Hello from the Other Side: Susan Maybaumwisniewski

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Hello from the Other Side: Susan Maybaumwisniewski

If you were narrating your story, what would it sound like?

The first thing you should know is that there was a certain amount of obliviousness to me. I was pretty capable and didn’t recognize it at all. For a long time I sort of just went along.

I was born to a single parent in the 1950s, and I’m number five of six children. My mother was not the norm for woman at the time by any stretch. But she had six children who were all successful as adults. Single mothers were nothing at the time – society was unaccepting of that. She came from the south and went north to escape that, to Flint, Michigan. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living at the edge in the 60s – things were changing, the national guard was called to my high school because of rioting. My mom was very religious and we were raised in the church. I got a lot of leadership training within my church youth group, none of which meant much to me at the time. My mom drilled it into us that there was life beyond Flint. And all of us ended up leaving. She always said: “there is a bigger world out there, you can do anything you want.”

I was the only one to go to college out of the six of us. When I graduated, I knew that if I got into corporate world – which was where I was headed – I wouldn’t be able to travel and go overseas and do things I wanted to do. So I joined the Navy to see the world.

Thirty years later, I could not imagine a better choice for me. I did travel; I got to do exactly that. I really took to the Navy in a lot of ways. The Navy liked nonconformists. They were really clear: these are the boundaries and you operate within them, but work within them anyway you’d like. And they rewarded initiative. So I just really fit. I got to move around; if there was someone you didn’t agree with, one of you was going to be gone in a year!

My primary specialty was underwater acoustics – anti-submarine warfare – and this was during the height of the Cold War when submarines were the predominant threat. I listened to the water, and to noises in the water, and figured out what they were. Only manmade noises make discrete sounds in the water.

I would rather make a mistake than not make a decision. That proved too consequential for me. I was willing to lean in and take responsibility for things that weren’t necessarily on me. And it caused me pain on occasion, but, on the whole, I was rewarded for being willing to step up and take charge in a group setting; maybe not immediately, but always over the long haul.

I really ended up having a totally wonderful life. I had all of the trappings of success. I had a wonderful career, two amazing daughters, a husband that I love. I feel so fortunate. Now, I can look back and see how good I actually was at making decisions for myself. That was a skill set that proved to be crucial.

What are you doing now?

I run the policy shop at a small think tank that works to bring best business practices to the national security community (where it makes sense). We seek entrepreneurs who understand the nexus of security and prosperity. We work to make the country work better.

What were the hardest decisions you had to make in the past?

The first one was kids. I was a little blithe when I got married; I thought, “If it doesn’t work, I’ll just get divorced.” Mark, my husband, wanted children and I did not. So that was a big one – whether to have kids.

Then, the job of my dreams came along when my daughters were in middle and high school: I was selected for major command. I got offered the job I had wanted for my entire career in the Navy: being in command of a post in Southampton, England and responsible for underwater surveillance on the North Atlantic. My husband and I talked at length, and he was all in favor of going. He was like, “You go, I’ll stay with the girls.” And I ended up turning it down.

How did those decisions turn out? Any regrets?

Absolutely no regrets about my daughters. Most people don’t believe me when I say I didn’t want children because I am so crazy about my daughters!

The Southampton job… I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some regrets. I may always regret that one a little bit.

Are there things that you spent years stressing out about that turned out to not be that big of a deal?

So, this is where I am an oddball: I refuse to worry.

That’s not to say that I don’t, because I do. I just don’t worry like most people do. If I do have a regret, it’s almost always because I should have made something clear to someone and I didn’t. When something bugged me, I should have said or done something.

What do you wish you had spent more time doing over the years?

Traveling. That’s probably the one thing, but I already have it in my head that I’m going to spend the next ten years living out of a suitcase.

I don’t think I did a great job of hanging on to my girlfriends. I do regret that, and I have been better about being a friend. But I do regret it.

How have you balanced your goals and ambitions with those of your partner? 

That one actually ended up being pretty easy; Sheryl Sandberg said to choose the right husband and she was 100% right. You really do have to find the right person.

First, you have to understand who you are and what you want. Then you find someone that is kind of comparable, and then the two of you decide what you’re going to do together. Lately, my husband lately has made it clear that I’ve had the better career – and I never saw it that way, in part because he was an aviator. But I like my work a lot more than he does, and I think that’s the key.

Find that person with whom you share goals, and choose who does what, whose turn is it for the next important job. When you do that, you have to understand that neither of you may be as successful as you might like. And then prioritize. Yourself, your family, your job: what comes first? We had always agreed that the marriage would come first.

What would you say your highlights have been?

My family: my daughters, my husband, our two families, those times when everyone is together. You look back and think, “What a wonderful time that was.” And my career was a real highlight. I was the first woman to do all kinds of things, and I never really thought about it at the time. And in the same vein, when I was told that I couldn’t do something because I was female, I didn’t really think about it either. Every so often someone will say to me: “You didn’t break the glass ceiling, but you certainly got there and kept pushing up against it.”

And the low points?

Probably my family and my career! (she laughs). I think I could have done more for others. I’m a fan of supporting those who don’t have a voice: children and women that are really in pain. I’d like to do more with that.

What do you think has changed the most for women over your lifetime?

Opportunity. No question. And, this is a part of that that is almost shocking to me: the casualness with which women don’t see the opportunities they have. I can’t decide if it’s because they don’t want it. And if they’ve made a choice to not pursue something, I’m okay with that. But there is a blurring of the lines sometimes about why women don’t pursue opportunities.

Maybe it’s because I look at myself and see that. I didn’t seek out opportunity. I was sort of oblivious, just going along, and then I started to get more ambitious. I remember the day when I realized I wanted a career in the Navy… and I thought it might be too late. I called another woman and said, “I’m really kind of sad; I don’t think I’ve done enough to stay in the Navy.” And she pulled up my record and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve had a great career.”

And this flip switched: I really wanted a career, not just to float.

What would you like to see continue to change and improve for women? 

I would like to concept of feminism to change and improve for women. It has a bad taste right now: that you don’t like men. To me, the real idea is that you shed the bonds of ‘women do this” or “men do that.” When you tee up women that way, men also have a role to play. When I was in high school, for instance, you couldn’t be a male nurse. I’d like to see that you can truly be who and what you want to be regardless of your gender.

Looking back at the past 50 or so years, what words of wisdom would you have? 

Be clear about who you are and what you want. And then go get it. You can have it all. You just can’t have all of it all of the time. You have to be clear: what do you want and in what order, and then go get that.

Where do you see yourself in five years, ten years? What does "retirement" look like to you?

The list is so long! I’m going to live in an RV for a couple of years driving around the country. I want to go to Europe and watch my Mercedes get built in Stuttgart and drive it around for a year and then sell it. I intend to visit every National Park. I’m going to visit every Presidential Library. I want to spend a year in Southeast Asia, maybe in Australia.

I don’t want to get old. I don’t want to be one of those old women.

My husband’s not sure what he’s going to do, but that’s what I’m doing. The other day he said, “My shirts are getting kind of scruffy, I guess I need to retire.” And I said, “ Mark, do what you want to do. Either keep working and get new shirts. Or quit and don’t.”

1 Response

Elizabeth Hickey
Elizabeth Hickey

December 20, 2016

M-16 not only led the life she wanted, she inspired and encouraged many women in the Navy. I will always appreciate her positive leadership while being stationed together in Hawaii.

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