In the third of our 'Leadership Stories' series, we feature civil engineer Lise Taylor. Lise leads the development of water, ground and environment services into transport markets for high-profile schemes such as the A303 at Stonehenge, HS2, and Crossrail for the engineering company, Atkins. She took part in the IWF Fellows Program in 2006.
In her Leadership Story, she writes about the support of women in a male-dominated industry, the growing importance of creativity and relationships in the digital world, and how horse-riding gives a sense of perspective.
What does being a leader mean to you?
Being a civil engineer requires a strong leadership focus on teamwork: delivering infrastructure projects entails collaboration across diverse skillsets, including technical, environmental, public relations and client management.
For me, a leader helps teams to perform at their best, engages and motivates all players, breaks down barriers, and brings people together. At the same time, leadership is about looking ahead, understanding the wider context, and helping people to see how they contribute to long-term goals. It also requires the courage to do the 'right' thing, challenge, and drive for great performance.
What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?
Being a woman in a male-dominated environment is both a challenge and, at times, an advantage. The lack of senior female role models is an on-going problem, which can unconsciously limit ambition. There are some great high-level women in engineering, but not yet enough to make it clear that a range of styles and approaches can lead to success. My interaction with top-level women outside the industry, particularly at IWF, has helped me to get a wider perspective on women’s leadership.
Without many women at work, particularly in senior roles, developing a good support network can be difficult. Male engineers can sometimes be a little wary of female engineers. Also, female engineers often wish to ignore gender issues, and avoid women’s groups. To get support, I make time for female friends outside work, cultivate relationships with women in other engineering organisations, and reach out to others at work.
As a woman, when I meet other people in the industry, they don’t automatically realise that I am an engineer. I don’t blame them - I suffer from the same unconscious bias. To garner respect, I try to craft a casual phrase about being an engineer into the early part of a conversation. And I think it is important for women to have the highest possible qualifications or industry recognition, in order to leave others in no doubt about capability.
Looking to the future, the rapid development of computers means that engineers will do less technical work. Creativity, relationships and judgement will come increasingly to the fore. Success in these aspects is driven by diversity, and I have high hopes that women’s contributions will become ever more valued.
What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?
I take most pleasure in facilitating team success. In a prior role leading a portfolio of projects for a major government client, I took on a team of engineers, environmental scientists and project managers who were fatigued and despondent. By helping them to overcome problems, share good performance, and better understand client drivers and goals, they became confident and positive, and turned delivery round so that we were our client’s top-performing supplier, winning multiple awards.
I am proud to have carved out time to have a horse and compete at a semi-professional level, which helps provide balance and a sense of perspective in life, as well as improve personal resilience, health and well-being.
How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?
Engineering provides a wide range of career phases, including technical work and project management, client account management, site and office work, and business management. My most challenging transitions have been moving from being in direct and whole control, to having 'virtual' teams and a wide range of stakeholders.
Where providing direction and communicating well used to be key, I now find that influencing skills are top of my list. I spend more time building relationships and gaining trust, framing asks and getting buy-in. Reputation and networks, always important, are now crucial.
What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?
I’d recommend understanding what is important to you, and following a career that suits. I enjoy working with people, solving problems, continual learning and contributing to society, so I have found my career choice to be stimulating and satisfying.
The IWF Fellows development programme opened my eyes to differences between men’s and women’s natural styles, and how to avoid pitfalls. I wish I had known about these aspects earlier, and recommend seeking out advice on the importance of image and exposure, asking for things for ourselves (opportunities, resources, promotion), and understanding that we don’t need to be perfect.
Confidence can be an on-going challenge for many. We all have doubts, wherever we are in our careers. It helps to recognise and value what we are naturally good at – because innate skills come with little effort, it is easy to dismiss them and instead to focus on things that others do well and we find difficult. It is worth watching Amy Cuddy’s TED body-language talk, which gives a rare 'silver bullet' to improve confidence. And occasionally ask yourself about how a typical man would handle a situation.
To do a job well, it is important to find ways to maintain your own well-being. Fitting in non-work activities and goals helps to keep balance and perspective, provides more diverse thinking, and can give a support network to help during tough career spells.
You will get back what you give – be generous with support and encouragement, especially towards other women.