The Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) hosted its New IC Event at the Army Navy Country Club yesterday, an event that brought together intelligence professionals to discuss topics including workplace welling, letting go of the fear of failure, and moving past performative diversity. The event closed with an introspective fireside chat hosted by Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg, president of INSA, with Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
Abizaid pointed out that at many points she has found herself to be an anomaly in the room – the youngest, the only woman, the only lesbian. Now as she leads NCTC, she’s in a unique position to be surrounded by women in senior leadership roles, from her deputies to the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. But the experiences of women at the top can almost create a distorted view of reality – once you dig into the numbers, Abizaid says, it’s clear ‘we as an IC don’t reflect all of the contours’ when it comes to diversity across the ranks.
Behind those numbers is the reality that while the IC can successfully attract new talent, it struggles to retain them. Abizaid said the IC needs to work harder to create a place where people want to stay, and where the visibility of opportunity is clear.
Speaking to a room full of many young women interested in embarking on or advancing their national security career, she spoke to the very real problem of imposter syndrome, noting moments in her own career where she has tried to talk people out of hiring her for a position.
“I was so often my own worst hurdle,” said Abizaid, noting this is a problem very particular to women. Abizaid emphasized the critical importance of knowing your value and having a point of view, giving examples of a time in her career when she was sitting in the back and expecting to take notes and was asked to give her opinion to the President. She said that taught her that if you’re in the room, have an opinion. Even if you’re not asked for it, or it’s not the appropriate time to share it – know your value in that room, and be prepared with a point of view.
In the DC metro, where the focus can often be on finding the ‘next job,’ Abizaid noted that many of her best career moments were ones she couldn’t plan for. “Don’t focus so much on what you want to do next that you don’t take full advantage of what you’re doing today,” she advised.
When it comes to career progression, she encouraged women to ‘take on jobs that you may have never done, but that you can make better.’ Rather looking at an opportunity for all of the reasons it’s not ideal, consider how the unique attributes you bring to the table could help inform or advance that role – in a way that wouldn’t be possible if it fell to another – or even the more likely – candidate.
As the mom of a 3-year-old, Abizaid emphasized the new balancing act she’s in, leading the nation’s leading counterterrorism organization while parenting. Talking the always fraught ‘work-life balance’ with Heckenberg, Abizaid said “It wasn’t until I became a mom that I was really intentional” about the balancing act between personal and professional. But it is a juggle. “You’re constantly trying to find the right choice, for the right moment,” she said.