“You aren’t in a leadership role to be right but rather to get it right” With Cheyanne Dwyer

Do not be scared to admit you are wrong. If you misspoke, missed a deadline, or gave incorrect guidance admit it. You do not always have to have the answers. Your job is to try your hardest to get the right answer for all (your client, your employee, and your company). As a part of […]

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Do not be scared to admit you are wrong. If you misspoke, missed a deadline, or gave incorrect guidance admit it. You do not always have to have the answers. Your job is to try your hardest to get the right answer for all (your client, your employee, and your company).

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cheyanne Dwyer.

Cheyanne Dwyer excels at problem-solving in challenging environments around the world. As the Executive Director of Education and Social Good at Building Momentum, she leads and develops innovative technology education programs for citizens and active-duty service members in the field. Cheyanne’s unique training experiences teach organizations how to move quickly through problems and work better as a team.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After studying Theatre Stage Management in college, I moved to New York City to continue working in the field. A few years later, my husband and I relocated to Washington, D.C. for his job. I continued to work in theatre but took a job as a secretary at Building Momentum, a startup located in Alexandria, VA, as a way to have a steady income between theatre gigs.

Building Momentum is a training company that teaches people to use technology to become better problem solvers. Our main work is in training active-duty Marines around the world. About a month into my administrative role, I had the opportunity to attend a training session in California as a way to fully understand what the company does. I simply fell in love with the firm’s mission and the way our instruction was empowering teams to become better problem solvers and improve communication and teamwork.

Over the next few months, I invested so much time learning all the technology — coding, welding, soldering, CAD, and electronics — so that I could become a full-time trainer. I began teaching all sorts of courses for the community and private industry. Over the past few years, my role and responsibilities have evolved drastically and now I create unique training experiences for military teams, corporations, and organizations of all sizes. The ultimate goal of each program is to teach them how to move quickly through problems and work better as a team. While I have always loved to solve problems, I never imagined I would land a career within this field.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

About a year into working at Building Momentum, I was tasked with organizing the General Officers Symposium, a training gathering for every General and high ranking official in the U.S. Marine Corps. Looking back now, I am so proud that I organized and executed an event of that magnitude with those Department of Defense power players. It was the first time I really paused and looked around the room at the incredible people I was standing next to. I was shocked that not only was I there but I was in charge. We also flew in 50 Marines and former students from around the world to help us at the event. It was an incredible experience to be able to see Marines I had trained in the past and hear about how our training made a difference.

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?

The first time I traveled to the Middle East to train Marines I was there for just over a week while the rest of the team stayed for two full weeks. While looking at my ticket I thought the date was wrong but I didn’t say anything to the team. I had never been to that part of the world and thought perhaps since I booked my tickets in the U.S., the dates may be off. Well, I went to check into my flight the night I was meant to leave only to realize I had missed my flight by an entire 24 hours. I went to alert the rest of the team and was rushed to the airport to beg someone to sell me a ticket back home and luckily I found one. The airline was able to shift my ticket to that night and I waited at the airport for a solid four hours. I look back on it as a silly mistake however, I have learned to always heavily study time zones and if something looks weird, say something because it probably is.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are always willing to slaughter the sacred cow when necessary. What I mean by that is that we are always willing to tear down any idea at any point and start again if it isn’t working or if a better answer presents itself.

I recently led a massive UVC conveyor belt project amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Our team went to test the technology and it was not matching the simulations we ran. During the testing, we knew we had to change everything, even though we spent countless hours and six weeks building the model. We all looked at each other, and while we didn’t know what the new solution would be, we knew we had to tear everything down and start over.

We plowed forward, removing all the insides of the conveyor belt and within 24 hours we were rebuilding the whole system. At 8 am on Saturday morning of that week we had everyone in the company from our CEO to our proposal writer walking in the door to help us rebuild the project. What took us six weeks to build the first time took us just six days to rebuild. That motivation and drive is not something you see at every workplace. The ability to be emotionally attached enough to create a great product but not so attached that you cannot see when your idea isn’t the best is a unique skill that we all have in common.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

This semester I am getting to teach a Graduate Prototyping and Fabrications class at George Washington University. It is so much fun to get to problem solve and watch new designers learn how to prototype quickly to solve problems they find in the world.

In fact, just this week I was able to leverage my role with Building Momentum to empower a student in my class to use technology to her benefit. Taking her GW classes remotely from Pensacola, Florida, she lost power due to devastation caused by Hurricane Sally and it left her unable to attend our virtual class. I knew that with a few pieces of technology and a rapid FedEx delivery, we could get her back up and running and ultimately attending class again.

I tasked my team with assembling a palette of solar panels, batteries and other supplies and shipped it to her overnight with detailed instructions on how to get the system working. She was able to get power to her devices and those of her friends and family in a matter of hours and ultimately — and most importantly — get back to attending class!

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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?

I do not think we can ever be satisfied. Once you are satisfied with something you never look at how it can be improved. Once you stop asking how and why you will stop growing and changing. What I find the most challenging is that time and time again I have heard people say they are surprised by what I do because I am a woman. If someone is doing a great job be impressed by them and don’t add the qualifier of the fact that I identify as a female.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Other women. This isn’t just something I have experienced in STEM. Early on in my career as a theater professional I also saw this trend. We are all told that we will face harsh criticism from men and so we prepare ourselves for that. But when criticism comes from a woman it hurts more because you think they of all people would understand.

With so few women at the top, it seems as if people see any woman in a position of leadership as their competition. So instead of spending our time lifting up other women we are undermining them and trying to devalue their work. It is not the best way to move the ball forward. If women managers don’t fit the stereotypical model of what a woman should be they are labeled “bitchy.” It is internalized sexism that is just embedded within us.

Once I experienced this myself, I began to reflect on how I interact with women in the workplace. I ask myself questions: Am I being too harsh? Am I unfairly judging them in a way I wouldn’t judge a male? I try to check myself and my own internalized sexism. I will call myself out on it to ensure I am being fair and treating everyone equally. There have been times when I have found myself being too harsh on an employee and becoming emotionally charged. When that occurs, I say “I know I am not being fair right now, I am going to leave and return when I can see through this” and honestly, it works. Calling myself out allows me to make myself and those around me aware and not fall into the same trap.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I was raised in a small town in Virginia and I was just not aware that women did this kind of work. I am a first-generation college student and when I was selecting a major, I avoided all science because I thought I was bad at it all. However, in elementary school, I remembered I was really good at science and math. At some point, I just stopped believing I was good at it because women are not traditionally encouraged and supported to go into math and science fields. I was so scared of being wrong that I never wanted to push myself to learn any part of STEM on a deeper level. Young girls all over the world need to know that there are successful women in these fields. The opportunities in STEM continue to grow and there is always room for these women at the table.

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.)

1.) Always assume good intent

When I began leading projects I often thought if people asked me lots of questions they were trying to poke holes in my leadership so I would go on the defense. I have learned that some members of my team just love to ask questions because they need to process things in their own way. Assuming good intent from the start always leads to better meetings and communication.

2.) If someone is giving you the opportunity they already think you can do it

Imposter syndrome is really hard. Sometimes opportunities will be placed in front of me and I will quickly try to give them to a coworker because I think they are better suited for it. However, if someone is coming to you it is because they want you. Whether that be your expertise, attitude, energy, or all of the above. If someone is coming to you it is because they already see you as someone who can do the job.

3.) Find your own communication style

As I transitioned into a leadership role, I learned that the way male managers at our company communicate is different than how I communicate and that is okay. In a male-dominated field, it can be easy to just want to blend in by acting just like they do. But it is crucial that you stay true to your own communication style and you will yield the best results.

4.) You aren’t in a leadership role to be right but rather to get it right

Do not be scared to admit you are wrong. If you misspoke, missed a deadline, or gave incorrect guidance admit it. You do not always have to have the answers. Your job is to try your hardest to get the right answer for all (your client, your employee, and your company).

5.) Lean on your mentors

When the right answer is not clear, ask other people. It is also important to have a mentor who is willing to tell you when you are part of the problem. The truth is not easy to say sometimes but to truly grow as a manager and leader you need to have a critical eye about yourself.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Stand firm in what you know but don’t be scared to admit what you don’t. As a leader, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or shameful when you don’t have all the answers but the truth is that you often won’t. I find people will trust you more when they know you will admit to not knowing something. Admit you don’t know and go find the right answer.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Communication. If you are hearing something from one member of your team that they claim was said by another member of your team just pull them into the same room and sort it out. It is so easy for issues to get lost in translation. When you empower people to directly talk to one another, you have fewer instances of conflict and confusion. This will take a lot of modeling from you. If your team sees you constantly go directly to someone and work things out in a positive manner they will start to do the same thing.

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?

My CEO, Brad Halsey. When I started at Building Momentum, I was hired to help him and his team get organized, but Brad really wouldn’t have any part of that. If I say “I am not sure I can do that” he would look at me and ask, “Why not?” and I never had an answer for him. There is no reason I couldn’t learn coding, or CAD, or anything else for that matter. I had a mind block up that I was not good at this type of technology, however, Brad never took my no for an answer.

He is always pushing me to push myself and to question my own behavior. The first training session I attended I was still in a secretary role and here I was watching Brad teach welding, a task I had done just two times previous to this session. Brad turns to me and says “okay you teach the next four Marines” and I just looked at him with a blank stare. Before I could question him, he was gone. Brad left me on my own to carry out the training. Looking back on the moment I see so much of what makes Brad an amazing leader — as so often he has led me to the edge of the path, knowing I have all the right maps to get myself to the waterhole. He has shown me an entire world I never knew I could tackle and I am so lucky he allowed me to teach four Marines welding one afternoon.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Building Momentum partners with a nonprofit called Athena Rapid Response, which enables us to travel to disaster zones and provide relief and support right onsite. Last year I traveled to the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian and helped set up solar panels, fly drones, and delivered food to far parts of the Island. This was an incredible way to bring our knowledge to a community that was in dire need. I have also been able to work with a few nonprofits to educate young girls about STEM and the variety of jobs available in this field. As someone who wasn’t fully aware that these jobs existed growing up, I feel very strongly about being able to spread that message.

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. 🙂

I want girls who are bossy to be told they have leadership skills and then be taught how to communicate their beliefs. It is so easy for people to label young girls as bossy, which later turns into bitchy, but no one will take the time to explain how that instinct can be used for good. I want parents, caregivers, and educators to sit that “bossy” girl down and show her how to both communicate her thoughts and listen to others. She shouldn’t stop having a voice, she just needs to learn how to use it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Empowered women empower women”

That is such a simple quote but it really gets right to the point. The more I educate myself on how to fight against the sexism that exists the more I learn it is so important to lift up the women around you. You never know what kind of support system someone has outside of work. I want to constantly remind myself that as a woman in leadership it is now my job to empower the other women in my organization and beyond to do the unthinkable and be themselves.

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 🙂

Melinda Gates. The work she has been able to do with the Gates Foundation is incredible. She was a woman in STEM when it was so unknown, while also running a family and shifting all her work into the nonprofit world. The work with mothers, children, and opportunity youth all around the world in terms of health and education is impactful beyond measure. I really admire the way she finds a problem in the world and researches it by speaking to people experiencing the problem to discover the best solution. She never throws money at a problem and walks away. She really works to identify the core reason for the problem and then solves that.

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