Women in Public Affairs to Know: Mara Motherway

February 10, 2020

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Mara Motherway is Booz Allen Hamilton’s head of government relations, a recognized public policy expert, and a retired U.S. Naval officer with more than 21 years of service. Starting in 2016, Mara built Booz Allen’s government relations capability from the ground up, formalizing the function for the first time in the firm’s 105-year history. She and her team strengthen the firm’s relationships across the federal government, with trade associations, and with think tanks—driving policy and legislative outcomes for corporate growth. Mara’s career has spanned the government and private sector with experience in strategic intelligence, acquisition, congressional affairs, organizational design, and business development.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team.

Question: Tell me what it’s like to grow up with eight siblings and whether growing up in a large family gave you any unique qualifications for your role as VP of Government Relations?

Mara Motherway: Being the youngest of nine children was a remarkable experience. From the start there was a profound sense of being part of something much larger than myself. Accomplishments, failures, and work in a large family are a group effort. At the tail-end of a 13-year spread among the children, one of the early lessons was it was not all about me. But at the same time, it was clear each of us really mattered and we were expected to do our part.

This was really amplified when I was 13 and my father became very sick. I had to think about how to navigate my future without a life raft. As the youngest, I was well equipped to persevere through creative thinking and problem solving, but not old enough to really understand options. Since most of my siblings were already in the workforce, there was inspiration and lessons learned from them which helped me forge a path. Their experiences served as grounding rods for me – rather than feeling adrift, I felt reassured. I could focus on doing my part.

 Mara with her family

Mara with her family.

In high school, I got a job and played three sports. I went on to Division I college sports, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and became a Naval officer. These experiences demanded the same team player outlook – there’s always a larger mission, a larger purpose. You have to do your individual job extremely well to be fully accepted, you have to speak up to inform the situation, but at the same time you need to understand the big picture and comprehend how all the different lines of effort work together. Ultimately, my life experiences have underscored there is enormous personal reward in working hard alongside others and contributing to group success.

Q: I understand that prior to 2016, Booz Allen didn’t have a government relations capability, but that you’ve successfully built it from the ground up. What do you view as the three most critical components of building a high-functioning team?

Mara: To build a high-functioning team, the three most critical components are understanding your mission, bringing the right people aboard, and having a well-conceived, well-coordinated strategy.

For more than 100 years, Booz Allen has been solving its clients most challenging problems. Today, we support nearly every federal government agency, delivering transformative solutions and accelerating technology adoption so they can achieve their missions. The breadth and depth of our work is stunning. So building a strong team meant more deeply understanding the work we do from the internal lens, the client lens, and the policymaker lens in order to have an impact in the policy arena. This meant we had to be curious – learning more deeply what we do, how we do it, who we do it for, and the impact our work has on our client’s missions. We then had to “do” – to prioritize and act. None of this was done alone. From the start, the essential effort was learning through collaboration with leaders who had been with the firm for some time.

 Mara and her husband watching another high-functioning team.

Mara and her husband watching another high-functioning team.

We deliberately built our team by bringing in people with diverse experiences, perspectives, and attributes. We needed substantive industry experience, client mission expertise, recent and relevant Capitol Hill and White House knowledge, and those with a good network at the working level within the firm. We also wanted adept leaders and adroit followers – who naturally develop others and work collaboratively. The team initially was an all-women team; this wasn’t intentional, and we’ve gone beyond that. The key is we are a team of different, complementary skillsets that work well together. This gives us the strength to create value for our firm while providing us with the agility to adapt.

Creating a high-functioning team at the corporate level, and sustaining it, demands a long, broad time horizon while still managing what is immediate. Defining feasible, worthwhile objectives, determining resources, and conceptualizing effective approaches are all key to a strategy a team can understand, buy-into, and execute. That being said, you have to revalidate the assumptions, expectations, nuances, and details of that strategy as you go forward. And, frankly, you have to do that in concert with your team as well as your stakeholders – to continuously evolve.

Q: You’ve mentioned that government relations is “an early warning indicator.” Can you share exactly what you mean by that and how you’ve used an early warning to mitigate risk?

Mara: With Booz Allen, 97 percent of our revenue is generated through federally appropriated funds. We need to understand our clients so we can be positioned and prepared to empower them to succeed. Most of what the government does is legislated by Congress – ongoing government functions, new initiatives, regulations and where money is spent. The Government Relations office, as part of Booz Allen’s Corporate Affairs department, looks and listens to comprehend forthcoming legislation as well as to analyze what has been passed into law in order to understand what help our government clients want and need. This complements all the work the firm’s business units do to engage with offices throughout the Executive Branch departments and agencies.

When you have your ear to the ground and you’re observing what key legislators are interested in, the types of hearings they’re holding, the types of questions that they’re asking, the caucuses they’re establishing, and the individuals that are gravitating to these caucuses and what their power bases are, it allows you to anticipate and share with your business the key priorities in terms of future policy. Artificial intelligence is a great example. We are working hard to identify and assess the key concerns and desires Congress has vis-à-vis AI. In turn, we provide this early warning to the firm, which allows the business to be prepared and positioned to provide the capabilities their clients will request in the marketplace.

Q: Government and Congress have historically been a male-dominated field. How does Booz Allen prioritize diversity and inclusion and why is it important to your work?

Mara: Diversity has always been a part of Booz Allen; it’s woven into our firm’s purpose and values and we celebrate and value diversity and inclusion in all forms. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of a company that celebrates diversity and sets an industry example with our firm’s leadership team and Board of Directors.

Real inclusion drives transformation and innovation. It is a critical discriminator in value creation. At Booz Allen, half of our leadership team are women and more than 30 percent of our employees are veterans. But we don’t stop there – we seek a workforce that all people can see themselves in and that is powerful.

For me, diversity is a fact and inclusion is an act, but I don’t believe it stops there. The real secret of diversity and inclusion is sharing power. You can invite a diverse group of people to the table but unless you share power, you are not maximizing the intentional nature of it. Within our team, it’s important to make sure every person knows their voice matters. There are no underdogs. That’s always been really important to me in teambuilding.

Q: You’ve just articulated the missing link in many diversity programs – the sharing of power. Can you talk more about this aspect of diversity?

Mara: Diversity fundamentally profits any enterprise. Diversity provides organizations greater perspective, options and resiliency. Nonetheless, for that benefit to really happen, each member of the group needs to contribute. That contribution requires both participation and power. To make a positive difference individually and collectively each of us has to have some degree of agency and voice. It’s not enough for an institution, corporation, or crew to have a diverse set of people. Success requires that diverse set of people to share in the power of making things happen.

There’s an analogy here to what happens aboard a U.S. Navy warship. Yes, the ship has a Captain; and, yes, there’s a hierarchical, process-based, method of making decisions and operating at sea. But what makes a ship succeed across the full range of circumstances, including crisis and the unexpected, is each sailor is empowered in their role. For the ship to operate, navigate, fight, and return home, the diverse members aboard need to share in authority and responsibility to do what needs to be done across the full spectrum of their duties.

There’s another application here at the national and the corporate levels. Any large enterprise requires a variety of stakeholders and leaders to make success happen. Ultimately, you want a diversity of experience, perspective, and attributes among your leadership team. That diversity is essential to stewardship as well as driving innovation and adaptation. If there’s only one sort of thinking and functioning in your leadership team, then your organization is at risk. To be resilient and creative across the spectrum of contingencies, challenges, and opportunities, we need a diverse group who share in power at the top.