BABE #107: CAITLIN BROWN, Director of Public Affairs @ FL National Guard
Caitlin is a bonafide badass. She is currently serving as the Director of Public Affairs for the Florida National Guard, where she manages all official photography, video, graphics and audio support, along with the organization's websites and social media platforms. We LOVED this interview and are big fans of the new perspectives and experiences Caitlin has brought to the table. She has a whole lot of heart, grit and drive for what she does and that's something we can get behind. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Caitlin! You are absolutely a Babe.
Hometown: I’m an Army brat and lived in 10 places before I graduated high school, including seven years abroad. I am rootless in the best sense, with pieces of home everywhere.
Current city: Saint Augustine, FL
Alma mater: The University of Florida; Duquesne University
Degree: B.A., Public Relations; M.A., Leadership
Very first job: Front desk clerk @ Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Garrison - Seoul, South Korea
Hustle: Director of Public Affairs @ Florida National Guard
Babe you admire and why?
I’m sure you get this answer all the time, but the babe I admire most in the world is my mom. In the late 60s, she left college in Alabama and moved to Big Sur, California to live the hippie life. Years later, she went back to school as a single mom of two kids, working as a bartender to pay her bills. She earned her BA and MA degrees, and eventually met my dad, an Army officer stationed at a nearby post. After they got married, she embarked on the life of a military spouse, moving every 18 months or so and dealing with the challenges of a husband who was often gone for training or deployments. Despite all this, she always worked, even when she couldn’t find a job in her specific field (nutrition). When I was about 10 and my dad was deployed to on Operation Desert Storm, my mom went back to school to get her second master’s degree and become a librarian, all while working full-time and taking care of me on her own. She is humble, mellow, genuine, and is always hands-down the most interesting person in the room.
Go-to coffee order?
I’m one of those freaks who doesn’t drink coffee, but in college, I studied abroad at Cambridge University in England and got into the habit of drinking black tea with milk in it, which I drink all day long.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
There would be multiple courses involved, starting with a cheese board and ending with something decadent and chocolatey. In the middle, probably surf-and-turf, with steak (medium-rare) and a big glass (or three) of red wine.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
I would love to have a group coffee date with Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Ellen DeGeneres, Amy Poehler, Leslie Mann, Jennifer Lawrence and Betty White. They all want to be friends with me, they just don’t know it yet.
What’s something most don't know about you?
I’m a pretty open book, but something that I think always surprises people about me is that I’m an Air Force officer who has a pretty serious fear of flying. My husband is an aviator, and I regularly embarrass him on flights when we hit turbulence and I revert to my Catholic roots and start praying the Hail Mary.
Tell us about your hustle:
I am an Air Force major, and currently serve as the director of public affairs for the Florida National Guard. I direct all strategic communication efforts for a dynamic agency made up of approximately 12,000 soldiers, airmen and civilians all working together to fight and win our nation’s wars, and to protect the lives and property of all Floridians during disasters. My staff and I manage all official photography, video, graphics and audio support for the Florida National Guard, along with the organization’s websites and social media platforms. I also handle all media and community relations requests. My job is challenging, fast-paced and high-energy, and I love it.
What does your typical workday look like?
My typical workday starts at 7:30 a.m. I get an hour of duty time each day to work out (major bonus, I know), which I usually do first thing in the morning. After that I head to my office, check my email and do my first “media scan,” when I search for any mentions of the Florida National Guard in the news and also read through stories on major outlets (CNN, MSN, Fox, AP, BBC). I check my calendar and to-do list (both of which I still keep hard copies of!), and make sure I’m prepared for any meetings during the day; there are usually at least two. At some point, I’ll usually do a quick, informal huddle with my staff, and we’ll go over any upcoming events they’re covering, issues they’re facing and looming project deadlines. Depending on the day, I may be checking in with our numerous social media accounts, taking calls from reporters, providing counsel or interview preparation to our adjutant general or other leaders, or coordinating with counterparts in other states or our higher headquarters (the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C.). I’m also on the road pretty frequently, either headed to Tallahassee to work in the State Emergency Operations Center during emergencies or providing leadership support and/or media liaison at National Guard events throughout the state.
What lead you to serve in the military, specifically the National Guard? What has that journey been like?
I never really intended to join the military. I grew up in a military family (my dad served 30 years as an Army officer) and I just didn’t think it would be a good fit for me. I actually turned down ROTC scholarships and chose the University of Florida in part because I was offered an academic scholarship (and because I also look amazing in orange and blue). Then, at the beginning of the fall semester of my sophomore year, 9/11 happened. I’m still not 100 percent sure what came next—the best way I can describe it is that it was as if something inside of me woke up; I felt a pull of duty. I signed up for ROTC the next week and earned my commission as a second lieutenant two years later. I initially served on active duty, where I met my husband. When I was pregnant with my first child, I transitioned into the Florida National Guard, largely because it would allow me to settle in one place and establish roots for my growing family.
How have you coped with the struggles of working within a military environment and culture?
The military has been very good to me. It has afforded me more education, experience and opportunity than I would have otherwise had in any other field. I am extremely proud to wear the uniform and have never regretted my decision to serve. That being said, there are times I feel a bit like a square peg in a round hole. For one thing, I work in a noncombat specialty, which means the work I do is sometimes seen as being less relevant to the organization’s mission accomplishment. Also, my personality is a little unorthodox in a military environment. I tend to be less directive in nature and take a “why not?” approach to trying new things. The military, on the other hand, tends to be more conservative in its approach to risk and can be reluctant to branch out from time-tested ways of operating. While that can be challenging for me, I try to keep in mind the reason for the nature of my organization. You have to remember that the military is a million-person-plus organization. That, coupled with the very nature of the mission, means that change isn’t something that happens fast here. You just can’t turn a tanker on a dime, and even if you could it wouldn’t always be the right course. I have found that if you keep an open mind and listen to the opposing argument, you can gain a better understanding of where you actually can make change. Patience and persistence go a long way!
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience?
For the most part, I don’t think my gender has been a huge issue for me professionally. There are times when I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m the only woman in the room, but I have rarely felt talked over or dismissed. It happened more when I was younger and lower ranking, but I think that had more to do with me being seen as inexperienced (which I was) rather than me being a woman. On the flip side, I think certain aspects of my gender have worked to my advantage. For instance, I think I have a high level of emotional intelligence, which seems to be true of a lot of women in general. This helps me to be a more effective servant leader, and to navigate the nuanced interpersonal dynamics of office life. Also, part of my job is to serve as a liaison between my organization and the public at large, and so the fact that I’m friendly and don’t come across with even a hint of “drill sergeant” persona helps me connect with people. I especially love the conversations I have with young girls; it’s so awesome to think that I might be showing them a potential career path that they may not have considered before.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
My civilian friends sometimes seem to think I’m shooting guns all day, or crawling under barbed wire somewhere, or sitting in top-secret briefings. While there are people in the military whose jobs require them to do those things regularly, I work primarily in an office environment. I basically do all the same things a civilian PR practitioner would do—I just do it in combat boots. Most civilian careers also exist in the military. We have doctors, lawyers, photographers and cooks. We even have a band!
How does the knowledge that you’re serving the country affect your everyday work ethic?
What’s great about the National Guard is that it’s even more than that—we aren’t just serving our country, we are serving our state and local communities. We aren’t just deploying to fight the nation’s wars, we’re helping rescue our neighbors when floodwaters rise, clear streets when trees fall, hand out food and water when the power goes out. What Guardsmen do matters in a very real way, and so it matters to me that people know about it.
What would you say is your biggest strength in your current role?
I’m flexible and think quickly on my feet, which makes me comfortable working in situations that are rapidly evolving. I also think I’m pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff; knowing which things need to be prioritized and which are simply “nice to-dos.”
What would you say is the skill you most need to improve?
Sometimes I find it challenging to plan strategically. We have so much going on in my office that the immediate often overtakes the important, and it feels like I spend more time putting out fires than planning for the future.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
This is a tough one. Even though women have come a long way in the military, we are still very underrepresented in the top ranks. Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody (who is now retired) was the first woman to ever achieve the rank of four-star general, which only happened nine years ago. I’m also a fan of Heather Wilson, the current secretary of the Air Force. She is a veteran who went on to have successful careers in both politics and business, all while raising three children. She has demonstrated there are many different ways to serve, and that you can “have it all” if you’re willing to work tirelessly for it. Last, but certainly not least, I’m really inspired by the female veterans over the past couple of years who have been blazing the trail for women in combat. In 2015, the first women graduated from Ranger School, and just this July the Navy admitted its first woman to SEAL training. They are brave and strong, and they never quit. They make me really proud to wear the uniform.
Do you plan on staying in the National Guard for the rest of your career?
Well, for the rest of this career, anyway! The military is a young person’s game. Typically, you can’t exceed 30 years of commissioned service, which would only take me to 52 years old. That means that no matter what, most people in the military need to have a second act planned, and I’m no different. I’ve kicked around several ideas about what comes next for me, but for right now I’m committed to the Florida National Guard. As long as I feel like there’s more for me to give here, I don’t see myself moving on.
What’s something everyone should know about a career in public service?
That it isn’t fulfilling every minute of every day. It has all the same stressful and mundane elements of any other job, and it can be easy to lose sight of the larger picture. That, coupled with the current fiscal constraints and high operational tempo, can lead to burnout. You have to continuously connect yourself to your purpose. Or, as Simon Sinek explained it, “know your why.” If you feel inspired by your organization’s mission and you know how what you do fits into it, it is a very powerful feeling.
What advice would you give to a Babe wanting to succeed in a military environment?
Develop a thick skin! The military tends to be a more direct environment than the civilian world. Guidance will be issued in an extremely straightforward manner, and your feelings will not be handled with kid gloves. In briefings, your leadership and your peers will expect you to get to the point quickly, and will challenge your opinions and recommendations openly if they disagree. While good military leaders want their subordinates to provide honest feedback, in the end, the military is not a democracy and it will not always be about taking a vote or reaching a consensus. Sometimes your commander listens to your guidance and decides to go in another direction, and in those cases—unless it violates the law or your moral conscience—you will be expected to salute and move out. Understand that you will be operating in an organizational environment dominated not only by men, but predominantly by Type-A men with assertive personalities. While I’ve never found that you have to be “one of the boys” to be taken seriously, you do need to be competent and confident. Shrinking violets or people who seem unsure or unprepared will not get ahead in this environment. The military is a true meritocracy. You have to earn your spot at the table, and you do that by knowing your job and doing it well.
How do you find a work-life balance?
I think the danger in the concept of “work-life balance” is the idea that the goal is for it to be perfectly balanced all the time. That isn’t possible, and that concept leads us to believe we’re failing at it. The idea is to find an equilibrium that works for you, and to understand that it will change throughout the different stages in your life. For me, I know there will be times (like during disasters or deployments) when my work-life balance will be way off, so I tend to “lean in” more at home as much as I can. I also try to always remember the old adage that no one has the words “I wish I’d spent more time at work” engraved on their tombstone.
What’s next for you?
I ask myself this all the time, and the truth is, right now I’m just not sure. I’ve thought about everything from civilian PR to psychology, to finally finishing the novel I’ve been working on for the past five years. For the time being, I’m still into being a military public affairs officer—but I’m open to wherever the road leads me next.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Make sure you’re clear on the things that are most important to your boss or organization, and do those things first and best. Be clear and forthright with your leadership about challenges you’re facing, ask for help when you need it, and make sure you’re delegating effectively if you have a staff. Raise your tolerance for imperfection, and embrace the idea that you have to take risks to maintain momentum. Lastly, make a conscious effort to hunt the good stuff. There will always be something about your job that will get on your nerves or make your life difficult, but focusing on that is a recipe for discontent. Find those aspects of your job that are fun, the ways you can contribute, the things that make you proud, and cultivate those. The power of a positive attitude is a cliche because it’s true.
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