This week on the Bright Ideas series presented by Acuity Brands®, Catherine Bruce is joined by Leslie West, the Vice President of Strategic Account Sales, and Katriona Hartin: a Branch Manager at Mayer. Female faces are growing in number and power in a traditionally male-dominated industry, and these ladies have come together to consider how far things have come since their careers first began.
STARTING THEIR CAREERS IN THE LIGHTING INDUSTRY
Leslie first started working for Lithonia Lighting® in 1982, proofreading paper orders by hand. It was “a real snoozer,” as she put it, but it was a great way to get familiar with Lithonia’s products and processes. After a year, she found her sweet spot in customer service, and later spent time in the IT department, where she helped start the support center. Additionally, since the company had an excellent educational reimbursement program, she was also able to earn her BBA from Georgia State while working these various roles.
After spending time in support center management, project management, and systems training management, Leslie moved on again to sales and marketing. After about fifteen years running the customer care organization, she was offered a position in sales – but originally turned it down. However, after some thought, she decided to take the position after all because she had been in her comfort zone for too long. She took a role in strategic accounts, and has been there ever since.
Katriona was already in college at Georgia State when she first took the job of a temporary receptionist. After accepting a position with a global distributor as an inside sales rep, she followed some other coworkers who had left that company to join Mayer and who had been encouraging her to join them. She decided that if she didn’t enjoy her time at Mayer, which was the best distributor out there, then she would leave the industry entirely. However, her experience for the past twenty-three years – from her first interview all the way through her roles in sales and management – has been fantastic.
“I don’t think anybody graduates college thinking that they want to sell light bulbs or conduit or lock nuts or things like that,” Katriona admitted as she recalled her experience. “I think you fall into the industry and develop a true love for it.” It’s all about finding what you’re passionate about inside a company, and then growing in that pursuit.
ADVICE FOR YOUNG WOMEN STARTING OUT ON THE JOB
In looking back at their journeys and the advice they would give to other young women entering the industry nowadays, Katriona shared that it is important to learn as much as you can about the assets you have – especially the people in your corner and the veterans in the industry who can help guide you. Young people also have a great knack for bringing new technology into the companies they join.
Leslie also strongly encourages newcomers to do their research not just on the industry, but also the company they’re considering. After that, network and find mentors. “Even if it’s a very informal relationship, that really can help in so many different ways.”
She also added, part of a career development plan is also learning how to grow through missteps. Some may consider waiting to get her degree until she had already entered the workforce to be a mistake. “But I really do think that that served me well,” she explained. Night school was tough, but it definitely affected her career path and the company also allowed her to progress in her role even while she was finishing up her education. Being able to apply her key learnings on the job made a major difference in her career.
However, education wasn’t the only obstacle both of these ladies overcame. Looking back, Katriona suspects that, had she learned how to speak up for herself and communicate her own needs to her supervisors sooner, it may have served her better.
THE EXPERIENCE OF ENTERING A PREDOMINANTLY MALE INDUSTRY
For better or worse, one of the earlier obstacles to gaining professional confidence over time was also the industry itself. Fortunately, the field has seen vast improvements in equitable treatment over the past forty years, and is now a vastly different environment than it used to be.
“When I was interviewed early on, I was asked if I had any plans to get pregnant during the next year or so,” Leslie shared – the memory being something that she can laugh about now, as it is certainly no longer an acceptable practice. “I was so young and naive that I just answered the questions. Also, my mother worked for the same company at the time, and they asked what my reaction would be if she was ever fired.”
Those experiences certainly have stuck with these women, but they have also been fortunate enough to witness the drastic change firsthand as more women have entered the industry and become leaders at their respective companies and associations.
Just as the lighting industry’s technologies are changing and evolving, so is its global acceptance of any and all human beings in the industry. If a company takes a narrower view of their hiring prospects, Katriona pointed out, “we’re missing out on some really good people.”
PRESENT OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOUNG WOMEN ENTERING THE INDUSTRY
For those looking to take Leslie’s advice and find a mentor, the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) organization hosts an annual conference and helps to connect women with other female mentors in the industry. This year has been no exception – save that many of the events and happy hours and lunch-and-learns have become virtual. It’s a great resource to network nationwide, and make life-long industry friendships.
“There’s a whole world out there that you don’t realize if you don’t have those opportunities to really connect outside of the company,” Leslie explained. “There are so many different types of businesses and partners in the industry. And women have a real chance to network across those when they get involved in the NAED Women in Industry.”
And the NAED is just one example of a program that can help companies invest in their future workforce. Next week, Bright Ideas will discuss additional ways that industrial companies can invest in their future workforce. To learn more about programs offered by Acuity Brands in the meantime, visit acuitybrands.com/about-us/sustainability/our-community-and-our-people.
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