Rear Adm. Margaret "Peg" Klein says she‘s known as the person that says "Hello" to everyone in the halls of the Pentagon, where matters of national security and global strategy tend to make people forget there are other humans around them.
To the much rest of the world, she‘s known as a pioneer, the first female commandant at the U.S. Naval Academy (its No. 2 spot), veteran commander of jet squadrons and most recently as the secretary of defense’s senior adviser for military professionalism.
Klein spoke Tuesday at the Ninth Annual Women‘s Leadership Conference at the MGM Grand Conference Room, before roughly 1,000 businesswomen (and a few men). The event was sponsored by the MGM Resorts Foundation. One of the first female inductees at the Naval Academy in the late 1970s, she carved out a career as a pilot despite poor eyesight and superiors who told her she‘d be better off as a nurse.
"When I went to the Naval Academy, I got in on my second attempt," Klein told interviewer Natalie Allen of CNN. "So for any of you who are climbing the ladder, if you don‘t get in the first time, make sure you don‘t give up. Here I am (34) years later."
After graduation, Klein ended up in Hawaii with her husband, a fellow Naval Academy graduate, joining one of only six flight squadrons available to women at the time out of hundreds in the Navy. During her early years she accumulated leadership positions, gave birth to two children, and learned to navigate personalities on an aircraft carrier, which she compared to a 5,000-person "floating city."
One audience member asked how Klein dealt with pressure to golf or drink as hard as her higher-ups to "be one of the guys" during her early days in the Navy. Klein said that the Navy had tried to discourage the social necessity of alcohol in recent years, but that in her case "I enjoy going to the club and having a beer with the guys," and her husband had been able to take the kids and allowed her time to socialize with her male peers. But it was important that women "find things that work for you," whether it is jogging or some other form of nonwork bonding to maximize success in the work world.
Another audience member asked Klein how to confront unfair workplaces, citing the example of her mother, a 20-year Air Force veteran who had chronic difficulty with bosses who would steal her ideas to the point that she would come home in tears. Klein responded that she had had "good bosses and I had jerks." When dealing with a difficult boss, her best solution was to reach out to those good bosses, "who would reach out to someone in our organization and provide a little support."
In fact, Klein said that the biggest mistake she made in her career was an inability to ask for help, a flaw of pride that resulted from her belief that "I‘m big, I‘m bad, I graduated from the Naval Academy." But seeking help often made her job much easier, she found.
Klein‘s message resonated strongly with the women in attendance, many of whom had traveled to build executive leadership and business skills to advance in their careers. Amber Beason and Alisha McCellan, who work at Las Vegas accounting and financial consulting firm Johnson Advisors, say they intend to become partners at the firm, and use the conference to gain knowledge and skills.
"I think she‘s awesome," said Amber Beason, who works at Las Vegas accounting and financial consulting firm Johnson Advisors. "(To start) her career when it was mostly male-dominated and (be) able to rise that high rank is pretty inspiring."
"I thought it was important to see someone who‘s been able to model a high-achieving career while also having (a family life)," McClellan said.
Regina Ford, whose father served 20 years in the Air Force and whose brother is a Marine Corps veteran, said she appreciated Klein‘s advice on consensus-building in her example with the 1,500 marines.
"[She used] jokes they‘d understand, things that would relax them. In business, you face that all the time," said Ford, the director of diversity and inclusion at Caesar‘s Entertainment. "You have two departments merging, a boss from a different culture, and that‘s great advice. If you build commonalities, you can melt those differences."