and has much deeper meaning beyond the immediate moment for which it was intended.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.
As a teenager, the movie “The Right Stuff” inspired me; particularly the astronauts who were true pioneers in exploration and aviation. Surprisingly, at that formative age, it never occurred to me that none of them were women. As I have grown older, I am increasingly more inspired by the character General Chuck Yeager, who I overlooked when watching the film earlier in life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
In 2016, I was assigned to our Lockheed Martin liaison office in Washington, D.C., and ended up hand delivering a paper on how rockets age to the official for the Office of Science & Technology Policy in the White House Executive Building. I waited in the security line next to a PBS camera crew who were there to do a story about relations with China. After I delivered the paper and left the building, I saw Vice President Biden. From start to finish, it was a fascinating experience to be in this institution and to be near people who make decisions that affect so many and who carry enormous responsibility.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Laughter has been key to getting through my mistakes and stressful times. Phonetics have tripped me up a few times. Early in my career, my first management job was under a recently retired Navy captain at then ATK (now Northrop Grumman). My team was having an operational issue and I was charged with describing the situation over the phone. He asked for the identification number of the article in question and I said, “337T9,” and he couldn’t distinguish if I were saying “D” or “T.” I knew what he wanted … the alpha phonetics. Not being from the military, I came up with “3–3–7-Towel-9.” I could literally feel his ice-cold response through the phone when he slowly said “TANGO.” These days, I’m fully versed in alpha phonetics and that retired captain became an incredible mentor who taught me about the fundamentals of leadership. To this day, he is my dear friend.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Throughout my entire life, I had the perfect role model. My mother, Regina Snow, taught me more than any other person, and not because she has been in my life for the longest. She is a consummate professional who is highly responsible and reliable; she values doing good in her job and in her community; she believes in the inherent good potential of humans; she champions for the underrepresented and against injustice; and, she always makes time for her loved ones.
The time in between her divorce with my father and marrying my stepfather, she was a single mother who apprehensively bought a house for $35,000 when I was 4 years old. The strength and courage to fight against her nerves and self-doubt were seeded in me then.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My team is working on the next iteration of missile design for a submarine-launched weapon. This is an exciting time for us to incorporate new modeling and engineering tools, advanced materials, state-of-the-art electronics and innovative manufacturing techniques. The Lockheed Martin Fleet Ballistic Missile team and the U.S. Navy customer are enthusiastic about this next chapter, and are committed to maintaining our nation’s strategic deterrent, which is a critical element of our nation’s defense.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?
The space industry is on the cusp of a giant leap. We are witnessing the development of artificial intelligence, virtual engineering communications and modular software-enabled hardware — both around the world and right here where our program is headquartered in the Florida High Tech Corridor — emerging as keys to rapid advancement terrestrially or extraterrestrially. As scary as artificial intelligence may sound, it is actually about rapid, iterative learning. Additionally, we are already using virtual engineering communications today, where we conduct fully immersive design reviews on our systems via virtual technology, and we troubleshoot issues of hardware installation on missiles through virtual and augmented reality. In the future, I foresee space systems having standard hardware and components that are highly interchangeable and flexible, as well as ballistics and trajectory profiles completely programmable by software without hardware changeout.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
First, systems engineering skills and technical program management in the space industry are becoming more and more attractive to the tangential industry in the high tech worlds of Google, Facebook, Amazon and tech startups. The space industry often cannot compete with lucrative compensation packages offered by high tech firms due to U.S. government contracting laws. Talent drawn to Lockheed Martin, are motivated to join us because they feel a connection to our mission. We emphasize our big picture missions in collaboration with our military customers to keep our workforce captivated and remind them that the work that we do protects lives.
Next, there continues to be a technology gap between incoming college engineers and state of the industry tools. While Lockheed Martin has made significant progress in model-based engineering and digital transformation, college interns learn these tools extremely quickly and even identify improvements, which we are able to implement.
Finally, the space industry must build hardware and IT systems that are resistant to cyber threats. Data, communications and flight architectures must have a built-in resiliency that will last years against a threat that is ever-evolving. This is not a concern that exists solely within the vacuum of the aerospace industry. I am confident, the answer lies with new college graduates; they will get us there.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
More work is needed to reach our full potential for women in STEM. We must first make STEM fun and accessible in the formative years of young girls. Then we must show women their career potential by highlighting relatable role models in the public. Representation matters and we see an influx of influencers trailblazing the aerospace industry to make sure more women are in leadership roles. Social media has been great for this. We also need to respect the unique experiences and ideas from our female colleagues, and equally important, we must share the compelling missions where their ideas make a real difference. I believe humans want to contribute and be a part of a big idea or an important calling. Capturing women’s minds and hearts for the great causes addressed by careers in the space industry is key.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Women’s voices are generally softer in volume and tone. When a woman wants to be heard and not interrupted, and chooses to speak louder, this often can be interpreted as “emotional” or being “upset.”
Finding a way to amplify women’s voices, especially those who are softer, in meetings is a challenge. Advocating for and giving credit to a woman’s point is one effective way I address this. One recommendation is to structure the meetings and reviews, where time is set aside to go around the room (or Zoom call) and give each person an allotted time to share their thoughts and ask questions.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?
Successful women in the space industry exhibit masculine traits. This is simply not true. I am surrounded by many examples of strong, feminine women who are wearing their bright colors and embracing their femininity. Another falsehood is that women do not work well with other women. Where did this come from? I see women supporting and cheering for one another every day. I’m sure there are a few bad exceptions, but the space industry is full of encouraging, collaborative and inspiring women.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Talk less, listen more. Somewhere in middle and high school (probably on the academic competition teams), I thought it was important to be the smartest kid in the class, which probably came across like a know-it-all (I’m sorry, Galax high school buds! I’m better now.). Years of life have taught me that learning it all is much more valuable. And I learn from intently listening to others — their perspectives, their experiences and their opinions. And a lifetime won’t be enough.
- Calm the waters. Distractions, sources of ill information and general angst surround us. We have all worked for bosses who “fueled the flames” or led with fear and threats of bad things to come. While short-term results may be achieved through these poor tactics, they do not foster sustained high performance and loyalty. I believe my job as a leader is, as reasonably as possible, to keep the team focused, to communicate effectively and often, to insulate the larger team from the noise of uncertainty and to provide a safe space for them to perform their best, bring forward their ideas, and share their concerns and questions. To do this well, I must first address my own uneasiness and ensure I quiet, and not magnify, the storms.
- Find the courage to be vulnerable. Perfection is unattainable, yet I see many of us portraying an infallible image. I recently shared a mistake I made with my direct reports in our weekly staff meeting. I was shocked by how many of them reached out to me after the meeting to thank me for sharing and to communicate their support. By owning the mistake and learning from it, I modeled what I ask of them and even developed deeper connections with the team. It was a reminder that authenticity is endearing and key to high-performing teams. One of the best ways to initially introduce it to a team is the use of a “hotwash,” where team members openly talk about what worked well and what did not work well following a major event, exercise or review. Welcome the feedback, as harsh as it may be.
- It’s not just who you know, it’s who you impress. I moved to Utah from the East Coast after graduate school to work for then ATK and did not know one person in the state or company. Similarly, I started with Lockheed Martin in 2015 only knowing a half dozen people. Somewhere along the way, I must have left positive impressions. Let your hard work, positive attitude and results be your brand.
- Find your wild.There’s nothing like helping a young man, more than 10 years my junior, by carrying his gear and mine up a mountainside in a blustery snowstorm, to build confidence and increase my tolerance for adversity and uncertainty. Adventures in the outdoors have taught me outdoor skills, as well as risk management, judgment, team dynamics and perseverance better than any classroom training or conference room. Ironically, these skills are directly translatable inside the office place. NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) is my preferred outdoor classroom. While you may not enjoy the outdoors, I recommend any skill or hobby that is an outlet outside of work where you hone different skills and interact with different people.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Be generous. Do good deeds for others, with no expectation of gain, accolades or notoriety, including doing this anonymously.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I am impressed by Dolly Parton and this extends far beyond her accomplished musical talents and accolades. She embodies authenticity, compassion, generosity, and though she came from humble roots, has developed a successful business empire. She continues to be one of the most grounded, magnetic celebrities, which is evident by her wide appeal. The recent podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” shed even more light on her life and wide public influence. I’d personally enjoy hearing her ideas on how I could make an impact on my hometown community and her business lessons in a hypercompetitive industry.