Vice Admiral Sandra Stosz (left) and Cissie Citardi, William Blair general counsel
Vice Admiral Sandra Stosz (left), guest speaker at William Blair’s International Day of the Girl event, and Cissie Citardi, William Blair general counsel, who moderated the conversation.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Sandra Stosz shared her vast experiences and leadership wisdom acquired during her 40-year career in the armed forces—from being the first women to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes to leading a U.S. armed forces services academy—during William Blair’s celebration of International Day of the Girl.

The colleague event, held October 11 and hosted by William Blair’s Veterans’ Alliance and Women’s Alliance, marked the United Nations’ adoption of an international day to recognize girls’ rights and the challenges they face worldwide. Stosz, who spent her entire career breaking glass ceilings, inspires girls and women to believe in themselves and take on challenges.

Stosz began her career in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign on polar icebreakers, shortly after graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1982. She was one of only 10 women in her class and the first female graduate to achieve flag rank. She served 12 years at sea, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic, commanded two ships, and later in her career came back to lead the academy where she graduated three decades earlier.

“When I retired in 2018 after 40 years of wearing the Coast Guard uniform, I realized it was my core values and in particular the power of perseverance that got me to that finish line,” Stosz says.

Along with perseverance, she defines her values as honesty, humility, and hard work.

“It wasn’t smooth. I made many mistakes,” she says. “Success and its companion, failure, are part of the progression of everyday life and both should be embraced. Success isn’t about avoiding failure; it’s about how you pick yourself up and recover from a failure.”

Competence Plus Confidence

Stosz shared many stories of her Coast Guard experiences with colleagues, including an early lesson when she was passed over for a promotion from ensign to deck watch officer on an icebreaker headed toward Antarctica. After spending weeks standing the watch, mastering the complexities of the job, Stosz approached her boss for the required recommendation to be promoted. But he refused.

She pressed him on why and he said: “‘There’s just something missing in your command presence. I’m not going to qualify you until you stand on the bridge with a six-gun in each hand like John Wayne, barking orders.’”

“I was like oh my goodness. I’m a quiet person, an introvert. I’m not the person who can bark orders, it’s just not me,” Stosz recalls. “Then I had this moment of understanding that I’m not John Wayne, I don’t have to be John Wayne. I had to learn how to be myself and believe in myself, if I was going to project the confidence that my boss needed to see to qualify me.”

As soon as Stosz reckoned with herself, understanding she needed to project confidence, her boss qualified her.

“Life is about the journey not the destination,” Stosz says. “It really is about taking the wisdom to adopt an outlook about that journey. People will discover success through contentment in everyday living, even with the hard times. If you just focus on that destination—you’re missing out on a whole opportunity of living.”

In recent years, she has seen cadets under tremendous pressure to “have it all,” especially young women. Stosz encourages them to space out their goals, asking: What does success mean to you? Does it include a family? Does it mean getting to the top of an organization? Are you content with being in middle management?

“Success is what you define it is,” Stosz says, “and don’t let anyone tell you differently.”