When it comes to successfully navigating a complex career with the Intelligence Community, Dr. Cameron Ward-Hunt gets it. He currently directs the Colorado National Security Practice team for Guidehouse LLP,  a management, technology, and risk consulting to consultancy. But he started his IC career as an Army officer, then an intelligence officer, “quickly learning to work in basements and other spaces devoid of natural light.” Ward-Hunt moved onto the Defense Intelligence Agency, then the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Today, in addition to his role at Guidehouse LLP, he’s also helping to grow and mentor the next generation of intelligence workers as co-chair of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s Intelligence Champions Council, where he spearheads events including the upcoming Mid-Career Reboot: Challenges and Choices breakfast program.

After 20 years of government service, two three-letter agencies and a successful transition to the private sector, ClearanceJobs asked Ward-Hunt to share his perspective on making a mid-career reboot.

1. Your career seems to be a case-study in how to successfully leverage one opportunity into the next. Did you attempt to position yourself to make your next career move, and if so, how?

I’m super glad it looks like I planned ahead – sometimes it didn’t feel that way in the moment. I had a coach once gently suggest that I had been opportunistic in my early career, finding new jobs haphazardly. I had been choosing jobs based on where I wanted to live and what looked interesting. After that, I definitely began to look at my career more deliberately, thinking a few steps ahead on what experiences I was looking for and what would position me well to be competitive for my goal jobs. (It helped that I had landed in the city I wanted to live in.) I now considered timing more seriously – I think I waited way too long to find new jobs in my mid-career and realized that being burned-out was not a super attractive quality to potential new bosses.

2. In the intelligence and national security fields it can sometimes seem impossible to forge a new path – particularly if you’ve built niche skills in one area. How do you find opportunities to transition your skills if you feel penned in?

It can definitely be scary – and it is easy to be full of self-doubt. I think the key to pivoting is mentally moving from being “good at a solution or topic” to being “good at a problem.” There seems to be a fixed (and often dwindling) number of positions, but boundless sets of “problems” – this reorientation has really helped me see different ways to contribute a broader range of skills and translate experiences. I’m not sure I’ll ever be suited for a “position-based” role again!

3. What role have mentors/supervisors/peers played in your career transitions?

My secret confession is that I feel like a bit of a dunce on the whole mentee front and don’t think I’ve gotten it right. I have learned a ton from folks more senior than myself, but it’s never really been hands-on career guidance or network building. I think my peers, on the other hand, have been tremendous. They’ve made gutsy career moves and value-based choices that I super admire. I’ve learned a lot by talking with them about the challenges they’ve faced and choices that they’ve made (and are making). I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a peer network that you can get a beer with.

4. After 20 years of federal service, you made the jump into the private sector – what prompted that decision?

Two big things: First, I had something in my head that Sue Gordon told us when she was Deputy Director of NGA – “look for the job where you’re going the learn the most” (a bad paraphrase for what was certainly an elegant axiom). I’d been interested in learning “the dark side” of public service for many years and decided that I would learn so much more in the private sector than by staying a government civilian. Second, I love living in Denver and knew that eventually I would need to forge my own path to blend the life that I wanted with the career goals that I have. I really feel that civil service is important, but there were some limitations for me in staying in government and staying in Denver. I believe that there are many ways to be in public service, and I feel lucky to have talked PwC/Guidehouse into taking a chance on me!

5. You have some amazing (and interesting) degrees under your belt. How has education helped your career progression?

I’ve picked education paths and degrees based on what I wanted to learn, rather than what I thought I would be good for my career. Absolutely no one would have recommended a degree in Religious Studies in Mysticism, and few would have said a PhD in Public Affairs was a good idea. However – each degree has given me a different toolkit to use and added a facet to my personality. (My BA gave me needed context for my deployment in Bosnia.) I’ve used the tools more than the degrees themselves to help advance my career and build my personal brand. I got as much or more out of the educational excursions (like a Certificate of Entrepreneurship) than I did from the primary degree track. Also – I’m very grateful for the post-9/11 GI-Bill that helped me get my PhD. My PhD was a fascinating journey that gave me insight into some of the hows and whys of our government, and showed me I can write a book (a potential goal); it has also come in handy when methodological questions arise.

6. Tell me about the Intelligence Champions council – why is it an area that’s important to you?

I’ve felt very isolated for much of my career. Denver’s a great place, but it doesn’t often feel connected to the larger national security and intelligence community. I really want to help the professionals in Colorado be a part of something greater and be a part of national conversations on how the community is changing and how to have a successful, happy career. But I also recognize that many professionals on the East Coast may feel the same way and are looking to be a part of something a bit bigger. The Intelligence Champions Council is focused on mentoring and career growth for professionals at all levels – including professionals outside of the National Capital Region.

I think of our events as a way to increase the amount of information and connections that individuals have to help build their career and help the nation succeed. I’m very excited about the Mid-Career Reboot event because it targets a population that often gets overlooked and would have helped me a lot! We’re also planning on a multimedia presentation to highlight the different types of roles contractors have in contributing to national security. I’m confident that our work helps to build a stronger and more connected community!

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.