The art of breaking glass ceilings

How a Hokie is changing the CIA

  • Maja Lehnus
    Maja Lehnus ’84

by Mason Adams
Photos Courtesy Maja Lehnus

When Maja Lehnus arrived at Virginia Tech in 1979, she was one of a small number of women pursuing an engineering degree—she remembers six in a class of about 300.

Lehnus (electrical engineering ’84), has blazed a path ever since. As an undergraduate, she participated in a cooperative program that placed her in a scientific and weapons research job within the Central Intelligence Agency the summer after her first year at Tech. She alternated between attending classes in Blacksburg and working with the CIA in Washington, D.C., each quarter. Lehnus obtained her security clearance during her first co-op tour with the CIA, which led to a full-time position with the agency immediately following graduation.

At the CIA, Lehnus has made a practice of breaking so-called glass ceilings. Not once. Not twice, but six different times. As a result of subsequent promotions, she has the distinction of being the first woman selected to serve in six different positions within the organization. Now, in her newest job as associate director of CIA for talent, she’s assisting a new generation in climbing the ranks.

“Maja is committed to building expertise,” said Jane Fletcher (microbiology ’82), who came up through the CIA during the same time as Lehnus and worked with her in three different organizations within the agency. “She [Lehnus] worked with weapons of mass destruction for several years, and as she got new jobs less familiar to her, she took it upon herself to go to conferences, to learn about other groups inside government as well as outside. When you look at service, it’s not just holding a position and taking a paycheck, but being committed to doing the best you can to move an organization forward. Leadership is not just sitting in an office and going to meetings.”

Lehnus attributes her success to supportive mentors who helped her navigate what was a heavily male environment.

“Every boss that I had took an interest in my development,” Lehnus said. “They gave me great opportunities. As one of the only female analysts, I was highly visible. When I performed well, everyone noticed.”

In high school, Lehnus had done well in math and physics classes, which led to her interest in engineering. She was charmed by Blacksburg, the Virginia Tech campus, and the ever-visible mountains that surround it. Her future as a Hokie was sealed when the university offered her a scholarship created by former President T. Marshall Hahn.

The relative paucity of women within the College of Engineering in the early ’80s served as the start of a trend that Lehnus saw repeated again. Her early work with the CIA focused on weapons analysis and foreign ballistic missiles. Although her male coworkers often made jokes or comments to fluster and antagonize her, Lehnus focused on the exciting, positive aspects of her job, and she excelled.

As her career advanced, Lehnus encountered even more challenges.

“I was selected for my first management position in 1991, leading a unit responsible for assessing foreign air defense capabilities,” Lehnus said. “I was the first female manager the division (which included seven managers) had ever had. I recall overhearing a male colleague saying that I had only been selected because the division needed some gender diversity in the leadership team. The comment certainly hurt my feelings, but I focused on mastering the new career of managing and leading people and doing my job well.”

Despite those negative experiences, Lehnus continued to thrive, finding supportive mentors and developing strong technical and leadership skills.

“I found that I enjoyed developing my employees and watching them grow and succeed,” Lehnus said. “I developed my own leadership philosophy: that being an effective leader was about finding the right balance—the balance between delivering on mission and developing people as well as the balance between handling the tactical and strategic aspects of the job.”

Tori Elmore
Maja Lehnus ’84

Over the years, her career has ranged to include such job titles as director of the National Counterproliferation Center, which is responsible for combating the spread of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, to director of the Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center. Lehnus was the first woman to hold each one of those jobs.

Fletcher, who went to work at the CIA in 1986 and retired two years ago, said Lehnus approached leadership in an inclusive, strategic way, seeking feedback from other team members to set goals for projects. She’d then measure progress using metrics to hold team members accountable and overcome obstacles.

“She took it upon herself to help resolve issues so that everyone could move forward faster,” Fletcher said. “That taking responsibility and helping people when they hit roadblocks is part of that service ethic, especially in a leader.”

In the meantime, Lehnus and her husband, David Lehnus (electrical engineering ’84), a fellow engineering student she met while at Virginia Tech, also found time to raise a family.

“My first recollection of ever spotting [David] was in a large class in the big lecture hall at Whittemore Hall,” Lehnus said. “We were both heading up front to tell the teacher we were missing class because of an IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] trip to Florida. I went home and told my college roommate, ‘There’s a good-looking guy in my class going on the trip. He looks like Clark Kent, with his glasses.’ We were in the same group of friends in my fourth year, and we started dating my fifth, final year.”

This year marked their 31st anniversary. They have a son and daughter.

“The key has been that my husband is so there for me,” Maja Lehnus said. “When I moved to my first really executive level position and the demands of the hours became significantly more, he said, ‘Something’s got to give. How about I back off my hours?’”

Maja Lehnus has been able to balance her career and family life through setting and holding boundaries.

“You want to be 100 percent for work and 100 percent for home, but there’s only one of you,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve had to say, ‘No, I can’t do that. Tomorrow I’m going on a field trip with my child.’ You have to do some soul searching, figure out where the red lines are, and share those with managers. That helps you manage your balance, but it’s also great role modeling for people who work with you. I found that everyone was very supportive and willing to help me out through that.”

Lehnus still lives by the Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) ethic at the heart of the Virginia Tech experience.

“I have devoted my career to serving the nation,” Lehnus said. “My desire to serve was very much influenced by the fact I grew up overseas as the daughter of a foreign service officer. When you live in countries that don’t have the liberties and protections that we have, it really makes you appreciate America. By the time I arrived at Virginia Tech, I was already a fervent patriot and had the desire to serve. The Virginia Tech environment facilitated that.”