Opportunities for impact are everywhere
A virtual mentoring session with Cheryl Paradis
What’s it like to be mentored by our leaders? It’s impossible for every one of us to sit down with members of our leadership team, so we’re conducting virtual mentoring sessions with them to pass along wisdom and lessons from the people who have ascended to Electronic Systems’ highest level positions.
In this session, we talk with Cheryl Paradis, vice president and general manager of FAST Labs™, about putting challenges into perspective, the value of new and different experiences, and the drivers behind her nearly three-decade career with BAE Systems.
Your first role at BAE Systems was as a design engineer. Can you tell me a bit about that and your subsequent career journey?
My career was launched from a love of airplanes. Growing up in upstate New York, my family lived right next to Plattsburgh Air Force Base (which was active at the time), and I would spend too many hours watching the F-111s take off. So, fresh out of college I started my path as an aerospace engineer with BAE Systems. Immediately I was traveling and being immersed in different programs, encountering exciting challenges at every turn. Somehow, time escaped me and 27 years later, I’m still here. But that first role stays with me. It gave me great insight into our customers, the missions they execute, and the challenges they face, which has been a guidepost for me at every stage of my career.
You’ve recently taken on the position of VP/GM of FAST Labs. What excites you about this role?
Everything. From the mission of FAST Labs to the novel operational model, it all excites me. We get to identify the technology gaps that don’t even exist yet, develop a strategy to address them, and seek the most innovative ways to close them. Whether through the new developments of our own team members or by strategically scouting dual-use technologies, opportunities for impact are everywhere. And personally, coming back to FAST Labs (where I previously served as deputy VP) felt like coming home again. A lot has changed, but there’s a familiar energy. Everyone is so passionate about science, technology development, and solving the hardest problems. It’s humbling to lead this team.
What have been the most important lessons you’ve carried with you throughout your career at BAE Systems?
As an introvert, I’ve learned how to be “extroverted” when I need to, and I’ve come to understand the importance of putting yourself out there. This can be very difficult for an introvert, but I can attest that it gets easier with practice. I’ve found it doesn’t matter if you’re introverted or extroverted, public speaking requires you to think through your approach and topic. My advice: Make it your topic, not just a topic. Share your stories, show how you give the topic meaning, and let the audience see a glimpse of you. It makes all the difference. And, a very important mentor once said to me, “Remember, they can’t eat you.” I have carried that line with me through my entire career, and I still repeat it to myself right before I speak in front of large groups.
Also critically important are my mentors, who I call my “personal board of directors.” These individuals mean the world to me, and have guided my career with wisdom and at times, direct feedback (even when I didn’t want to hear it). Establishing that for yourself is one of the most important development goals I recommend.
You’ve held several positions in your tenure here. What is the value of exploring diverse roles within the company? How has this shaped you as a leader?
Over the course of my career I’ve held numerous engineering leadership roles, program management roles, deputy VP/GM, and product line director roles. Each position was increasingly more complex in people management, and I found that to fit my personality well. Diverse experiences in these roles made it easy to relate to all of our employees, in the roles they fulfill, the challenges they experience, and the successes they achieve. It gave me a fantastic perspective from which to lead, mentor, and coach.
Assuming new roles within the company also lends itself to an agile mindset. They say change is the only constant, so I rank agility high on the list of key leadership skills. Adapting to new environments has helped me understand that change is good, and an agile leader can help others navigate it.
Can you describe a challenge you’ve had in your career, and how you overcame it?
I once thought that having tough conversations with people was difficult, because I had developed an aversion to confrontation as the middle child of seven. My nickname growing up was “Switzerland” – I was always the one pulling us together, compromising, and making harmony out of our group. I grew to hate confrontation. However, as I entered the work environment and immersed myself within teams, I recognized that everyone has a role to do well, and it takes an entire team to be successful. Suddenly, having any kind of difficult conversation became easy with that perspective. I also realized that some people just need a clear, pointed discussion to understand what needs to change and why. It is an amazing feeling when you have a positive impact on an individual based on a difficult conversation.
Why is the ES mission, We Protect Those Who Protect Us®, important to you?
It’s a mission we all feel every day when we come to work – a living, breathing part of us. This mission calls to our patriotic sense of well-being. Even in the toughest times, like the COVID-19 pandemic, employees at BAE Systems are called upon to protect those who serve for the greater good. And we always rise to the occasion. I carry this mission proudly. And on a personal note, my oldest daughter is currently contracted with the Air Force. That reinforces my desire to live our mission to the fullest every day.
By Megan McKeon, Communications, Burlington, Massachusetts