Elizabeth Van Winkle no longer creates career “plans.”
“Perhaps it’s because all paths I ever set for myself ended up far different than I expected,” she says with a smile.
From a psychology and English dual degree to an early career in trauma service work to her current position as the director of strategic analytics at Raytheon, a business of RTX, Elizabeth’s career path has been winding — but it hasn’t been without intention.
We sat down with Elizabeth to hear how she’s grown her career with purpose while maintaining balance. Read on for her top three tips for how you can do the same.
Finding her place in defense
Elizabeth didn’t initially picture the national security and defense industry in her future. After graduating from college, she planned to stay in the psychology field and spent 10 years doing direct service work with trauma survivors.
“I had a very difficult time balancing it emotionally and found myself burning out quite splendidly,” she recalls. As a result, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the research psychology and data analytics side of the field, where she found she enjoyed measuring the unmeasurable to make informed decisions.
After the birth of her first child, Elizabeth realized she needed to secure a steady income.
“There was an opportunity to do research in the Department of Defense (DoD). At the time I had begun working in the area of military trauma, so it seemed like a good place to learn a bit about defense research and analytics, have access to some of the most interesting data systems available, and then I would obviously move on to something else,” Elizabeth says with a laugh.
Fast forward 10 years, and Elizabeth hadn’t left the DoD. Rather, she’d worked her way up from a GS-9 to a senior executive.
Try, fail, and adjust
“Working in defense was certainly not in my original plan,” Elizabeth says. “However, the mission of national security and defense is truly unparalleled and there is a seduction to that. You’re on the front lines of some of the most historical and impactful decisions being made. That’s both exhilarating and petrifying.”
Elizabeth developed a fierce loyalty to the DoD, the military, and the country that fueled her career growth.
“When you have such loyalty, you are willing to give your all and it helps to guide all you do,” she says.
This same loyalty also proved to be a double-edged sword. With so much on the line, Elizabeth sometimes feared failure — but a piece of advice from a former colleague helped her push through the discomfort.
“I have a dear friend and previous colleague in the Pentagon who would say we often must simply ‘try, fail, and adjust,’” says Elizabeth. “I would say the basic approach to my career has been just that: try, fail, and adjust.”
Throughout her time with the DoD, Elizabeth rarely said no to an opportunity and sought ways to push the boundaries of her job description. She challenged the saying “this is how we’ve always done it” and didn’t accept “impossible” as an answer.
“There is ‘impossible’ and then there is ‘possible but very difficult’ – the latter is certainly hard, but it’s not impossible, and this distinction is critical to trying new things and advancing both the field and your career,” Elizabeth says. “In policy, I often said, and truly believe, that one of the greatest threats to progress is complacency. Do your research, look at the data, and then make your decision and try to make things better. You may fail, but each failure brings you closer to progress as long as you are willing to recognize the failure and adjust.”
Growth through the challenge of motherhood
As she continued to grow her family, Elizabeth found that the third pillar of her career approach was more pertinent than ever: adjust.
“Failure was certainly a part of learning to navigate work-life balance, as was the need to adjust,” she says. “A mother’s career intentions are highly personal, and we’ve worked hard to get to a place where we have choices. For me, as a mother, staying at home wasn’t an option because I truly felt fulfillment in having a career. It wasn’t one or the other, it was both – raising my children and having a career.”
Finding the right synergy between these two identities proved challenging as both roles required extensive care and feeding. Not long after starting with the DoD, Elizabeth found herself with a newborn, a toddler, a full-time job, and a strong case of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation transformed into broken time management, and Elizabeth struggled to find balance between her career, her kids, and her marriage. By the time she became a senior executive, this only proved more challenging.
“At the time, working 12-hour days was the ‘norm’ for a senior executive. When meetings came up at 4 p.m. for 6:30 p.m. that night, I would watch the Outlook invitations get accepted without pause, while I was trying to figure out how I would make the meeting and still get home for dinner,” Elizabeth recalls. “Plans with friends and loved ones got made and canceled. Recitals went on without me. Parent-teacher conferences were often on the phone if they happened at all.”
Elizabeth admits that she was simply hoping for the best as opposed to adjusting, and her divorce was a wake-up call.
“I was able to look around me and realize I would continue to lose what I loved most dearly if I didn’t change how I was operating,” she says.
With this new lens, Elizabeth started managing her time differently. If a meeting was scheduled at 6:30 p.m., she would take it from her car or try to reschedule. She started prioritizing her kids’ sports games and school band concerts, attending PTA meetings, and watching Disney movies with her kids when they were sick.
“As I did, I found that many of my assumptions about working in the DoD were absolutely inaccurate and had more to do with my own anxiety than reality,” Elizabeth recalls. Often, her own leaders were the ones encouraging her to end a call and have dinner with her kids.
“I adjusted and found that, while not always perfect, it was possible as long as I set expectations for how I want to balance my time.”
Continued learning with Raytheon
While with the DoD, Elizabeth was approached by Raytheon. She was content in her role but also felt a growing sense of complacency. As someone who consistently sought challenges, she eventually decided that Raytheon was the right place to continue stretching herself.
“What I had never done was see the other side of the DoD within industry. [My mentor at the time] mentioned this was a critical gap in my knowledge base and experience in industry would only strengthen my skill sets,” Elizabeth says.
She recalls that it wasn’t much of a cognitive leap to understand how the mission of both the DoD and Raytheon complement each other — and acting as director of strategic analytics at Raytheon would allow her to continue safeguarding democracy in new ways.
“After working [at Raytheon] for nearly a year, I have not been disappointed. I have had the pleasure to work for and alongside some of the greatest minds. The drive to innovate and improve that I had while working in the DoD is dwarfed by the determination of those who work at Raytheon, which is both humbling and rewarding,” Elizabeth says.
Leading by example
Now a leader, role model, and mentor, Elizabeth understands that her actions set the culture more powerfully than anything she says — and she leverages the lessons she’s learned throughout her own career to help her teams find both growth and balance.
“I have had many leaders say work-life balance is important, but they arrive at work at 6 a.m. and don’t leave until after 9 p.m. While these same leaders were more than accommodating of family schedules, there is an assumption that you support your principal and match their hours, so you could sense how staff struggled to find balance,” she recalls.
Now, Elizabeth leads by example, including leaving work by 5 p.m. — even if it means finishing up work from home after her kids have gone to sleep — and trying not to send emails on the weekend or outside of “core” hours.
She also believes in being transparent with her calendar. If she has to block off time for a child’s medical appointment or sports game, she’ll write that in the calendar hold.
“I think seeing a leader schedule in time for family or personal self-care permits others to do the same,” she says.
Elizabeth will also clearly state to her teams that when she says family comes first, she means it, and the same goes for their family commitments.
“I purposely make it clear to my teams that if I schedule an appointment, and it conflicts with a personal commitment they have, let me know,” she says.
3 tips to grow your own career with intention and balance
Like most things in life, Elizabeth admits that balance isn’t always perfect.
“There are days I feel I am perfectly balanced, then there are days where I think, ‘Well, I completely messed that up!’ and try again the next day. Some days it seems to happen effortlessly, and schedules align perfectly, but most days it’s a little bit of a juggling act. I try not to be hard on myself,” she says.
From expanding her skill set with the DoD to taking on the challenge of motherhood and now working within Raytheon, Elizabeth has learned to embrace three principles to achieve growth alongside balance:
- Try, fail, and adjust. As Elizabeth once learned from a prior colleague, we shouldn’t be afraid to try something new and put ourselves out there. She says, “It’s important to proceed wisely, and preferably in a data-informed manner, but it’s as important to try. You may fail, falter, or struggle, but every time you stumble, you are learning. Take the time to honestly assess what happened, talk to those who know the topic area and can provide guidance, and adjust. You will find you can accomplish more than you previously thought.”
- Assess what balance looks like for you, and guide your career with that in mind. This can change over time, so Elizabeth encourages you to assess often. “There is no right or wrong answer here, and I think we often put more pressure on ourselves than necessary,” she says. “More often than not an imbalance will show itself, but it’s often a painful reveal; it can be a physical manifestation, psychological, or a life event that shifts our ground a bit and forces us to see things a little differently. Be honest in your assessment, seek guidance from mentors, loved ones, or therapists to help, and then try to find that balance in your career.”
- Be kind to yourself. While it’s important to reflect and learn from failure, it’s equally important to keep moving forward. Elizabeth says, “There is a comfort in understanding that everyone falls, everyone stumbles, everyone has life events that happen to them, times of weakness, parts of them that they are afraid of, regrets, insecurities — it is the most human of conditions! Be kind to yourself, surround yourself with people who are equally kind, and find the strength to dust yourself off and carry on, knowing it won’t be the last time you falter, but also knowing the stumbles are what give you the strength and resolve to reach higher elevations.”
Elizabeth may no longer create a plan for her future, but she’s certain of one thing: there is more room for growth. “I am intentionally providing myself the space to do just that,” she says. “As I go, I continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in order to try to strengthen the data analytic support I can provide to decision-makers. I am lucky to have an absolutely brilliant team who takes on every challenge with blistering intellect and skill. I think there is a great deal of opportunity ahead of us.”Interested in growing your career at Raytheon? Check out their job openings here.