Building a Meaningful Career: Insights and Advice from Women in the Automation Industry

From left to right: Mary Ellen mondi, Lois Terry, Dacia Sumrall, Bridget Spencer, Kelly Klein, and Dawn MarruchellaLast week at the Emerson Global Users Exchange in San Antonio, I had the pleasure of moderating the “Building a Meaningful Career” panel. In this blog, I’ll recap some of the experiences and strategies that these successful female leaders credited as helping them advance their own careers.
Panelists included:
  • Bridget Spencer, Instrument Engineering Offshore Section Lead, Wood
  • Dacia Sumrall, Account Manager, Scallon Controls
  • Lois Terry, EPC Director, Dow Chemical Company
  • Kelly Klein, Vice President/General Manager, Magnetic and Vortex Flowmeters, Emerson
  • Dawn Marruchella, Vice President, Marketing, Micromotion, Emerson

Mondi) Clearly there are challenges faced as a woman in a technical field. What strategies have you used to overcome those challenges and what advice would you give?

Sumrall) When I started in this field, I was younger and going to refineries where there were guys who had worked there for 20 or 30 years. The organization I worked in, though, was run by a woman and she loved to promote women in business. My perspective is that when I call on people, I bring value and bring enough to be respected. When I go to meet with a customer, I dress like they do – I wear coveralls and a baseball cap. I fit in and look like them and I always bring value and know my products.

Spencer) I don’t see it as a man’s world. My approach to everything is that it’s my world, it’s your world, and it is what you make of it.

Mondi) We all bond socially in different ways and sometimes there’s an accidental “boys club.” How do you deal with that?

Terry) I can see it as guys just go off to have happy hour. We travel and we’re the only female and we can feel left out. For me, I reflect on those things, but I’ve never allowed myself to feel so left out that I didn’t invite myself. If I’m in a plant and I want to sit down with a technician, I just go over there and do it. I think sometimes that’s the real barrier – that feeling that, “oh, I’m not a part of that.” Just step into it, and more than likely, they’ll let you in.

Klein) Yes, very similar to what Lois (Terry) said. One of the best pieces of advice I’d had when I stepped onto one of the senior leadership teams was – don’t wait to be invited. So many times, as women, we’re used to being invited, but it’s not as typical with guys. And it was very common that they’d just go out for the evening, so you should just go. It’s not that they don’t want you there, they just don’t think to invite you.

Mondi) What’s the best support you’ve been given in your career and how did you find it?

Marruchella) The best support I had was when I took a new role and 6 weeks into it, my boss left for a new job, so we had about six months where we reported to his boss. And it was through that opportunity that I developed a good relationship with his boss and he gave me opportunities and visibility and advocated for me to get my MBA. He really has become my sponsor.

You also go through different cycles in your career. I have an 8-year-old and my last two bosses – I feel like they were my bosses for a reason. I worked for a guy who shared custody of his children, and he got it. My boss now is a woman in a very similar situation to me. I used to feel guilty when things came up – I have a sick kid and it’s my turn to stay home – but with both of these bosses in particular, I never felt that way. They were supportive and trusted that I’ll get everything done.

Mondi) In two words or two sentences, what does it mean to build a meaningful career?

Spencer) Have a sense of personal satisfaction in whatever you do. If you’re excited about your work and enjoy your day, you’ll be really good at your job. Also, networking is my second word – build your network as a pool of resources and be a resource for others.

Klein) A meaningful career to me has really developed over the course of my career. Now my two words right now are: Developing people.

Terry) I think it’s about planning. When you start your career, sometimes you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like. Connect with mentors and have them help you craft your plan, I once had to meet an executive about a project, but instead [of talking about the project], he started asking me about my career – what I wanted to do in 10 years. Be ready for that conversation. It was very exploratory and he told me about jobs that I never thought I’d be able to enter into, so he was one of my first sponsors.

Marruchella) It’s about continuing to challenge myself and evolve. And the second sentence to that is to then help others challenge themselves and evolve and push them to do things they might not think they can do. I thrive on that.

The following were questions asked by audience members:

An attendee, Joel Logue from BASF, asked, “On my site, we train college recruits who are interns for the summer. Do you have any advice that I can give to women when we bring them in to start that seed for their career, so they know what to expect but also to help them navigate from the start?”

Klein) I think one of the best things we can do for young women is to get them paired with mentors very quickly.

Marruchella) And don’t think that the mentor has to be female.

Terry) What’s important is to find people who want to mentor.

Monica Dillon, Corteva, Ag Division of DowDuPont, asked, “There’s the quote that well behaved women rarely make history. There’s a stereotype that men tend to ask forgiveness instead of permission. Have you ever had to challenge that notion or use that premise on a project?”

Terry) Absolutely. Ask for what you want and take the chance. Believe in your success and your strength. This is my idea, I’m going to step up and present it. I’m not going to let the guys take it – go to the table, go to the vice president. Because, guaranteed, there are guys out there who are doing that, and if you sit there, you’ll be bypassed, but if you do it, you can take it to a different level of success.  

Question) How do you deal with co-workers who are outwardly and obviously discriminating or being critical based solely on your gender/age/race?

Terry) One time on an electrical engineering project, there was an older guy who was very much an expert in process containment equipment, and I needed him to do his work, so that I could do my electrical work. It became clear that he was not going to deliver, and I was tired of being nice, so I said, “It’s ok if you don’t like me or if you have a problem with me for whatever reason, but we’re here to get this job done. I’m going to get this electrical design done, and I really need your help.”

Two hours later, he delivered everything I needed. Sometimes we don’t understand why people behave that way, but be straightforward with them, not confrontational, but deal with them, so we can get the job done regardless.

Spencer) I’d been working on a project for a long time, leading a very large team. I got a new project manager and he did not want to deal with me. He kept going to one of the engineers who was on my team, an older gentleman with gray hair – that was this project manager’s comfort zone. He even expressed concern to my department manager that perhaps I needed a senior engineer to help me. My department manager, who’s really one of my sponsors who’s been pulling me up behind him, told me about this.

In my role, I also staff all the projects, so my department manager said, “I just got this email, he thinks you need help. Does he not realize you’d be the one staffing that role?”

After he’d been there a while, he actually came to me and apologized. He actually became an advocate for me because he respected the work I was doing on the project.

Question) There’s a man who won’t stop calling me sweetie or honey. I’m now a leader on the same level as him. How can I politely guide him into different language?

Marruchella) I had a peer come in with an idea. I was kind of challenging him on it because I needed to understand it since I’d be the one who’d have to defend the idea.

He started to get frustrated that I was asking him questions, and he said, “Well, no let me tell you something, sweetheart.”

I got very serious and I said, “Do not call me ‘sweetheart,’ toots.” I called him out on it with humor, but I made it clear it’s not acceptable.         

Question) How do you balance pursuing a career and being strong and competitive without being perceived as a b*tch or being too aggressive?

Spencer) Chances are if you’re a strong woman, you’ve been called that before. But it doesn’t matter, I’m going to do my job the best I can.

Klein) At the end of the day, it’s about being respected, not loved. If we’re doing our jobs well, we can do that while still staying very respectful of people and earn their respect. We joke that leadership meetings can sometimes be a full contact sport, we can get into it and challenge each other, but at the end, we indicate our respect for our peers.  

Question) What changes or decisions did you have to make when you had children and raise families when your children are young?

Klein) I don’t think there’s such a thing as work/life balance. Life is chunky. Sometimes we can feel like we’re not doing enough for everyone – kids, parents, work – but you have to accept that you are doing as much as you can. Don’t try to do it all and don’t kick yourself for not being able to do everything for everyone all the time.

Sumrall) The season can be rough with young kids and a busy career, but if you have a good support system at work and at home, you can have a long career.

Question) What’s the difference between a sponsor and a mentor?

Marruchella) A mentor is someone you go to for advice and feedback and they’ll challenge you and be brutally honest with you and help you develop in your career. A sponsor is someone who will advocate for you. They will put you out there in different situations to allow you to shine. They will put their own reputations on the line to support you and push you forward.

Have you received great advice from a woman (or man) regarding your career? Do you have additional questions for our panelists or members of the Women in STEM community?

Reply below to share them with the group.