Conversations #59: Shermila Lemos-Martina, IT Director of Engagement at Kforce
Luz de Leon, Leadership Fellow for the Front End track at Women Who Code, interviews Shermila Lemos-Martina, IT Director of Engagement at Kforce. They discuss Shermila’s day-to-day at Kforce, her approach to management, and the importance of challenging yourself for growth.
Can you tell more about your career journey, how you came to work in technology?
In college, I didn't take a traditional technology path, but I was always attracted to technology. My degrees are in Mass Communications with an MBA in Management and a minor in Psychology. I graduated during the recession, so I told myself to keep a flexible and open mind on my career choices. Three years into my career as a very young manager, I was asked to switch gears and join an IT team to deliver a huge transformation project at an insurance company. At first I was a little worried because I didn’t have a background in IT. They sent me to training for a couple of weeks to get those basic skills as a BA.We removed 29 6-drawer filing cabinets and moved all that paper to online files that were searchable through this OCR project. From that moment on, I was hooked on technology. I spent a couple of years consulting as a business analyst, and eventually I found my way to Kforce.
It's been over two decades, I love working at Kforce, I've worn many, many hats there. I've been a business analyst. I've done technical writing, I've been a project manager, an Agile project owner, and now I'm leading a team of engagement directors and business analysts. Our responsibility is mostly to understand the strategic capabilities that are needed by the stakeholders to move their business forward as well as documenting the more technical aspects of their business.
Tell us more about your day-to-day at Kforce.
I spend most of my time meeting and planning with stakeholders, counseling the teams on how to negotiate minimum valuable product scope, and then guiding the team on the best ways to move programs forward. Today, I started my day one-on-one, which I love. I also had a skip level with one of the up and coming female leaders, I always make time for those because they're important to me. I followed that with a working session with my peers, this is where we get to collaborate, bounce ideas back and forth, and solve common challenges. Later I'm chairing an executive meeting where we get to discuss really strategic future endeavors and ensuring that we're aligned with stakeholders. Oftentimes, we meet with vendors to make sure that they're staying on track on some of the engagement that we're collaborating on.
You are the lead of a team of 19 and you are responsible for stakeholder management. How does Kforce support you as a woman in leadership?
I definitely feel supported. I know that at Kforce I have a voice. Over the years I built a reputation through education, making sure that I stay up-to-date on technology. More importantly, I make sure that I do what I say I'm going to do. That increases my level of confidence in my abilities. It also establishes my stakeholders' and leaders' confidence in my ability. Over the years, I've been entrusted with many enterprise-level projects. I've always been able to lean on my fellow Kforcers for support. The best example that I can give happened recently during the pandemic. I was delivering the largest program of my life and during that time kids were at home working on their online schooling, my husband was working from home and we were all cooped up inside in the house, not really knowing what was going to happen. It was a time of great uncertainty. Kforce sent a message to us that was very clear and very powerful. Our executive team constantly communicated with us and the message was very simple: take care of your safety, take care of your family, and the work will follow. As a working mother and a wife, I was able to execute well, because Kforce never made me choose between my safety, my family or my work.
As a leader, do you have a specific approach to managing a team?
My approach is pretty simple, my team is like my family. It sounds a little cheesy, but we win together and we lose together. I always tell them it is okay to fail as long as you fail forward and recover. The idea here is not to fail, but it is to learn from each failure. My team knows they can reach me anytime they need to. I think this is very important. There were times in the past, I was stuck, I was frustrated, and I didn't always have that helping hand. I want to be that helping hand when they need me. My team knows they can text me, call, chat, they can send a dove if that still works. I am here for them if they need me, and I have an open door. I want them to extend grace, mistakes will happen, that is just the fact. I want them to focus on how we move forward and how we learn from them, and not necessarily on finger pointing. I want to empower my team to make decisions. I have found that there's still a lot of hesitation when it comes to decision-making, especially among female leaders. I want to encourage them to make the best decision they can make with the data and the information they have available at the time the decision needs to be made.
Tell us more about the technical aspects that you apply in your job in Agile while leading a team?
I work with Agile teams now. I make it a point to stay up-to-date on technology. I get pulled into meetings to provide feedback and to make decisions. I have to have basic understanding of what I'm engaging in and what direction to give the team. I walk daily, and during those walks, I always leverage Audible to listen to podcasts like Agile Uprising or Agile Coaches Corner. I'm reading books like The Agile Samurai. It's a little bit tongue in cheek, but I love it. I would highly recommend it because it breaks down those Agile principles that are needed when you're trying to guide the team. My role and my team's role in Agile is mostly in engaging with stakeholders, it's in the planning, the capturing of those capabilities, and making sure that they're properly translated into user stories. It's providing support during development, during QA, and bringing those stories live into production. I have often been referred to as a quarterback, because when I'm called into these meetings it's to provide direction, but it's also to help the team remove obstacles.
Let’s talk about inclusion and diversity, what's Kforce doing about these topics?
Kforce has embraced inclusion and diversity, but we do have a department that dedicates itself to DE&I. I would highly encourage you and anybody else that is interested, to engage with them so they can learn more on how Kforce is operating in that space. On a personal and professional level, I can tell you my team is very inclusive.
Many of our Women Who Code members are looking to grow into leadership positions and need advice from senior women like you, to know the best way to lead a team. What could you tell us?
Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know something. When I don't know something, I just research it and then I pressure-test it with subject matter experts. It's okay not to know, you don't know everything. Never stop learning. Over the years, I've engaged in many types of leadership programs. The ones that have resonated the most with me are the ones that have to do with emotional intelligence or any type of 360 leadership. The reason for that is because once I understood how to tap into my emotions, I learned to redirect them to better inspire, to better motivate, and to help my team and others. I know as women, sometimes we are told, don't tap into your emotions, don't be emotional. The key is not to not tap into your emotions, it's to understand how to manage them and redirect them. Things like empathy, confidence and reassurance are very important. With 360 leadership, I love having my peers' perspective of how I'm doing and what I need to do more or less. I tell them to have several mentors. People will make mistakes, let's help them fall forward graciously and recover. That will be extended to you when it is your turn. Listen to the whole story. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification, even if you have to ask multiple times. The point is to understand and then extend a helping hand to that fellow person, especially to an up and coming female leader, so that they can rise and live up to their potential.
What are your passions outside of work?
I love to take walks. I started walking every morning during the pandemic, it's my sanity tool. It's my time to plan my mental space and plan for the day. It's my time to listen to some great podcasts and great books. We moved next to the water so I can go kayaking. I love to feed people, so I'm that person that is always feeding people. I'm obsessed with miniature appetizers and charcuterie boards.
Do you have a pro tip that you would like to share with women in technology?
I'd like to give you three tips. Always take stretch assignments. Those challenges, those stretch assignments are going to push you past that comfort zone. You're going to get into that really uncomfortable phase, but I promise you, you will emerge on the other side enriched with new skills and lots of new found confidence. I would also say, failing is okay. Failing forward is what you want to do. As women, we want to be perfect, but perfection is a myth. Learn from your failures and redirect. It will make you stronger. I live that. Perhaps the most important one, respectfully speak up. You have a voice. If you don't use your voice, then you can't contribute. I encourage, especially female leaders to speak out.