Former Intelligence Officer Katheryne Womack Of WSI: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In…

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Former Intelligence Officer Katheryne Womack Of WSI: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

…There’s more than one way to be a leader- adapt to your environment. There’s more than one leadership style. I’ve learned that you cannot rely on a single leadership style to succeed. You have to consider who your audience is, where they’re at, and the dynamics at play. When I first joined the military, I really leaned on authoritative leadership, where you point to the rank or seniority and say, “Listen to me, I’m the boss.” That works in some cases, but not all. I leaned into servant leadership, especially towards the end of my active duty career. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need to employ more authoritative leadership strategies. So, one major takeaway is that human beings are dynamic, and you need to adapt to your environment. They won’t all receive you the same way, so you’ve got to adapt your leadership style. This means ongoing leadership training and education is incredibly important. That’s one huge takeaway…

I had the pleasure of talking to Katheryne Womack. Katheryne’s story is a testament to resilience, adaptability, and dedication. Born on a dairy farm in Southeast Tennessee, she spent her early years in a world far removed from the global stage she would later navigate. Her childhood was shaped by a significant move when her mother remarried a U.S. Army member, introducing Katheryne to a life of travel and global living that included time in South Korea and various locations across the United States.

Inspired by her stepdad’s military career, Katheryne enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at 19, embarking on a journey that would define much of her early adult life. Her initial role as a Korean linguist and translator led her into the realms of intelligence reporting and instruction, laying the groundwork for a diverse and impactful military career. Her dedication and skillset saw her commission into the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer, where she specialized in cyber operations and planning. Katheryne’s military career was marked by global deployments and significant contributions to intelligence and cyber warfare, reflecting her commitment to service and excellence.

Despite the fulfillment her career offered, the constant travel and the transient nature of military life eventually took its toll, leading Katheryne to leave active duty while continuing her service as a reservist. Transitioning to civilian life, she leveraged her vast experience and skills to carve out a successful career in digital marketing, focusing on helping small businesses grow and scale. Her work at WSI, where she has helped numerous clients achieve and exceed their business goals, is driven by a desire to generate positive impacts within her community and support the dreams of those aspiring to create lasting legacies through their businesses.

Katheryne’s military background, particularly her focus on signals intelligence and cyber operations, provided a strong foundation for her transition into digital marketing. Her strategic mindset, honed in the military, enables her to approach business challenges with a long-term perspective, emphasizing the importance of sustainable strategies over quick fixes. This approach has distinguished her in the field, making her a trusted advisor and partner to her clients.

Beyond her professional achievements, Katheryne is deeply committed to supporting veterans and sharing her insights on leadership, resilience, and the importance of community. Her experiences have also led her to advocate for greater understanding and connections across global communities, highlighting the commonalities that bind us despite national or cultural differences.

Katheryne’s journey from a Tennessee dairy farm to global deployments and entrepreneurial success is a narrative of overcoming challenges, embracing change, and making a positive impact in the world. Her story inspires not only those in the military and business communities but anyone striving to make a difference through dedication, hard work, and a commitment to serving others.

Yitzi: It’s a delight and an honor to have you join us, Katheryne. Before we dive in deep, our readers would love to learn about your personal origin story. Can you share with us the story of your childhood and how you grew up?

Katheryne: Sure, that’s a big question. So I’ll start as far back as I can and make it as concise as I can.

I spent the first 12 years of my life in Tennessee. I was actually born on a dairy farm in Southeast Tennessee. And by the time I was 12, my mom had married my stepdad who was in the army. And thanks to him, we traveled the world. We lived all over, South Korea and then of course the United States. And by the time I turned 19, I also joined the military because I wanted to be like my stepdad. I entered the U.S. Air Force as a Korean linguist. So I was a translator, did a little bit of intelligence reporting. I became an intelligence instructor for the Air Force. I later commissioned into the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer. I have a cyber background, so we did some cyber operations and planning and deployed all over the world while I was in the Navy. Literally, we circumnavigated the world!

And about the 15-year mark, it wasn’t fun for me anymore. I was traveling constantly and lived in a different location about every two years. Each time I moved, I was really connecting with my new neighbors, making new friends. And I finally got tired of having to say goodbye. So I left active duty and am still a reservist so I can eventually earn the pension. When I left active duty, thanks to our Transition Assistance Program, I bought a franchise (WSI) and started working for myself. And that’s how I got into the arena of digital marketing, where I am able to help businesses not just stay in business, but scale up. Most of our clients stay with us at WSI for about four years because we adapt to the business where they are at- their budget, needs, and timeline, and ultimately help them grow and reach more markets. And honestly, I just sleep better at night knowing that what I do is all positive. I help my neighbors live out their dreams now, the ones that at least dream of working for themselves and creating something that they can pass down through the family or anyone else in their life they want to add value to. So that’s what I do. That’s my origin story.

Yitzi: Can you tell us a bit more about your military background?

Katheryne: There are so many twists and turns in my military career. And, you know, contrary to popular belief, there is a lot of opportunity to do a lot of different things in the military, regardless of what they brought you in for. When I enlisted as a Korean linguist, I went to DLI for a couple of years. My days were spent in total Korean immersion, learning Korean language, dialects, culture, history, and even how to cook traditional Korean food! After that, I went to the technical side of training, but that’s really all I can say about that. Then I was sent to Korea to do some translating, which was a lot of fun. After a couple of years of doing translation for South Korea, the United States, and our allies, I came back to the United States. Then, it was my turn to teach the technical side of being a Korean linguist to newer Airmen. Later, I left the Air Force and went to school on my GI Bill. After earning my undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice and working towards a Master’s in Forensic Psychology, I was commissioned in the Navy. The fun part was that they brought me on as a student naval aviator- a future Navy pilot. But when I got to Officer Candidate School, they determined I was too short to be an aviator. They asked if I wanted to get back into intelligence, and I said yes. So I became an intelligence officer for the Navy. I supported Strike Fighter Squadron 14, the oldest strike fighter squadron in the United States Navy. We deployed around the world together for seven months. And after that deployment, I was assigned to USCYBERCOM. And that’s where I got into cyber operations. So even though I started out doing one job in the military, I was able to grow and try many different things.

Yitzi: Can you describe a typical day as an intelligence officer?

Katheryne: I’ve gotten this question a few times, actually. People interested in intelligence, or maybe writing about it, often ask. It really depends on your assignment.

Being an intelligence officer can be like a nine-to-five office job, even if your tasks involve collecting intelligence on adversaries. Or, you could be an intelligence officer for a SEAL team, with a completely different life.

I can speak to my last tour, though, as a cyber intelligence officer at Cyber National Mission Force. My days were usually nine to five unless something urgent required 24/7 coverage. I’d meet my team and discuss what our cyber operators needed in terms of intelligence. Then, we’d go “digging” for secrets, because that’s what we do!

The time you invest in intelligence work varies greatly. So, we’d dig deep, gathering and analyzing intel to create actionable reports for cyber operators. These reports could help them respond to attacks, strengthen our defenses, or even aid allies.

Yitzi: Okay, so full disclosure, my only intel knowledge comes from Tom Clancy novels! I know there’s signals intelligence and human intelligence. Was your work mostly signals intel? Did you ever encounter cloak-and-dagger agents like in the Tom Clancy world?

Katheryne: The cloak-and-dagger stuff? That’s definitely the human intelligence world, à la Tom Clancy. And while I worked with people who gathered that kind of intel, it’s never quite as exciting as those novels make it seem. From what I understand, human intelligence officers do a lot of report writing. Or maybe that’s just a cover for the super cool stuff!

Anyway, I wasn’t a human intelligence officer. I definitely leaned towards signals intelligence, which I enjoyed because there are more cases where your work is more cut and dry, rather than ambiguous. Not always- but pretty often.

So yeah, I focused on signals intelligence, or “SIGINT” which for your readers who might not be familiar, is intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems that provide us insight into foreign adversaries’ capabilities, actions, and intentions. It’s an umbrella term for gathering information through various verbal and technological methods. Does that make sense?

Yitzi: So I understand that the resources you had were unique and powerful. But were you mostly using tools that everyone could use, like Google, or specific specialized tools?

Katheryne: Yeah, mostly open-source intelligence tools that anyone could use. That’s the interesting thing about intelligence: most people don’t realize that they’re giving away information about themselves every day that someone could compile over time and turn into actionable intelligence. It can be pretty dangerous. So, a lot of what we used was open-source. For example, if we were collecting on a certain adversary, the people in their command chain are probably on Facebook, social media in general, maybe YouTube, or TikTok. And over time, we can get valuable insights and intelligence from collecting all of that open-source information. It’s fascinating how people post online and give away so much information. The data involved in that is sometimes geo-tagged, too- or maybe they’ll post a video of themselves at work and you can see what’s going on in the background. It’s amazing. And actually, the US military struggles with this, as well. We call it operational security or OPSEC. They struggle with OPSEC where Sailors are hanging out on a ship, posting on social media, and you can see military equipment behind them. It’s crazy. So, a lot of open-source information was gathered to turn into intelligence. And of course, we have some proprietary tools, but that’s all I can say on that as well.

Yitzi: I’m sure this is hard to boil down, but can you share with us a couple of the most interesting stories that have occurred in your military career?

Katheryne: I think one interesting one that I know I can talk about now is way back in the early 2000s, I was stationed in Korea and I was monitoring missile activity on North Korea. We were very concerned that North Korea was going to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And one of the days that I was working, they did indeed launch it. I was the one that caught the signals intelligence and provided timely reporting to all who needed to know. This was a huge deal for me because it was on a weekend that not many were working. Also, the launch was a failure, which was exciting for us because it didn’t hit its target and no one was hurt. The cool part, too, is a few years later, that launch was used as a training tool while I was an intelligence instructor. I got to use an event that I lived through as a case study. That was really satisfying.

Yitzi: We’re very interested in fleshing out what a hero is. We’d love to hear a story about heroism that either you experienced or you’ve been privy to.

Katheryne: I’ve been exposed to a lot of heroes in the military and civilian world, where certain leaders kind of shield the people that work for them. Leaders would give us the freedom to try something different or take risks in terms of what we were doing with our operations. They would put their neck on the line for us saying, “Listen, you have total freedom to explore this and see if you can get something good out of it. And if you guys mess up or something happens, I will shield you from that. I take responsibility for that.” And just the fact that senior leaders would give us that freedom to really explore and try new things and be innovative, even in the world of intelligence, that was a kind of heroism because there’s way too many leaders that simply would not stick their neck out like that, right?

This is a tough question to answer. I know it sounds ridiculous to say, “Well, I’m exposed to heroism every day.” It’s hard to pick specific instances of heroism I have witnessed. But that’s the truth, especially in what I experienced with the military. It’s amazing. The environment sheds a lot of light on a lot of heroes. And that sounds so cheesy, but it’s true. And that’s why no significant story stands out because people were putting their necks on the line every day, it was normal. Almost commonplace. And that’s kind of amazing, you know?

Yitzi: Based on your experience, would you encourage other young girls to consider life in one of the branches of the military as a path to success? As a path to prepare them for life?

Katheryne: I did 15 years of active duty and joined really young. When I first signed on the dotted line, I used to recommend it to everyone because it really helped me grow up, especially coming from a background that wasn’t very affluent and didn’t have much community support and infrastructure. It set me up for success in both education, real-world experience, and finances. However, after my most recent tour, where I saw the intense stress deployment had on some Sailors — to the point where we had to send them back home and separate them from active duty — I realized the military isn’t for everyone. I would still encourage young women to explore it as an option, but also to have conversations with people who have served, particularly other women, and men should do the same. The military has a lot of benefits, but it also comes with its costs. It’s important to understand both sides and nothing is ever “free” when we highlight the benefits of serving. Some days, I might frustratedly express how challenging military life can be, and on others, I’ll highlight its benefits. It’s a significant decision with lasting effects, so it’s vital to be fully informed and understand that serving is not all good or all bad. Nothing ever really is black and white like that. Instead of outright recommending they join, I’d encourage young women to talk with women currently serving in the military and of course, veterans to get a well-rounded view and make an informed decision.

Yitzi: Do you think men have an easier time with military culture than women, given that it’s probably very male-dominated?

Katheryne: I wouldn’t say that anyone has a more difficult time acclimating to the culture than others, although men, women, and any other group of people will have starkly different interpretations and interactions with the environment. The military is indeed predominantly male. When men join, they enter an environment filled with people who look and think like them, essentially finding a community right away. This isn’t as readily accessible for women. Men can easily bond over activities like golfing without any misunderstanding of intentions. Women, on the other hand, might face mixed messages, with some colleagues potentially misinterpreting their efforts to network or build rapport as romantic interest. But when it comes to the military culture itself, it’s welcoming and open for everyone. The military culture and environment is starkly different than media outlets would generally have you believe. After all, good news rarely makes the news. It’s not as attention-grabbing, is it? The challenge with military culture lies more in relationship dynamics. Especially for females at assignments where it appears that 90% of the team is made of men. As an officer, the ratio is even worse. I’ve served at commands where I was the only female officer. Building professional relationships- especially when you are in leadership, can be quite difficult for women. Despite these relatively small challenges, I’ve always felt safe and welcome in the military.

Yitzi: Some people are deeply affected by their experience. Did you struggle after your deployment, and how did you adjust and thrive in civilian life?

Katheryne: I’ll be very real with you. This conversation has been light-hearted and awesome, but I still struggle every day, including today. So, yes, there has been a struggle, and that’s why I don’t recommend the military for everyone. It will cost you something — whether it’s your physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health — in exchange for job security.

How do I overcome it? Through therapy and being open about my struggles. It’s manageable and it’s a daily battle. However, talking about it reduces its power. That’s how I adapt. I refuse to hide it or feel ashamed, nor do I want people to treat me delicately. We need to keep it out in the open and shine a light on it, showing that it doesn’t need to dominate our lives.

Yitzi: So when you say you struggle, do you mean you struggle with PTSD, or is it the adjustment from the regimented, rigorous lifestyle to a totally open lifestyle?

Katheryne: It’s all of that. Regarding the lifestyle piece, when I left active duty, I went to the opposite extreme. I thought it was great that I could stay up as late as I wanted and sleep in as much as I wanted. I’ve been working to find a balance, aiming for a reasonable bedtime again. I definitely indulged in the freedom of not having a regimented schedule.

Another aspect I’ve had to adapt to is realizing it’s okay to make a mistake. In the military, there’s a lot of stress about making mistakes because lives could be on the line. In the civilian world, for the most part, that’s not the case, which is fantastic. Mistakes can still trigger me, especially if I miss a meeting, but the repercussions aren’t as severe. Things are more relaxed here.

On the subject of PTSD- yeah I have it. It’s manageable in my case and every person has a different experience with it. It’s never what the public assumes it looks like, is it? You’d never know by looking at me. That’s all I’m gonna say on that.

Yitzi: From your experience, are there things you could recommend to policy planners about how to help veterans adjust or use their skills in civilian life? Sadly, a lot of veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population. What would you recommend to make the adjustment better and more productive?

Katheryne: I would say, first and foremost, attend your Transition Assistance Program (TAP) classes more than once. It’s really improved over the years. I attended TAP back in 2012 and again more recently when I transitioned into business. It’s packed with resources, only five days long, and you have the right to attend as many times as you need. Your command has to support you in this.

Another piece of advice for transitioning is to get on LinkedIn. There’s a significant presence of veterans in various capacities who are open to having real conversations. It’s crucial to understand the importance of connections. You’re responsible for creating a supportive network around you as you transition out of the military, especially if you’re not originally from that state or if you’ve been in the military for a long time. Be intentional about building relationships within your community. While you were active duty, you had a community handed to you- even forced on you. Find other veterans on LinkedIn who are discussing veteran issues. I’m one of them and am happy to connect. Intentionally building your network is key, and you can start before you leave active duty. So, start early.

Yitzi: Based on your military experience, can you share five leadership or life lessons that you learned? Leadership or life lessons based on your experience.

  1. Let’s start with this one. There’s more than one way to be a leader- adapt to your environment. There’s more than one leadership style. I’ve learned that you cannot rely on a single leadership style to succeed. You have to consider who your audience is, where they’re at, and the dynamics at play. When I first joined the military, I really leaned on authoritative leadership, where you point to the rank or seniority and say, “Listen to me, I’m the boss.” That works in some cases, but not all. I leaned into servant leadership, especially towards the end of my active duty career. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need to employ more authoritative leadership strategies. So, one major takeaway is that human beings are dynamic, and you need to adapt to your environment. They won’t all receive you the same way, so you’ve got to adapt your leadership style. This means ongoing leadership training and education is incredibly important. That’s one huge takeaway.
  2. Another lesson would be that no good deed goes unpunished. We learned quickly that going above and beyond might not always be appreciated or recognized. So, be careful and mindful of who you’re interacting with. Applying this to a corporate culture, sometimes overachieving can be a disadvantage. This one seems pretty extreme- all I’m saying is, don’t overextend yourself when demonstrating you are a team player.
  3. One valuable lesson I’ve learned is the importance of just showing up and doing what is asked of you. This alone will set you apart from 99% of other people. I began to suspect this as I moved up the ranks, but it became crystal clear during Officer Candidate School, which is ran by the Marines. The program is incredibly stressful, lasting three months, with the instructors constantly trying to psych you out. Every two to four weeks, there are evolutions designed to weed out candidates, leaving only those who truly want to be there. You can drop out at any time, too! I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest in my coed class, but I kept showing up, even though I was tired, frustrated, and often finished last in these very strenuous challenges when competing with taller and stronger men. I never gave up, though. I never stopped. When I later helped facilitate evolutions for new classes, I could see the difference between those who gave up and those who didn’t. The drill instructors focused on those who mentally checked out- they knew they wouldn’t show up and do the necessary work. Just showing up 99% of the time will get you where you need to be.
  4. Consistency, it’s crucial. It’s so easy to quit when faced with discomfort, but you must keep showing up every day, doing something that moves you closer to your goal. Most people won’t do this; it’s not in our nature to persist when things get tough. So, be consistent and keep going.
  5. I had two senior officers who I think were exemplary leaders from whom I learned valuable leadership qualities. Both shared the same admirable trait: they treated me like a human being, despite their significantly higher rank. Whether I was just starting out in the military or had reached the rank of O-3, their approach was consistent. They always wanted to hear what I had to say and listened attentively when I spoke. This was life-changing for me, and I’ll never forget the impact they had, even though their names have slipped my mind. Their faces and their unique way of treating their subordinates, including me, with such respect stand out vividly. This approach is not common; it’s quite rare, and that’s what made them so memorable. Their example profoundly influenced how I interact with my employees and team, emphasizing the importance of treating them as humans.

Yitzi: Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for your business? Can you please explain?

Katheryne: Absolutely. My experience as a strategic intelligence officer taught me the value of planning for the long term, moving past just the next few months. It helped me shift from a reactive mindset to a proactive one, especially in the realm of cyber warfare. This aspect of cyber operations — planning for the long term and understanding its effectiveness — has greatly influenced how I operate now in the digital marketing world. Often, clients come to me wanting an immediate response to their challenges in growing their business, typically around increasing revenue. They might think running some ads quickly is the solution. They often repeat this tactic over and over until they come to me. Because of my strategic mindset from my time in the military, I help them take a step or two back and encourage them to think about long-term solutions. I explain that while we can address their problem now, it’s likely to recur unless we implement a more sustainable strategy. Those willing to invest in long-term planning can transform their online presence into a constant revenue generator. This doesn’t happen overnight; it requires consistency, persistence, and time. I now avoid short-term fixes that don’t address the underlying issue, preferring to focus on strategic, long-term solutions. This approach ensures we don’t end up in a cycle of emergency meetings about last-minute ad campaigns to cover financial shortfalls.

Yitzi: There are so many consultants who help their clients grow and scale their businesses. How would you describe why you’re different and better than your competitors? Why should people come to you for help in scaling their business?

Katheryne: Well, I think what makes us different, and I’ve learned this from my clients, is that no matter how much money you have, you can’t persuade me to do something I believe is reactive or won’t truly benefit you. For example, I often have clients come to me with a big budget, eager to immediately run ads. I always encourage them to slow down, instead of being excited about the potential business transaction. We discuss what they’re hoping to achieve, why they believe a certain approach is the right solution, and what their actual goals are. I then do my due diligence to ensure that the marketing strategy we choose aligns closely with their business goals and budget. Many of my competitors, while not malicious, tend to jump straight into executing campaigns without thoroughly considering if it’s the wise choice for the client’s budget, timeline, and needs. They might run the campaign and, if you’re lucky, discuss the data with you afterwards. This rarely happens, though- at least that’s what I’ve learned from my clients who have been around the block with digital marketers more than a few times. What sets me apart is my insistence on not starting a campaign until we’ve thoroughly evaluated its feasibility, acceptability, and suitability for the client’s business objectives. I engage with my clients continuously, whether the campaign is short-term or long-term. We’ll meet every month or even more frequently if necessary, to ensure the marketing efforts are on track and adjust our efforts as needed. If something comes up after the campaign, I’m always available to discuss and answer any questions. This approach ensures that we’re not just running campaigns for the sake of the transaction, but are genuinely working towards achieving meaningful, tangible results for local businesses.

Yitzi: What are the new projects you have coming up for 2024?

Katheryne: One of the exciting projects is our work with AI. We’ve been beta testing AI, including chat GPT, since we first got access to it around 2022 or 2023. We’re thrilled about this development. We recently completed a survey to understand how businesses plan to use or leverage AI because we aim to be a key service provider in this area. Given the significant interest in AI and chat GPT in 2024, we’re heavily focusing on education and resources related to AI and digital marketing. We’re offering a wealth of free resources for anyone eager to learn more. We’re also releasing the fourth edition of our chat GPT prompt book to help those who might be hesitant to use these tools get started easily — and it’s free. We’re committed to ongoing education and demystifying digital marketing, especially in 2024, working closely with the Small Business Development Center, the Maryland Innovation Center, and the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, to name a few.

Yitzi: This is our final question. Because of your great work and the platform you’ve built, you’re a person of great influence. If you could spread an idea or inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be?

Katheryne: If I could spread an idea or inspire a movement, I would encourage people, depending on their ability, to either travel outside of the country or connect with people outside of their country on social media. The goal would be to have real interactions with those individuals to learn that we aren’t really so different. In most cases, we are not even adversaries- despite what the news might tell you. The majority of us, as human beings, are subject to the decisions of leaders and the power dynamics of different nations, but that’s not reflective of our day-to-day lives. So, I would suggest establishing a genuine relationship or friendship with someone from another country or visiting a foreign country yourself. This experience would help all human beings recognize that we’re all just normal people, fundamentally similar in what motivates and drives us.

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Thank you so much for these amazing insights.

Former Intelligence Officer Katheryne Womack Of WSI: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.