Sergeant at Arms Karen Gibson: “Model Yourself on Positive Qualities You Observe”

24 March 2022

Premise Women’s ERG Series

On International Women’s Day 2022, the Premise Women’s ERG presented live from the U.S. Senate recording studio in Washington, DC for a fireside chat with a truly amazing guest, the Honorable Karen Gibson.

Karen is the acting Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate. She has 33 years of military experience, retiring as Lieutenant General, and is only the second woman to hold the position of Sergeant of Arms in U.S. history. 

In our talk, Karen covered what it means for her to take on this position and how she has managed to bring about changes within the role. She was also generous enough to share some details on her battle with breast cancer. We wanted to share Karen’s insightful advice to other women looking to advance in their careers and break past invisible ceilings — not just in the military, but in any line of work.

Premise: Thank you so much for joining us, Karen. Can you share a little bit about the history of the position itself, as well as any changes you’ve seen during your time in the role? 

Gibson: First I would like to say thank you for including me in your celebration today! I think it’s wonderful we get to speak on this day of all days. 

So the Sergeant at Arms office has been around since 1789. The first Sergeant at Arms was James Mather in 1789 — he inaugurated the role the same year George Washington became President. We’ve had 46 Presidents since, and I am the forty-second Sergeant at Arms. Like [Mather], we’ve all had three jobs: to watch the doors (which we still do), to take care of the horses — now the Sergeant at Arms is responsible for the motor pool and the vehicle fleet — and to acquire firewood. And we still do that. But obviously, the role has expanded tremendously.

I think one of the biggest changes to the role in the 21st century has been communications. We’re responsible for the IT systems, computers, apps, answering the telephone, and then 425 state offices. And it’s not just here at the Capitol; it’s wherever senators have offices in federal buildings around the United States, sometimes even in strip malls. So it really has grown tremendously. And in fact, it’s growing all the time — we just took on issuing passports as a new task. So the tasks grow, which means the team grows. And when you think about the change that’s required, really, there’s a need for some modernization.

How do you balance the traditional aspects of the role with the need to adapt to evolving technologies?

Our motto is “honoring tradition, embracing innovation.” And that was the motto before I arrived. And I think it’s just terrific. There are still stenographers on the floor of the chamber who type up what people are saying. When a bill moves from the House to the Senate, it is physically walked from one side to the other. And it’s printed on a special kind of parchment. So there are some very traditional ways of doing things. We’ve moved beyond coal pens, but there are still some things that definitely could be modernized. For instance, when I got here, if a Senator wanted law enforcement support at a rally or something, he would send me a letter that he signed, you know, with a pen, and it would come in an envelope to me, and then I would send a letter to the Capitol Police. And that just needs to stop. So a big part of what we’re trying to do is ensure that we’re really state of the art technologically as well.

Aside from modernizing processes with technology, what else, in your opinion, needs to be changed?

I think another key area is security. I came to this position in March, because my predecessor left after the attack on the Capitol last year, so we needed to do a lot of work to restore confidence in the Senate community, as well as the local community. We needed to restore faith that the Senate is secure and that that’s not going to happen again. And when I talk about security, cybersecurity is just as great a threat. It’s actually our greatest threat. I worry about that the most. 

I would also mention improving communication. When I arrived, some of our employee surveys and other things highlighted a lack of communication — whether that’s across the various stovepipes of the Sergeant at Arms that need to be working together every day, or whether that was communication from leadership to the entire workforce — about what we’re working on, where we’re headed, what our priorities are, etc. We also needed to improve communication bottom-up by creating feedback forums for employees to be able to raise issues and make suggestions.

How did you prepare for taking on the role of Sergeant at Arms?

I didn’t know anything about the Sergeant at Arms before this opportunity presented itself to me in February of last year. So I called some of my mentors, like my former General Sergeant, asking, “Is this a good thing?” You know, like, tell me about this job. I spoke to a lot of mentors who had worked here on the Hill and they all told me it’s a hard job and it’s challenging. But if you’re offered the position, you should take it. And I can say now, it has been tremendously rewarding. 

Some days, it is quite challenging. But nobody told me it was going to be really fun! It really is. And one of the things I think I appreciate about it so much is that some of the things I missed about military service — being around men and women who are all part of a team and committed to a common mission — is present in this role.

What are some lessons learned and key takeaways from your time in leadership?

I think a lot of leadership is really common sense. It’s the “golden rule” kind of stuff, you know? I’ve learned the most throughout my professional career by observing leaders around me and above me. I’ve looked at what works, what doesn’t, and what you would never want to replicate. Just try to model yourself on positive qualities you observe. 

If I had to pinpoint one key quality that kind of has carried me throughout my entire career? Even as a young officer, I learned about the importance of clear communication. Being open, transparent, candid. It’s hard to over-communicate and to be consistent. In the military, clear standards are communicated and understood, and then consistently enforced. 

I’m also always learning. When I was young, it was really obvious because I was a Second Lieutenant, First Lieutenant, a Captain, and there were always people over me who had things like professional development seminars, or a focus on my growth and development. And when I became a General Officer, it kind of felt like that stopped so I had to seek it out. So, I think that coaching and mentoring is just as important and critical for senior leaders as it is for growing and developing aspiring leaders.

You’ve broken a lot of ceilings in your time in the military – with many women attempting to do the same in their respective fields, what can they do to achieve the same results?

I joined the Army in 1987 and the Women’s Army Corps hadn’t even been done away with that long prior to my joining. My first duty assignment was the Sixth Infantry Division in Alaska. I stayed for five years and it was wonderful. But all the female officers at Fort Richardson could eat at such a small table at lunch in the club, and all the men would think we were plotting. You could just count us on your fingers.

I had no expectations, and I felt like people had no expectations of me. You know, “There’s that little girl.” And I looked like I was 16. People had no expectations of me, so I think I felt like everything I did was exceeding expectations because people had none. It was a light infantry division in a pretty harsh physical environment. And we would go to the field and sleep on the ground in 50 below and people would just dismiss me out of hand because I was a girl.

They didn’t know I grew up in Montana. They didn’t know this was my environment. So when they sent me to Northern Warfare school, I was the only girl in the course and we did stuff like skiing, snowshoeing, sleeping on the ground, etc. And again, this is kind of how I’d grown up. I didn’t tell anyone I had skied competitively in high school, or done cross country skiing. I ended up in the biathlon, and I beat everyone but one guy who was also a skier before he joined the army. I found that once I demonstrated competence, people stopped worrying so much about trivial things like which bathroom I was going to use.

Okay, so shifting gears a little bit. You were so generous to share with us that you’ve overcome quite a lot of adversity in your life. Would you mind sharing your breast cancer survivor story?

In 2007, I felt like I was the only Lieutenant Colonel in the army who had not been downrange, and I was just itching to deploy. I got a new assignment at 18th Airborne and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. And so you know, going through the whole six-month workup and right before we deployed, as part of the pre-deployment, you do all this medical stuff. Anthrax shots and everything else. “No, oh, you’re 40 you should have a mammogram.” So I went for a mammogram. And then I go briefly to Iraq. Then I got a call that said the radiology department wanted to see me. And I thought, okay, that’s fine. I know what this is about. If you don’t know this already, you’re not supposed to wear deodorant when you have a mammogram because it could obscure the film. And I had forgotten and worn deodorant. 

So I’m sure I know what this is about. I’m just gonna have to go back and do it without deodorant. So I wasn’t worried at all. I come back to Fort Bragg, I go to the clinic, and I’m not worried. And I’m sitting there. But if you’ve ever been to Bragg, a certain aura pervades there. And then the nurses come out and say, “Colonel Gibson, you can come with me now.” I was like, ‘Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.’ I mean, I knew this was not right, because they never treat you so kindly. And, of course, they told me that I had breast cancer. I felt like someone had just taken a baseball bat to my face. The first thing they said was, “We want to operate right now.”

My first question was, “How soon can I get to Baghdad?” And they were like, oh, the doctor said, “You won’t be going anywhere for a really long time. In fact,” he said, “You won’t go anywhere for at least five years.” 

Wow, I was devastated. Because I just, you know, this was what I wanted more than anything, which actually seems almost a warped sense of priorities. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until it was taken away.

So it was 15 months I was out of commission. But I went doctor shopping and I found one who would sign off on my deployment as long as I came back to Ramstein every 90 days to get checked. It was really important for me to go downrange. Everybody suffers adversity in their lives in different forms.

Thank you so much for sharing that with us, that’s an incredibly unique and inspiring perspective to have. Lastly, we’d like to ask what resources helped you along the way?

I did a lot of reflection and journaling and I logged every support group. I started going to see the chaplain as well until I kind of got through it. And I really relied on my religious faith, my family. The warrior ethos just really empowered me as I thought about, “I will never accept defeat. I will never leave a fallen comrade,” you know. The whole warrior ethos really, really got me through that. But I think, afterward, I had these, ‘Oh, here’s what I’ve learned’ moments to keep learning.

Life doesn’t always go according to plan. Life goes on, you will adapt, opportunities will become available to you that you never anticipated. And there will still be things in life that bring you joy.

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We’re grateful for the advice and experience Karen shared with the team, especially regarding her battle with cancer and what resources she used to persevere. Young women starting out their careers, according to Karen’s beliefs, need to focus less on the expectations of others and more on the expectations they hold for themselves. As the current Sergeant at Arms and the second woman to hold the position, she believes the best way to make headway in whichever industry you’re in is to heed the advice of mentors, observe the positive leadership qualities they possess, and carry them with you to break through any invisible ceilings you come across.

We look forward to continuing this series!

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