Across 40 years at Sandia National Laboratories, Dori Ellis has gone from student to Deputy Laboratories Director and Chief Operating Officer — managing seven sites, $3.7 billion and over 14,000 people. Despite stereotypes about members of the c-suite being put on a fast-track to their corner offices, Dori’s path was anything but linear.
Thanks to Sandia’s dedication to its team’s career exploration and development, Dori worked in many different organizations across the Labs at many different levels. Then, in 2011, she retired, only to have her passion for problem solving call her back to work. While Dori worked at several other labs after re-entering the workforce, the supportive, “can do” culture at Sandia brought her back to where her career began.
Recently, we spoke to Dori about her career path, her approach to growth, the advice that’s shaped her career, and the work that’s so interesting it brought her out of retirement.
Tell me a bit about your current role and the scope of Sandia’s mission.
As Chief Operating Officer, I have operational oversight for the Laboratories’ seven major sites, $3.7 billion in annual spending and more than 14,000 people. As a federally-funded research and development center, Sandia executes national security missions across the U.S. government, discovers new scientific information and collaborates with universities and companies.
Our work protects our nation against military threats and develops and protects U.S. technology for our economic security through energy research, cybersecurity and biosecurity. It has high impact and high risk – rocket launches, high explosives, nuclear reactors. We protect radioactive materials in countries around the world and respond to disease outbreaks. We have the best people, best scientific capabilities and best approaches to getting our jobs done.
What’s the first (and/or last) thing you do at work every day?
Grab a cup of coffee and check to see whether there are new developments that impact our work worldwide. At the end of the day, I change into gym clothes and go work out.
Let’s talk about your career path. When did you first come to work for your company, and in what role?
I came to Sandia as a member of the technical staff in 1978. I was hired as a bachelor-level mechanical engineer and spent my first year getting a master’s degree in structural dynamics as a full-time student under a Sandia affirmative action education program. Returning to the Labs, I spent my early career as a member of the technical staff, but soon moved into management. Since then, I have had increasing levels of management responsibility and have had the opportunity to work in many different organizations across the Labs.
Why did you leave, and what ultimately made you come back?
I retired in 2011, thinking I wanted to complete several personal projects (like remodeling), invest in some seriously healthy activities (running, strength training) and do some consulting. Sandia’s retiree benefits were changing significantly in 2012 and I was retirement eligible. After 18 months being retired, I found that I had completed all the projects and was in great shape physically. Consulting was interesting but the satisfaction of owning a problem and being able to resolve it pulled me back into the workforce. I worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for two-and-a-half years, then went to the University of California Office of National Laboratories (UCNL) as the Executive Director of Operations.
I was at UCNL when I received a call from Dr. Stephen Younger, asking if I would be willing to help him develop the bid for a Sandia Laboratories’ contract. I had the privilege of working with Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories while at UCNL, and found that each had their own special ethos. Sandia’s ethos was unique to all three and its culture pulled me back.
What’s your favorite aspect of your company’s culture and/or your favorite company perk?
Without a doubt, my favorite thing about Sandia is its “can do” engineering culture. We have the ability to bring together multidisciplinary teams from across the Labs and tackle large, difficult problems. My favorite perk is the flexible work schedule. We allow staff to have a 9/80 or 4/10 schedule that is family friendly. We also allow members of the workforce to buy additional vacation days.
What’s something you’re especially good at, at work?
One of the things that has served me well over the years is the ability to have difficult conversations. Whether it is a performance discussion or addressing some particularly difficult mission problem, being able to objectively identify and talk about issues is an invaluable skill.
What about outside of work?
Outside of work, I really enjoy working out, riding my bicycle, cooking and taking care of my home, both inside and out. I am also a voracious reader — I love a good mystery!
What’s the one career move you’ve made that you’re most proud of?
Returning to Sandia - California as the Associate Labs Director was perhaps the most exciting time in my career. The California site is essentially a smaller version of the rest of the Labs’ activities. Having the opportunity to shape its development at a time when the workload there was increasing at an unprecedented rate was really rewarding.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
There are two:
Never impugn a colleague’s integrity. We are all working within our values and trying to do the right thing as we see it.
When you find yourself in a difficult work relationship that you can’t seem to influence, you have three choices – keep digging that hole and making yourself and others miserable; choose to accept what you cannot change and change your response; and last, remove yourself from the situation. Ultimately, we can only change ourselves.
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