Innovation does not happen when people do the same thing day in and day out. It happens when we step out of our comfort zone, embrace challenges, and support inclusivity, industry experts said Oct. 29 at General Dynamics Information Technology’s Women + Technology event produced in association with MeriTalk.

The panelists – Darby Chellis Bade, senior program director of EPA Programs at GDIT; Nikoia Greene, senior director of Operations at GDIT; Lara Rivera López, senior program manager at GDIT; and Leigh Palmer, senior vice president of Defense at GDIT – came together to discuss the importance of getting a little uncomfortable, viewing obstacles as opportunities, and serving as an inclusive leader.

“Getting out of my comfort zone is something I do every day, but it is a learned skill,” Palmer said.

And getting a little uncomfortable shouldn’t be limited to work. Palmer urged the Women + Technology attendees to step outside of their comfort zone in their personal life as well. She suggested coaching a child’s sport, joining a charity board, or just trying something new. These steps help people grow and experience new ways of doing things – inside and outside work – she said.

“I feel like I’m constantly being pushed outside of my comfort zone,” Chellis Bade said. “Early on in my career, iI would say I did not like change.” However, as she progressed in her career, Chellis Bade said she realized that “it wasn’t that I didn’t like change, it was that I didn’t like the anticipation of change. I didn’t like worrying and stressing about the things I couldn’t control.” Specifically, she really didn’t like the idea of not having all the answers, and being concerned about how that would make her look.

“As I got more experienced, I could embrace the idea that change is unavoidable. I’ve learned to be better – not perfect, but better – about letting go of the worry around things I can’t control and realizing that change isn’t as scary as I thought it was,” she said. She noted she has grown to actually enjoy change, and that “it motivates me and I can learn so much from it.”

That new-found appreciation for change has helped her become a better manager, employee, and parent. “Change pushes me out of my comfort zone in a very real way, but I’ve gotten better about embracing that and appreciating what those experiences can give me,” Chellis Bade said.

Greene pivoted the conversation to discuss the importance of embracing challenges as an opportunity to grow.

“My mom raised my brother, sister, and I to look at setbacks as opportunities to push forward and do something different – something to lead us to a better result than we ever planned,” Greene said. Greene shared an instance from earlier in her career when she was removed from a program by a client. “As someone who truly values customer experience, this was a big blow to me,” she said.

But, she didn’t let that obstacle derail her career. Rather, Greene noted she was able to pivot and pursue a career path she never previously considered but that ultimately ended up being the right one for her.

The panelists agreed that inclusive leadership is key for fostering innovation.

Rivera López discussed the importance of addressing the environment we are all living in right now. With many people working from home for the first time, “it’s really important to maintain a sense of community to motivate the team and get those innovations out of the team,” she said.

“Being inclusive is definitely key to keep motivation going within the team,” Rivera López said. She said it’s “really important to make sure everyone has their voice heard.” However, she did acknowledge that “sometimes, depending on the environment, you can’t hear everyone’s voice, because you have to make a decision. But, in general, making sure that everyone voices their opinion and gives their thoughts on how things can be better” is really important. Her team makes a conscious and deliberate effort to make sure everyone is heard by doing things like taking a vote when a decision needs to be made. “We’ve created a good rhythm and have been able to innovate,” she said.

Greene tied back to another moment in her career, when she was tapped to lead a team that was struggling. Greene highlighted the importance of not only collaborating within the team but also making sure the team had people with different skillsets adding their thoughts. Through collaboration and inclusive management, Greene was able to turn things around and help the group become successful.

“Good managers surround themselves with people who are different than them and better than them,” Chellis Bade said. She mentioned a previous manager of hers who urged her to surround herself with people that didn’t always agree with her. “Sometimes it’s not easy to go down that path with people who think differently than you or have different perspectives,” she acknowledged. “Sometimes it’s easier to have everyone just agree with you.”

She said building a team where people disagree with you is the “hard path.” But, she added, “the benefits are just so great when you have a really diverse team.” She said the benefits of her team being diverse are apparent from the “quality of our work, the ideas we come up with, and the happiness of our team.” And giving team members a voice is critical. Chellis Bade summed it up rather simply, “I like to be heard, so I want to make sure my team feels the same way.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs