Brenda Stultz-Roae is Senior Talent Acquisition Director, Product and Cloud Services with VMware. She started her career as a Cryptologic Linguist with the United States Air Force and was stationed across multiple locations where she gained an appreciation for working with people from different parts of the world and working with technology. When she left the military, she moved into Human Resources and Talent Acquisition roles, building up over 20 years experience across startups, mid, and large organizations across multiple industries. In this article she shares her insights on transitioning from the military to the private sector, starting her first hybrid role in 2000, her top tips for leadership, and much more.
You started your career with the US Air Force as a Cryptologic Linguist. What attracted you to join the US Air Force and this role?
Before joining the Air Force, I began an Engineering degree in college, but I became uncertain when I was the only woman in the curriculum, and I decided to leave the program. I had friends who were in the military and they were so fulfilled being able to focus on a mission they believed in, learning new skills, traveling around the world, and meeting new people. I was so inspired that I decided to pursue that path. The opportunity to serve my country gave me a purpose that I was seeking and the work was exciting.
Then you moved to a Senior Technical Recruiter role in the private sector – a big change from the Air Force! Tell us more about this career move.
When my enlistment was over I decided to leave the military to pursue opportunities in the private sector. I was married and received orders to go to Texas while my husband would have stayed in Maryland at the National Security Agency and we felt pursuing opportunities outside of the military was the right decision for our family.
I had a smooth transition from the military to the private sector for a few reasons, such as the military offered great resources through outplacement services and my job in the military gave me experience working with military and civilian personnel in an office environment and working with technology. When transitioning from the military, the two roles I most strongly considered were Technical Writer and Technical Recruiter. I decided on Technical Recruiter because I liked the idea of helping people to find rewarding technical careers with great companies.
Next, you moved into an HR Manager role with a startup. How did this come about?
In 2000, my husband decided to leave the military and we wanted to relocate to a different area in the U.S. When I shared this decision with my company they didn’t want me to leave and offered me the opportunity to work from home so I became their first ever “telecommuter”, which I loved!
I wanted to continue growing my career, however, the dot-com bubble was limiting the roles available for recruiting in technology. I decided to explore opportunities outside of tech, took on a recruitment consulting role in the defense industry, and then worked for a boutique recruitment firm in the food industry. Next, I decided to broaden my experience from recruiting to HR Management, and I secured a role in a startup working across multiple locations, in an industrial environment in the automotive industry.
Working across multiple different industries in different roles gave me new perspectives which made a positive impact on my overall career and I continue to see value from these experiences. I also learned that when there are market downturns we need to shift and adapt.
You then had a 15-year career with Cisco, and held different roles. Can you describe your time there and any highlights?
Yes, I held a variety of positions with Cisco across my 15-plus years there. I had the opportunity to innovate and try new things such as scaling a global TA function and leading an organization during a business model transformation. Working at Cisco was an incredible experience and I am forever grateful for the opportunities that were given to me by the many great leaders I had the opportunity to work with. I think I could do a full blog post just on the amazing experiences 😊 A couple of highlights – I worked as a remote worker and this was never a limitation, I grew my career from recruiter to leading global organizations from my home office and I had the opportunity to work across all of the business which was incredibly impactful for my career to grow from being a functional leader to a business leader.
What are some of the core capabilities in your career so far that have helped shape your career in the military and private sector?
Resilience, adaptability, change, vulnerability – 100%. I think the key to resilience is growing stronger in the face of change, not just adapting (or embracing) change but coming out on the other side stronger. I think it is important to bring our whole selves to work and when you are in an environment where you feel empowered in this way you will need to be vulnerable. As leaders, our teams need to know that leading the team is a part of who we are and we are also parents, caregivers, and so much more just like all of our team.
Over the span of your career so far, it is clear that you’ve held a lot of leadership roles. Do you have any tips for anyone considering a leadership role?
I’ve learned a lot as a leader. One important tip is that for anyone considering managing teams, please be sure you are making this decision because you want to serve your team, not just for a promotion. Teams need leaders who are passionate about leading the team in service of the team, partnering with them, and supporting their growth and development. Our teams are the most important part of our jobs as leaders and they need to feel this.
For new leaders, it is important that you transition your mindset from being the best individual contributor to winning through your team. You want to build an inclusive team where you inspire and align your team to the mission and remove roadblocks. It is important to take the time to know your individual team members, and to be proximate to them and their work so you can understand people’s perspectives and be the leader your team needs you to be at that time.
Active listening is incredibly important (and it is something that I have to continue to focus on and do better). You succeed through your team, when they are successful you are successful, and when there is a failure you take responsibility. Being here for my team is the most important part of my job.
In general, no matter your path, it is important to be intentional and define yourself. Growing your career requires you to actively participate – you cannot let others do this for you. Be clear with your manager about who you are and the experience you want. Ask yourself, how do you want to be thought of? And make it happen.
- When transitioning from the military to the private sector, take advantage of the resources provided by the military and tap into the resources available from companies like VMware which offers various programs to support your transition into a technology career. A challenge veterans face is translating their military experience to corporate roles and there are online translators that are available to help with this.
- Recognize the importance of lateral movement and growth. Some of my most impactful experiences have been from doing a similar role for a different area of the business, which gave me more breadth and a better understanding of how the whole business works.
- Avoid thinking of your career as a straight line. My career has been a winding path and I believe it has given me experience and exposure that makes me more valuable, giving me more opportunities as well as tremendous satisfaction and sense of purpose for my career.
- Always be networking! It is incredibly important to keep an active network and to grow your network to have people who have different perspectives than you. You can learn about people and you can also learn about their experiences which might be interesting for your own career and personal development.