Q&A with Kimberly L. Harper

Columbia Basin College’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award winner

Company/business/agency: U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science – Pacific Northwest Site Office/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (DOE-SC/PNNL)

Tell us about your team:  PNSO is a small staff of 30-plus people. I work with a team of five scientists and engineers. 

Kimberly L. Harper, Physical Scientist, U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science
Kimberly L. Harper, Physical Scientist, U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science

Brief background about your department: DOE-SC is the lead federal agency supporting fundamental scientific research for energy and is the nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. The SC portfolio has two principal thrusts: direct support of scientific research and direct support of the development, construction and operation of unique, open-access scientific user facilities. PNSO is responsible for oversight of the PNNL M&O contract, which is currently managed and operated by Battelle. My everyday job entails reviewing research proposals for mission relevance and risk mitigation. Another function of my job is to partner with research organizations to better understand the laboratory’s strategic direction and the necessary capabilities to accomplish research outcomes. 

How did you land your current role? Six years into my DOE career, where our team oversaw the deactivation of some of Hanford’s old nuclear processing laboratories and facilities – I really wanted to gain a new set of work experiences. I asked for an opportunity to detail with the group that manages oversight of PNNL’s work. The rest is history! I fell in love with the work environment and the experience of getting to see real progress on huge, complex and hard-to-answer scientific questions. 

How long have you been in it? I’ve been with DOE for 24 years; and in this specific site office for 18 years.  

What does “diversity” mean to you? Diversity is the intentional cohesion of differences. I pine for a day where humans master the art of utilizing the strength of our differences for common purposes and where every person appreciates and respects their own as well as others’ place in the world.

Why should the Tri-Cities care about workplace diversity? Workplace diversity, when effectively implemented, produces “Grade A” work environments, staff and products – which usually translates to a “Grade A” bottom line. If you think about it in terms of problem solving – each person’s upbringing, life experiences and failures shape the way she/he approaches a problem set. If, instead of rejecting people’s different approaches to problem-solving, we took time to absorb and learn from them – we’d realize the strength of having multiple perspectives.  

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess? The desire to help people expand to their fullest potential, even if that means pointing them to opportunities outside the span of your control.  “Great leaders don’t create followers. Great leaders create more leaders.” – Tim Peters

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today? The ever-changing work force – which is characterized by multi-generational attitudes and approaches to problem-solving requires leaders to become bi- and sometimes trilingual (in terms of communication and problem-solving styles). I’m appreciative of these differences every time I mentor middle and high schoolers through interactive problem-solving exercises. The young mind, uninhibited by the established way of doing things and free from the fear of what can go wrong, is a very powerful motivator!

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position? Never lose your willingness to listen to your people, early and often. Good, bad or indifferent – use their willingness to share as a personal thermometer to gauge the temperature in your work environment. And when you’ve received their input, communicate your genuine appreciation, then use it to make informed decisions. Lastly, never lose your willingness to continue learning.  “The smartest person in the world doesn’t know everything.” – My husband’s grandmother. There’s nothing like the leadership of someone who knows where they’re going and can effectively utilize their team’s input. It gives everyone ownership and rallies the team to come on the journey. One of the best leadership quotes I’ve ever read comes from Gen. Colin Powell: “When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this state, stimulates me. But once a decision is made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.”

Who are your role models or mentors and why? My role models and mentors are numerous because I try to learn from everyone that I have a relationship with. However, I consider my parents to be my greatest influencers because they know me best and always give it to me straight. And no matter what, I can always count on love being at the foundation of whatever they’re conveying.

How do you keep your team members motivated? We motivate one another through mutual respect for one another’s abilities, candid dialogue, willingness to promote one another’s ideas, refocus when necessary, and – most importantly – we can admit when we get it wrong. We start with the premise that no one person has all of the answers. Our work environment depends on integration and collaboration.

How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in? In some ways, I think that maybe it pursued me as much as I pursued it. Figuratively, I’m a firm believer that if you’re gifted and driven to do something, the path sort of lights itself out in front of you. In real life, what happens is your attitude toward successes and especially challenges tells others something about you. You either draw people to you or you repel them. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I try to treat all people with respect and surround myself with people, places and opportunities to do the things that feed my passions. Throughout my life, I continue to seek out mentors, leaders and acquaintances who love to motivate and share their life lessons.   

How do you measure success in your workplace? I believe that success in the workplace or anyplace, for that matter, has to start as an individual metric. If I can visualize my input as a piece of a much larger puzzle, my contribution is automatically validated – for me. Success starts in an individual’s own mind. If a person sees themselves as successful, they aren’t easily distracted by negativity or the lure of power and money. In my world, I can find everyday successes as I do my part to help move the needle on scientific discovery, or as I help a young mentee inch closer to figuring out how to reach her goals or get into college. Whenever I listen to or read news about interesting research or national problems that PNNL has positively impacted – that’s a measure of success for me.  

What is your leadership style? I definitely see myself as a team builder and a servant leader.

How do you balance work and family life? By being very clear on my priorities. I believe in keeping the main thing – the main thing! My family always comes first.

What do you like to do when you are not at work? Read, have date nights with my hubby, mentor school-age girls and enjoy get-togethers with girlfriends.

What’s your best time management strategy? Get the least favorable activities out of the way first. The rest is “gravy.”

Best tip to relieve stress? I go to my “happy place” (mentally), think about the temporary nature of whatever my stressor is and process that I have complete control over how I respond to whatever “it” is. Sometimes, I may take a walk or a little drive. Most often, I practice speaking less in the moment!

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