Secret to her success: Keen earns her influence

Susan Keen moved up through the Navy executive structure by becoming a "steward of the whole

 WIT's new book, “No One Path,” is a collection of affectionate, but no less affecting, profiles of technology professionals who happen to be women. The 48 women profiled in the book reflect the many ways women have demonstrated leadership in science and technology — fields that, more than most, have long been the domain of men.

Here is an excerpt from the profile of Susan Keen, as told to Raluca Monet.

On her current job: Susan Keen is technical director of the Navy’s Enterprise Resource Planning Program, the service’s largest business transformation program.

A single business system now supports the Navy and its entire enterprise, transforming the way the service does business and providing financial transparency and total asset visibility.

Women in government IT

Janice Cuny, National Science Foundation's Broadening Participation in Computing Program

Karyn Hayes-Ryan, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's Engineering Enterprise

Deb Loudon, Defense Department's National Reconnaissance Office

On the long ride up: Keen was taught by her father, an engineer, that she could be whatever she wanted to be. But she now recognizes her early naïveté about the career limitations that women face. In 1978, women held primarily subordinate positions, and only one or two held executive-level positions in the Navy. Keen said the institutional and cultural progress made since then seems like a transition out of the Dark Ages.

On what it takes: She has a solid academic background in scientific computing and extensive experience in scientific and business information technology programs. A central tenet to Keen's philosophy is the notion that no matter where a person sits in an organization, influence can be earned. However, you must patiently look for opportunities to contribute and then demonstrate results.

Keen tells others to create their own value by being a “steward of the whole” rather than an “owner of a part.” To find that kind of leader, she advises people to watch who others listen to and from whom they take direction. A good leader is steady and provides a compass for achieving designated goals. A leader balances and tunes the workforce, thus ensuring that each person has a valued contribution to make.

“Active engagement by a leader is very visible to the team,” Keen said. “People become brave about their own contributions when they feel this stability and the assurance that someone is in charge and aware of the challenges and opportunities the team is facing, and that the course is actively being monitored. This reassurance allows team members to step up to challenges and reach for creative opportunities knowing they are part of something that will be successful.”

On a mentor’s example: Linda Smith had entered a command at a low management level and operated in a mostly male leadership group. Keen remembers watching Smith patiently assess what each man brought to the executive team and then determine what she could bring. Smith began to upwardly navigate her career by demonstrating her business savvy and realized that she could bring her business experience to the table for the benefit of the team. The results she achieved, combined with her positive attitude and her willingness to be part of the team, earned Smith a place at the executive table.

Based on Smith’s example, Keen recognized that women must carefully consider when to “play their hand.”

On showing the way: Keen believes that men are often promoted on potential, while women are typically promoted on demonstrated results. Getting results opens people’s minds and causes them to take notice.

She stresses that leaders should put time into their people, build compatible teams and support them. “A leader’s success depends on the success of the team,” she said.


Raluca Monet is a strategic business operations manager at Unisys.

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