3 Spouse Career Tips from a Top Government Official Who Has Been There

Cheryl Mason, chairman of the Board of Veterans' Appeals, speaks to a group. (Courtesy of Cheryl Mason)
Cheryl Mason, chairman of the Board of Veterans' Appeals, speaks to a group. (Courtesy of Cheryl Mason)

What kind of successful career path takes you from having a GS-13 attorney job in Washington, D.C., to becoming a GS-6 executive assistant to, ultimately, being confirmed by the Senate as the chairman of the Department of Veterans Affairs Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA)?

A military spouse one, of course. And while it wasn't conventional, BVA Chairman and former Air Force spouse Cheryl Mason does value her journey for the tools it gave her to help military spouses working in her agency now and the lessons it taught her along the way.

Mason's tenacity in pursuing her goals while also balancing the demands of being a military spouse offer some great life lessons for career-minded spouses trying to do the same today.

It's thanks to that life experience -- combined with her position at the BVA, where she manages almost 1,000 federal workers set to process about 90,000 veteran rating appeals this year -- that Mason has been able to put in place military spouse-friendly employment policies.

For example, military spouse attorneys who have been with the agency more than a year can apply to take their position remote, eliminating the need to find a new job or retake the bar exam when they move. And the BVA is the only part of the VA that has joined the Defense Department's Military Spouse Employment Partnership and made a pledge to hire spouses.

So what lessons does Mason have to pass on? Here are her best tips.

1. Look at career challenges -- even disappointing ones -- as opportunities.

When Mason followed her Air Force husband to Germany, she was forced to leave her job as a BVA attorney in D.C. With no attorney positions open at their new OCONUS duty station, she had to make a hard choice: Stay out of the work force or take a secretarial job. She chose the job.

"My advice: Challenges are opportunities for you to decide how you want to have that impact on your life," she said. "Especially military, but I think anybody in today's world, you get to define what your career looks like, and that's a big deal. ... What I would advise is, when you see challenges and you have those things and it's not working like you wanted, look for opportunities to see 'what I can learn or how can I grow in this job? If I take this position, what is it going to allow me to do?'"

It was that attitude that allowed her to use the administrative assistant position to not just fill her time, but lend her valuable life experience in working with people and even managing contracts as they came across her desk.

"Sometimes, you do have to take a step backward to go forward because of what you will learn," she said.

2. Remember that military life happens in seasons.

As their time in Germany came to a close, Mason and her husband sat down to discuss their next move. To give her a shot at a career, they chose to go back to D.C. With a small child, her job hunt there had different priorities than it had before she had a family. And when their second child was born, things became even more complicated.

That meant she had to balance her new priorities with her desire for a successful career -- and say "no" to things that weren't the right fit for that time.

"I think you have to take life as seasons," she said. "Each part of your life is a season, and so when we're raising our children, that was a season."

She chose a position that wasn't everything she dreamed, but did give her the flexibility to dedicate time to her family. Then, when her children were older, she shifted focus back to her career.

"It's about figuring it out, defining the life that you want, and deciding and trusting that there will be other opportunities to grow yourself," she said. "But you have to figure out what that looks like. If you just sit and wait, it's not going to work."

3. Learn to make tough decisions through communication.

As Mason's career progressed, she and her husband faced a decision: Attempt to balance two very demanding career fields with a family, or let one parent step back. After looking at their options, they decided her husband would leave active duty after more than 14 years to join the Air Force Reserve and take a civilian job. That let Mason shift her focus from family to job.

Making that decision was hard, she said, but thanks to good communication they were able to choose the right path for their family.

"I think for anybody approaching that, that's what they have to look at: This is one of these big life decisions, and you have to do it together. You can't do it separately," she said. "Sometimes they get their turn, and sometimes you get your turn, but you have to figure out how to balance it."

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