AFMC Command News

Slow down: Become an expert at your job, and the promotions will come

  • Published
  • By Michele Ruff
  • Headquarters, Air Force Materiel Command

Ridiculously long. That’s how Kathryn (Kathy) Sowers describes her Senior Executive Service title of Director, Strategic Plans, Programs, Requirements and Analyses. But the long title is necessary to describe everything the division she is responsible for does.

She and her staff are involved in all aspects of the senior decision-making process. From programming budgets to war gaming, they integrate all Air Force Materiel Command equities to help shape Air Force outcomes that affect the mission and impact thousands of Airmen every day.

“I’m privileged to lead a varied group of dedicated and experienced professionals,” said Sowers. “Many of them are prior military with very niche backgrounds like requirements planning, and others are logisticians, engineers and program managers—we have the whole gamut!”

Reflecting on Women’s History Month, Sowers feels that being a woman did not hold her back in professional achievement, but she does recall an incident or two early in her career when her capabilities were questioned.

One time, she was tasked with taking a large program cost estimate project up the chain of command. After her first briefing before a board of colonels, she was asked, “Good briefing, but who is going to take this forward?”

Since this was her project, she was floored–the colonel in charge did not see a young female as being capable of carrying the project forward to the three-star level.

“Luckily for me, my leadership had my back,” said Sowers. “The comptroller told the board chair that the general in charge of the program had complete faith in me and that ‘she’s the right person’ to take it forward.”

She went on to successfully brief the cost estimate to boards all the way up the chain of command. Her superiors’ belief in her was not luck--it was earned by constantly proving her abilities.

Sowers had great trust in those who helped to guide her career, but one area that was difficult for her early on was networking.

“When I was younger, my bosses were always telling me to attend meeting and luncheons and introduce myself,” said Sowers. “I felt that sounded a lot like getting face time, and I wasn’t too interested in that.”

She now fully understands the importance of networking and building relationships with others in and outside of their chosen field. Many of the colleagues she met in the early days of her career are now her counterparts at the senior level. Those established connections were instrumental in the easy communication she now enjoys and employs on a daily basis.

“I realize now how wise that advice was and encourage my mentees to network and build relationships as well,” she said.

Sowers didn’t aim to be a senior executive. She joined the civilian ranks as a financial management intern soon after graduating from Wright State University near Dayton, Ohio.

“My dad worked on base, and he thought it would be a great career for me as well,” said Sowers.

“I was not the type to map my career out on an Excel spreadsheet,” she said. “My focus was to do the best job I could in whatever job I was placed in.”

After initial work at Wright-Patterson AFB, Sowers moved to the Pentagon for five years where she led the Air Force Cost Analysis Improvement Group. She also attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, now called Eisenhower School. Shortly after graduation from ICAF, she moved back to Wright-Patterson.

Like many other successful women, Sowers has been asked to take on tasks she felt were out of her comfort zone. She was a financial manager, and a good one, but as she went up in rank, she was asked to career broaden into program management.

“But why? I was making a difference in my current job,” Sowers wondered. “But since I had faith in my mentors, I took the advice and cross-trained.”

Sowers’ work as a program manager was not without stumbles, but she learned from the mistakes and went on to bigger challenges. She worked for more than 10 years in program management as the Deputy Director for the C-17, Director of C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Reengineering Program, and then as the Deputy Program Executive Officer for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

At different points during her career, Sowers was approached to apply for the Senior Executive Service, but she was married with children still in school, and it was not the right time. She knew that becoming a senior executive meant she would be serving at the need of the Air Force, which included potentially having to move her family several times.

“I said, thanks for your confidence in me, but the time is not right,” she said. “It’s a huge commitment not only for me, but for my family, and it had to be a joint decision.”

“I applied when the time was right for me and my family,” Sowers said.

Women’s History Month showcases the women who have accomplished careers while balancing home and family. Every woman has to do it her own way, but supportive leaders are important.

“It demonstrates to younger women that it’s possible for them too,” she said. “Lean on your mentors for advice and counsel.”

 And Sowers is passionate about mentoring others. She strives to be a sounding board and a supervisor who makes life better for her staff. She sees the potential in younger people and encourages them.

Sowers noted that many trainees she speaks with now are in a hurry to move up, but she advises them to become experts in their jobs and the promotions will come.

“Learn your job and get really, really good at it,” she advises. “Then be open to opportunity and take it!”

Editor’s Note:  This story is part of a series of stories in honor of Women’s History Month that highlight extraordinary women from across Air Force Materiel Command who are making history today.