People First: Senior executive bridges marriage, family strengths with workplace leadership, success

December 22, 2014

By T'Jae Gibson Ellis, ARL Public Affairs

Thirty-some years ago, it would have been considered career suicide for any woman to talk about marriage, child rearing and sewing in a room full of mostly middle-aged, professional men ... let alone scientists!

But Suzanne Milchling's approach to work is the same as her approach to her marriage and parenting three children: observe, analyze and adjust.

"I set a goal that I would start and end my career the same way; that I'd still be married," began Milchling, whose personal anecdotes about leadership at work – and at home – is exactly what brought an audience of about 50 to hear her speak Wednesday at the Army Research Laboratory's Rodman Material Research Laboratory.

Milchling started her career as a chemist in 1980 at Martel Laboratories in Towson, Maryland, and within two years, accepted a position as a GS-09 chemist working for Chemical Research and Development Center, which later evolved to become the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground. She entered the Senior Executive Service in April 2011 and today serves as the Director of Program Integration, or DPI, at ECBC.

In this position, Milchling manages the business activities and operating processes at ECBC, which is a research and development organization of 1,800 scientists, engineers and technicians with the primary core competency of safely handling chemical and biological agents for defensive R&D purposes. Her responsibilities include chemical/biological surety and policy, as well as support to current operations (warfighter and homeland defense/security).

She also leads Center-wide strategic and business planning, infrastructure support and financial systems integration, to include policy for assuring ECBC executes its mission effectively and is prepared to address the ever increasing threats posed to the nation and warfighter by weapons of mass destruction.

As the director of DPI, a directorate of approximately 450 people, she directs interagency activities with agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, as well as various state/local government and commercial entities with chemical and biological protection homeland security responsibilities.

"I have a talent for identifying what motives and de-motivates people," she told ARL employees.

This was tested in the mid-1990s she said when she, as a federal employee, was training first responders – who are local government employees across the country.

"I was getting yelled at from local and state officials. Generals were promising cities equipment they couldn't deliver." She was marked for conflict, labeled as "the feds" perceived as an enforcer to small town USA. "I was handling all of these challenges at work and having to go back home and be a mom."

To handle complex problems and conflict, she said she focused on finding a way to help leadership and help colleagues, and guide and support subordinates.

"I recognized that I didn't have all the answers." So instead, she said she leads with questions.

"You've got to recognize that you can see things and process things differently than others." Because of this, she said people "can push your buttons." She cautioned the audience to build "emotional intelligence" so they could alter their behavior when confronted with situations that bring them gross discomfort – annoyance, frustration, offense, anger to name a few – and concentrate on ways to connect with colleagues in smaller groups and at more junior levels.

"Forming partnerships" she found is a way to make peers look good, and "when that happens, we all look good. They will want to help you because you've shown them you want to help them."


Last Update / Reviewed: December 22, 2014