Dr. Lydia Thomas, the 2003 Black Engineer of the Year, was Thursday’s guest on the BEYA STEM Webinar. As CEO of Noblis, Inc. from 1996 to 2007, she led a dynamic nonprofit corporation with a charter to perform advanced research on engineering science and technology.
Prior to Noblis, Dr. Thomas held a number of leadership positions, including senior vice president, vice president, and technical director at The MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that provides systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to government agencies.
Leadership for the future
One on one with Tyrone Taborn, host of the BEYA Webinar and founder of the BEYA STEM Conference, Dr. Thomas said hard work and a dose of good luck go a long way to ensure success in moving up in an organization.
Transforming a vision that is executable is almost like putting together a treasure map, she said.
“It has to be believable, aspirational, something folks can relate to. You need to be able to tell people what the problem is and give them some general idea of what you think the solutions might be and then get out of the way,” she explained.
As a leader, Dr. Thomas said it was her job to support everyone in her organization. She saw herself as a pyramid, with her people on her shoulders. Driving success at Noblis where the product is end line brain power required a good communications channel, working with line managers and being ready for feedback.
“All good leaders listen,” she said. “You have to establish that line of trust so that people can raise their hand with absolutely no concerns. You establish trust by candor and that is bi-directional.”
At Noblis, she pushed for ethical standards, respect for individuals; a caring, giving organization to build on each other’s contributions through some of the world’s most difficult problems.
Between 1996 and 2006, Noblis, formerly Mitretek Systems – a spinoff from MITRE where Dr. Thomas worked for 27 years – focused on biometrics, electronic transactions, traffic congestion, patient safety, environmental sustainability, and renewed energy resources.
Sponsored research projects included: analyzing and implementing technologies to keep information secure on the Internet, communicating voice and data by using Internet Protocol in the event of a national emergency, developing gaming technologies for first responders, and creating sick city scenarios to understand what happens during a naturally occurring, or terrorist-instigated biological event.
Over BEYA STEM Conference’s 29-year span, Dr. Thomas has been a regular attendee. One highlight she recalls was slipping accidentally and breaking her arm during the BEYA Gala. Fortunately, there “was a doctor in Bob Stevens’s security detail and they got me all done up to walk across the stage.”
Robert Stevens, a retired chairman, president, and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation, served as the corporation’s CEO from 2004-2012.
Reflecting on her long career, Dr. Thomas said if she could do it all over again she probably wouldn’t fret as much.
“Prioritizing means sometimes not being able to put as much focus on one aspect of your life and you have to able to forgive yourself,” she said.
A one-time single mother with two young children (now adults) Dr. Thomas said a young professional can’t be a mom who goes to work and spends all day feeling guilty.
“It is an overall balance, not daily life balance that’s important,” she said. “It’s a very hard lesson for people to learn.”