My Career Journey: Solving NSA's Most Complex Cybersecurity Challenges, Rising to Leadership & More

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Natalie P.

Photo courtesy of NSA.

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April 16, 2024 at 7:39PM UTC

Natalie P., Chief of Enduring Security Framework at the National Security Agency (NSA), says that the plethora of missions at the organization means that “you can constantly reinvent yourself and take an adventure into a new space.” For example, she’s been able to reinvent herself by assuming a leadership role with NSA.

“I have the privilege to lead a team that brings government and industry experts together to solve some of the most complex cybersecurity challenges facing the United States,” Natalie explains. As the NSA’s former first chief of cybersecurity communications, she’s had the opportunity to really build the brand.

Now, in her current role, Natalie says that she feels empowered to create an atmosphere for talented individuals to accomplish a shared secure communications mission. Her time is largely spent communicating and taking care of people, who she calls “the most critical infrastructure” at the agency. 

“Taking care of our people is the most important duty of my day,” Natalie tells us, noting that prioritizing, scoping and putting deadlines in place helps her maximize her time so she can focus on people and their needs to help NSA meet their needs.

One strategy she leverages as a manager is putting “people in context,” or matching her leadership style to the individual — with empowerment, resourcefulness and heart.

“When you empower people, they exceed expectations,” says Natalie. “Every person has a story, and you cannot forget that employees are people, which means you have to get personal. Work is personal to me because I value the people and our commitment to the mission.”

This means opening up lines of communication, practicing active listening, demonstrating the values you want to see in your team and building trusted relationships. Natalie also makes sure to ask her team members what they value, how they prefer to be communicated with, what types of recognition they most enjoy and how they prefer to receive feedback.

“Getting to know your employees is critical — creating an environment where they have accountable autonomy empowers them to take measured risk without leaving them without clear expectations or guidance,” she says. “I want an employee to leave me better than when they arrived — not because they worked for me, but because they felt empowered to explore new parts of themselves and take risks.”

We caught up with Natalie to learn more about how she moved into NSA’s cybersecurity mission with, admittedly, very little technical expertise but a whole lot of motivation and resiliency — as well as her management strategies and tips for other women who want to move into leadership positions.

Here’s what she had to say.

While at NSA, you’ve built a team that you’re now leading. How did you approach this?

I want to be a people leader — someone who is selected to lead because people want to be led by me, not because a superior placed me there. Having employees that will return to work for me is the pinnacle of success for me. When I create teams, I look for drive and gut. I want to hire someone who will own their role but also help others. I look beyond those technical skills and more if the person is motivated.

While building your team, what did you learn that surprised you most?

People want to be challenged. They want to feel like they are contributing and are capable of so much more than they may even realize. You can create an impact without a lot of resources when you have motivated individuals.

What were your initial thoughts when you learned you were moving into a leadership role?

I felt empowered and a mega sense of accountability. I feel it is important to demonstrate the qualities I want in my employees, and that means holding myself accountable. I can't expect from others what I wouldn't be willing to do myself.

Can you identify anything you said or did that earmarked you as someone ready for advancement?

My willingness to take calculated risk, which to me is using data-backed intuition and leaning in. Whenever I move into a new position, I get my hands dirty. I scope the mission, prioritize and set deadlines. That ensures I deliver impactful results.

A lot of people believe that developing your career means changing companies. What has enabled you to develop and advance your career at NSA?

I would say three things have helped me evolve my career. 

  1. The first is my desire to build a tapestry of experiences, which make me a more effective leader.

  2. Second is being a perpetual learner who acquires new skills to open up new opportunities.

  3. Third is working at a place like the National Security Agency, which has so many diverse missions, training opportunities and support to explore them.

How has NSA helped set you up for success as a manager?

The National Security Agency has incredible leadership training. NSA also prioritizes mentorship, and mentors have been key to my development and continued success. We are a community that comes to work to contribute to something bigger than ourselves and that fosters a deep sense of mutual respect.

What opportunities did NSA provide that ultimately helped you land your role?

NSA energized innate skills that I didn't know I had and gave me the opportunity to use those skills in positions I didn't expect to fulfill.

NSA has an incredible professional development environment. This includes great academic programs, but it isn’t limited to that. Our mentoring culture truly enabled me to land where I did. I love that I can look back and see people who were integral in helping me achieve my current success.

Speaking of mentoring, does NSA have a formal program in place for mentorship?

Yes! The National Security Agency has the most amazing mentoring program, and every office I have worked in expected and encouraged employees to engage in mentoring relationships.

How has having a mentor or sponsor (or being a mentor or sponsor enriched your own work experience?

We share experience, ideas and expertise. There is always someone willing to listen. I love that.

Having a mentor helps me to identify how I can maximize my skills and be brave enough to chase new opportunities. Having mentees gives me hope that our mission will always succeed. I am amazed at the level of talent that we have at NSA and am always humbled when talented individuals seek me out for mentorship. I also have to foot stomp the need for multiple mentors that are both senior and junior to you. Some of my best mentors are people who have worked for me.

Who is the most influential person in your professional life and why?

My father. My dad is the ultimate mentor. He doesn't give me advice but rather provides me with a safe space to explore and follow my thoughts to find solutions and creativity.

What was the best quality of the best boss you’ve ever had?

The best quality of the best boss I've ever had is curiosity. Working for someone who is curious about me as a person, about places, new subject matters and experiences is motivating and inspired me.

What are things (at and outside of work) that you’re especially good at?

I am known for building and transforming missions. Something I love about myself is that I can take someone who may not be fully actualized or empowered, or a mission that isn't quite functioning at full capacity and, with little resources, make it impactful. I can think strategically but underpin that strategy with operational plans to accomplish big goals.

I also love helping people. I think I have a knack for getting to know people. This has served me so well and enriched my life with experiences and people.

What’s been your most valuable career mistake?

My most valuable career mistake is not speaking up. There have been times I let fear rule me and wish I would have dug deep to find my voice, even if others ignored it.

I have a voice, and I don’t always have to “correct.” I learned that, as long as I measure risk, have data-backed intuition and have a trusted environment, I can share my thoughts without fear of being wrong.

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership?

Be your authentic self. I see being a woman in the workplace, especially in leadership, as an advantage. Because I am a woman, a mother, a daughter — all those female roles make me a better professional. I want to be me, and I want each woman to be herself. That authenticity and genuineness is what makes you unique and will be beacons for others, regardless of your pronoun.

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