Had you asked Cyndi Mays in the late 1980s where she saw herself toward the end of her career, she probably wouldn’t have answered that she would be a high-ranking senior executive service member of the U.S. State Department and living in Charleston. Rather, the Virginia native and Old Dominion grad had big plans for a different role — one as a policy analyst for an intelligence agency. But life has an interesting way of changing course in the blink of an eye.
Mays had gotten as far as to complete all of the polygraphing, medical tests, psychological tests and other requirements to join the Central Intelligence Agency, but while waiting for the results in 1989, decided on somewhat of a whim to put a copy of her resume into an Air Force Personnel folder in the career center. “Two days later, I got called in for a civilian intern position with the Air Force. I was tired of waiting for the other thing, so I took it,” she laughed. She relocated to Lexington, Massachusetts and started her federal career in human resources.
At first, Mays anticipated staying in for three years and then moving to the private sector, but she found that she loved some of the most prominent parts of her job: the travel and solving problems. “I call it the ‘Helping People Competency,’” she grinned. “I love helping, and I like to take risks and be challenged.”
It also didn’t hurt that she was motivated and eager to take on new things. “Honestly, expectations for working in HR in the late 80s and early 90s seemed pretty low. I started taking on tech initiatives when a lot of people didn’t have computers — I was actually the first person in the Air Force HR group with a real computer,” she reminisced. Her eagerness to accept new challenges and experience different things also led her to work in Italy for a few years.
“It’s good to get out of your comfort zone — those experiences help expand your career. Sometimes it’s a lateral career move, not just for a pay increase but for learning and gaining new skills to be more marketable,” she said.
Mays left her occupation and returned to the private sector for a time — and found that working under a different HR helped her build empathy and further her career when she returned to working with the federal government. And while to some using an outside perspective it appears she moved jobs often, Mays noted that most moves were for a handful of the same people who valued her skillset in a variety of capacities.
By 2019, Mays was in what she called a “commuter marriage;” she was living in the D.C. area with her high school-aged daughter while her son and husband were living and working in other areas. Her husband’s family hails from the Lowcountry, and when she heard that the U.S. State Department was hiring for a senior executive position in Charleston, she jumped at the chance and moved with her husband to the Holy City shortly after being hired. Her daughter is now in college, and her son and his fiancée live in town and own a restaurant.
“I must have found the ‘unicorn job’ here. To be able to find this job in HR at this level in a lovely Southern location is pretty much unheard of – once you get outside of D.C., your options are much more limited,” she said.
Mays is one of three female Senior Executive Service members of the U.S. State Department that she knows of in Charleston — a number she thought would be higher. She also sits on the Federal Executive Board, made up of federal executives who meet quarterly to discuss the goings-on of everyone from weather events to the Coast Guard, IRS, NOAA and the VA Hospital.
“In the 32 years since I started, I’ve worked my way up through 14 different agencies from a GS-7 up to a GS-15, and I’ve been an exec — similar to a CEO — since 2013. I never would have imagined that I would have been somebody to go into this particular occupation,” she said. “Along the way, I’ve always enjoyed the challenges and the people I work with – that’s what makes it worth it. I also think I have enough unbelievable stories about the government to write a pretty funny book one day!”
By Anne Toole