‘Work really hard, go after what you want, and trust your instincts’

This week, Women of Washington hosts sit down with Jill Vaughan, former CTO of the Transportation Security Administration, and current senior adviser to GSIS. Vaughan talked about her journey to the top of the TSA and gave her advice for leadership within the federal government.

Vaughan stressed the importance of mentors, both formal and informal. She commented that her mentors were the ones who pushed her forward in her career. “I had some really amazing mentors,” she said. “And I’m always a conservative person; I can get in to a comfortable space and I’m feeling really happy about where things are. They didn’t allow me to stay there. They said, ‘If you’re too comfortable, then you need to move.’

Looking back on her career, Vaughan shared that she was grateful for the support she found in her mentors. She said, “They pushed me into some really uncomfortable places that, looking back, I’m really glad they did. I think those extra pushes from people who have taken the time to look out for me were amazing.”

Vaughan did not always know she wanted to be a CTO or an IT professional at all. She went to college at Virginia Tech, where she studied business and communications. She said, “Business just seemed like a great overall fit for me and my personality, because I think you can do a lot of different things with it and you can take it in lots of different directions.”

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I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I went to school, but by the time I left I really felt I had found my niche,” she added.

After college, Vaughan moved into the private sector working for telecommunications companies. She shared that she had learned a lot about leadership and herself at those private companies, but added, “I think I always had the innate thought that I would move into the government. It just was a calling for me to do something and support something bigger than myself. I was very driven by that.”

Immediately after 9/11, Vaughn felt she had to join the government. She said, “I think a light switch just went on and I sort of kicked everything into high gear to move my career in that direction. It seemed like there was nothing else; that was the answer.”

Early days at the TSA “was genuinely like a new company was forming,” said Vaughan. “People were extremely passionate because of the tragic events of 9/11, and people were very motivated to make something happen,” she said.

She continued, “When I joined I didn’t really know what my job was going to be. There was so much change; [the TSA] were just looking for people to jump in and make things happen.”

Vaughan shared that her first boss at the TSA inspired her “to go and do”, and that he was a large influence on her leadership style as she moved into management. “He showed me what it looked like to be a good leader. He really empowered the people that were working for him,” she said.

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When asked what three pieces of advice she would offer to someone just starting their career in the government, Vaughan said, “Work really hard, go after what you want, and trust your instincts. I think deep down you know what direction you should be going in.”