An Engineer-Turned-Corporate Leader Shares 3 Top Skills

How a female engineer in a male-dominated field became a corporate leader.

Posted Apr 20, 2019

Becky Williams
Becky Williams, REALM Leadership
Source: Becky Williams

As part of this blog series focused on new perspectives on women’s leadership, I share real women’s stories about their leadership experiences. Each interview is structured around a similar set of questions to allow for the emergence of some comparisons and commonalities. However, each woman’s perspective, struggles, and lessons learned will be different as I will focus on underserved/underrepresented female leaders, emerging female leader, mid-to-senior level female leaders, and thought leaders and researchers in this field. 

Becky Williams is a chemical engineer by training who transitioned into an executive leader during her 38-year career with LORD Corporation. She also earned an MBA with a marketing focus and held multiple roles including design engineer, marketing director, and President of the Asia Pacific Region. She was the first woman in her company to hold this position and one of the few women in a senior P&L leadership role at the time. She now applies her business and people leadership expertise to support other leaders as an executive coach and consultant through her company, REALM Leadership. I sat down with her to learn what elements she found to be most important for her own leadership trajectory and what advice she would give to support women’s leadership development now. 

The themes that struck me most throughout her story were the importance of (1) thoughtful self-evaluation and awareness; (2) learning new strategic thinking and communication skills and applying them in the appropriate situations; and (3) not allowing herself to fall into believing that being a woman was a handicap to success. She also provides some insight into how she adjusted her personal communication style and successfully navigated a traditionally male-dominated industry as she entered new leadership roles. 

What’s your definition of leadership and how did you get to this? 

As a role in an organization, a leader is the person who takes a big picture view and is concerned about “are we doing the right things and going in the right direction?” Leaders initiate change based on this perspective. By contrast, a manager is more focused on “are we doing things the right way?” As a person, the leader gives others courage and inspiration to go somewhere they wouldn’t have otherwise gone. Great leadership happens at many levels in an organization, not just at the top. It’s never too early to develop your leadership skills. My perspectives come from working across product types, technologies, industries, and cultures.

What factors contributed to your leadership journey? 

The most significant factors were my inclination to think and plan strategically, my drive to get things done, and the advocates who provided growth opportunities. As is often the case, my first leadership roles were associated with my functional expertise. I was good at developing action plans and schedules to complete engineering projects, and was selected to manage groups of technicians and engineers.

For much of my career I was moved (by some great advocates) between line and staff positions every few years. In line positions people report to you and the focus is on day-to-day problems and deadlines (for example managing a sales team). In a staff position, usually no one reports to you and the focus is on making the future better (for example developing a marketing strategy for a new product). Some of these moves felt like a set-back. It can be hard when all of the sudden no one is sending you emails!  In hindsight, it was actually great career development that allowed me to get experience in both critical needs of a company and to develop communication, influencing, and leadership skills.

What setbacks, roadblocks, or barriers did you have to overcome on your leadership journey?

My biggest barrier was within myself. I had to develop self- and social-awareness to be able to interpret what was going around me and respond productively. 

It is funny to think back on how naive I was! I was actually surprised that I was the only female in my first engineering class at college. That was the beginning of adjusting to a very male-dominated work environment, which was another significant barrier.  I was motivated to figure out how to be accepted. In aligning to the culture at work, I demonstrated I was an adaptable problem-solver and willing to compromise. That strength can become a weakness over time, but in the beginning that was really helpful

When I worked on a product design for a new aerospace customer early in my career, there was a salesperson who didn’t want me to represent our company in making the pitch. He didn’t think a female could be credible to the customer’s engineers. But I had a boss/advocate who focused more on capabilities and outcomes than gender. He respected and trusted me and my work and insisted that I deliver the presentation. That sent a huge message – to the sales team and to me. Because of my demonstrated competence and communication during the pitch, we won that project and I continued to work on more product designs with them. 

In line with my low social awareness, I was largely ignorant of the strength of the anxiety around me about having a female in a technical leadership role. I had a belief that “once you understand that I am competent, you will be willing to trust me.” It wasn’t that I was blind to other people’s beliefs that “Women can’t be engineers” or “Women can’t be managers”, I just never internalized it. That helped get me through he early years of my career, but I have seen many females leave technical roles because they didn’t feel accepted. It is still an issue that limits diversity in technical roles today. 

When I got promoted to President of the Asia Pacific Region, and moved to Asia, I was asked “How do you think being female will handicap you?”  I felt exasperated and said, “I don’t know, I’ve been female my whole life and it has been working for me so far!” So there was always an assumption that being female was going to be a handicap in my male-dominated field. 

As the responsibility of my leadership roles grew, I had to change my habit of being highly accommodating.  In my desire to fit in the male-dominated culture, I developed the habit of not sharing my thought process. Rather than explaining how my ideas fit with the big picture or strategy, I would just announce an opinion or decision. In a senior leader, this behavior leads to confusion in the organization. I had to re-build my internal filters so that rather than keeping quiet where I didn’t agree, I could effectively state my objections in a constructive way.    

What was the most challenging transition period for you in your career? Tell me about that. What happened? What were the difficulties?

The most challenging is when I accepted the assignment to be the President of LORD Asia Pacific. I had to move half-way across the globe and manage that whole geographic region, including 450 employees remotely. 

I had to develop a new identity in this new leadership role: Who am I in this job? What does this position need that I can be and bring to it? 

I was already accomplished, but I wanted to excel in this role too. I recognized I needed help and sought coaching. Working with them helped me develop the new thinking and communication habits I needed. 

Living far from headquarters (HQ) also meant I wasn’t surrounded by my peers anymore. My leadership style had been very collaborative, with a lot of checking with peers and bosses before making decisions. But now, when I would call HQ to discuss issues, there was less emotional connection or concern about the decisions I was making. I was in charge and expected to make and implement decisions. It was very empowering, but it was an adjustment. 

What advice you would give to women or organizations about leadership?

I have several thoughts. 

The first is about making diversity a company-wide priority.

The initial reason my first boss hired me was because of an expectation from senior management – he didn’t necessarily have a specific affinity to women or supporting diversity initiatives per se but supporting women in technical roles was an HR initiative and expectation. There was a budgetary incentive and political recognition for meeting this performance expectation. So, I’m a fan of quotas from that perspective.

The second, for individuals, is to get to know yourself.

Develop your emotional intelligence (EQ), especially for women who are promoted for a strength they have in a technical expertise. Learn to recognize your emotions, process them, and use them in a productive way to initiate change. Articulate your strengths as the foundation of a leadership style that is authentic and impactful. 

Higher EQ will also enable you to assess barriers more accurately. You need to be able to assess when there is a valid gap in your functional or leadership skillset versus when you are the target of discriminatory thinking. If you over-focus on building your skills, you will waste a lot of energy and potentially undermine your self-confidence. If you are over-sensitized to the potential for discrimination, you risk shutting down constructive feedback. 

If you are in an environment that does, in fact, have some discriminatory practices, you want to be able to assess objectively when it’s toxic (thus could be dangerous to push back) vs. when you need to appropriately advocate for yourself. Sometimes the answer is leaving, sometimes it’s pushing back, sometimes it’s finding ways to make it work. 

Third is to ask for help, by establishing a network of supporters, having a mentor, and having an advocate.

This is especially important in environments that don’t appear to be supportive of women. And this group of advocates and supporters should include both men and women; both inside and outside your organization. 

Is there a book, article, speaker, etc. that you would recommend to women that helps with leadership development? 

That’s what my company REALM is all about! It’s especially focused on helping people who have achieved a functional expertise and have moved into a leadership position. The focus is on defining who they are now as a leader by learning how to lead self, team (context and situational leadership), and change (influence) – each of these has its own set of literature and strategy for development (see reference section for a few examples). I think many leaders see their role as having two jobs: achieve business results and develop people and there is a tension between both. These can be integrated, and I am working to help leaders connect these two – working through people to achieve results and vice versa. 

References

LEADING SELF

Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves: Emotional Intelligence 2.0, TalentSmart, 2009

Tom Rath, StrengthFinders 2.0, Gallup Press, 2007

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, 2004

LEADING TEAM

Daniel Pink, Drive The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead Books, 2009 

Gretchen Rubin, The Four Tendencies, Harmony Books, 2017

LEADING CHANGE

Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Stanford Business Books, 2015

Overview of Change Models: 

·     https://www.process.st/change-management-models/

Daniel Coyle,The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Bantam Books, 2018

Bob Johansen The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything