IWF UK Leadership Stories: Sonia Brown

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In the fourth of our 'Leadership Stories' series, we feature professional engineer, Sonia Brown who owns and operates Graphite Engineering, a leading firm in the Bahamas.

In her Leadership Story, she describes why she struggled with self-acceptance as a child, and how she has successfully championed the engineering industry in her home country.

What does being a leader mean to you?

Sonia Brown

It means many things to me, but the first thing that comes to mind is having the ability or vision to solve a problem that no one else even realized was a problem.

I see it as the ability to bring people together to tackle issues and create an environment in which a group can thrive, even though group members may be very different.

I also see it as helping others see what they are capable off, hold them to account and work with them to help them achieve it.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

Self-acceptance was a big one for me. This played out in the fear of standing out, which is literally difficult for me as I am tall and was brutally teased about my height as a child. My mother caught me trying to stand so I would appear shorter and I thank her to this day for telling me to stand tall. It was a much-needed boost.

Tied to this was being teased about doing well in school and I deliberately studied less so I would not be first. It was OK to be in the top group but not stand out all the time. I overcame this when I was in College and University when the work got harder and the competition was tougher.

Over the years I took advantage of mentorship opportunities and self-help and gradually learned to be myself.

I also struggled with discussing money and knowing the value of my work. This came out because I had the great privilege of being a Fellow in the IWF Leadership Programme and was being mentored regarding starting up a business, when to my surprise this was revealed.

I again relied heavily on reading self-help books but got the best advice from speaking to colleague engineers who operated successful consultancies.

I have come a very long way and do best when I remind myself that this is still a struggle, that way I pay closer attention to the discussion or negotiation.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

From a professional standpoint, the first would be championing the engineering industry in The Bahamas and working with like-minded colleagues to see to the passage of legislation to govern the industry. The Engineering Act was eventually passed in 2004.

This has added more accountability to the profession by tying all work in The Bahamas to a professional licensed in The Bahamas, and it has resulted in the growth of the industry. Prior to this, basically all major projects were done by engineers who did not reside in The Bahamas and had limited knowledge of Bahamian codes and what systems worked best for our environment.

With legislation in place, there is now meaningful involvement by engineers registered in The Bahamas. Problems with enforcement persist and last year I spearheaded the formation of a group of construction professionals to advocate for better compliance and to work more closely with gatekeepers in government to see how we can better close this gap.

In the area of philanthropy, since 1998 as a member of the Zonta Club of Nassau I have advocated for better formal education, job training, job placement and social assistance for teenage mothers in The Bahamas, as well as better sex education.

There is a programme for teen mothers, which has been in place since 1969, that needed a permanent site and more private sector and government support. It is called PACE – Providing Access to Continued Education. I led the formation of the PACE Foundation in 2004 and this year we opened a newly renovated building to serve as a permanent site for formal education and training. This was after many years of advocacy, fundraising and bringing on partners to assist in this effort.

Our group also spearheaded the effort of bringing Character Day to the Bahamas in 2016, while working along with the Bahamas AIDS Foundation and Lyford Cay Foundation’s Focus. This is an international event that focuses on character building.

I saw it as valuable because teenage mothers who come in for help get a lot of support after the fact and much of the help addresses self-esteem and character building. I see Character Day as a proactive way of helping young children thrive so they do not end up as a pregnant teen, but beyond that, in the hope that if their school and home environment is as it should be they may stand a chance of achieving their potential.

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

I have learned to listen more. Who knew I did not have the monopoly on good ideas? I have also learned to be adaptable. I work with consultants and construction professionals from across the globe and find I have to adapt my style slightly depending on the audience.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

Don’t wait to be asked, look for opportunities to lead teams or projects even if you have to volunteer and pitch your idea. Sometimes the best person for the job is you.

Prepare yourself by getting a good mentor if you can, read extensively as it relates to women and leadership. I always recommend women read the book Women Don’t Ask.

Inform yourself of the biases you will face from unexpected places and begin developing a thick skin. I would say listen extensively to leadership and business podcasts. I like Andy Stanley, HBR IdeaCast and How I Built This (NPR).

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