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Leading with Grit and Grace

By Erin Gutsche, P.Eng., CMRP

March 2021

In honor of Women’s History Month, this article shares the challenges, triumphs, and thoughts of four respected leaders in the Maintenance and Reliability (M&R) field.

It’s a privilege to share these stories with you. Let’s dive in.

Paving the Way – Sanya Mathura, MLE

From a young age, Sanya knew she wanted to be an engineer. She loved fixing things and finding ways to make processes more efficient. While her career path was clear, her role models were not: everyone Sanya knew in engineering was male.

This observation inspired Sanya to become someone girls could look up to, and to pave the way for future generations of women in engineering. In her quest to become the best she could be in her field, Sanya has done just that.

Professional Barriers

“There have been quite a few misconceptions about me, usually that I’m not technically inclined. There were times when I showed up in industrial plants and was asked, ‘Why did they send you? Couldn’t they send a guy?’ My response was, ‘I thought you wanted the best. That’s why I came. I can send a guy, but he’ll take a week longer and he’ll still have to pass everything by me. But let me know what you prefer.’ Typically, I would get to stay and do what I’m good at, but it takes convincing at times.”

Proud Career Moments

“The first was being able to publish my first book while attaining my MLE certification. I struggled to find information on lubricant degradation during my thesis, and I wanted to make sure others didn’t have the same problem. Seeing the book come to life and be sent around the world for readers everywhere made me proud.”

Sanya also considers her MLE certification one of her proudest achievements.

“This was a huge moment for me because at that time no one else from the Caribbean was certified. I wanted to change that! I wanted others in the Caribbean to know that they could achieve it as well. I really wanted to pave the way forward so others could become certified and we could build the industry together.”

Tailored Advice

When asked what the M&R industry could do to encourage female participation, Sanya reflected on career awareness for young women.

“While growing up, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but I didn’t know what a day in the life of an engineer would look like nor what it was like for a female engineer. I think it’s crucial for the younger generation to become aware of all the possibilities that can exist for them.”

Sanya believes this encouragement and education should extend to young men.

“By teaching the boys and exposing them to the fact that women also belong in these spaces, we help to normalize this for them, and they grow up encouraging their sisters or female friends to get involved in these areas. Change starts with us and knows no gender. We can only make this change happen if we all work together.”

Making Lasting Improvements – Michelle Ledet Henley

Michelle’s interest in technology started at a young age when her father, Winston Ledet, brought home a RadioShack TRS-80 Micro Computer System. Not only did Winston teach her how to program but he also ignited a spark that would influence her future.

As a young woman, Michelle pursued a business degree and worked as a Certified Public Accountant. Her interest in programming would ultimately lead to a career in M&R, where she would find a new passion for the human side of reliability.

To this day, she enjoys inspiring others to become active participants in creating lasting improvements at their sites.

Subtle Reminders

Michelle’s experiences with misconceptions reflect the greater gender gap of years past.

“In the early days of my career, 25 years ago, many of the people I worked with felt they needed to interact with me differently because I'm a woman. I received a lot of ‘Pardon my French’ apologies. And there was almost never a women's bathroom out in the working areas of the plants. These were subtle reminders that my role in the field, while not unheard of, was still novel.

On one occasion when working outside the US via simultaneous translation, I was asked through the translator (the only other female in the room), ‘During this simulation, she's acting like our boss, but she's a woman. How can that be?’ I smiled and answered, ‘I am the boss and look at how much better your performance is now.’ The translator looked at me with wide eyes, unsure if she should tell everyone what I said. I gave her a nod and she reluctantly repeated my response. There was a brief awkward silence, then they all laughed, and we had a very productive remainder of the session.”

Confident Leadership

When it comes to leadership, Michelle’s experiences taught her to let go of the need to know it all.

“As a woman in a male-dominated field, I was initially concerned that I needed to have all of the answers to prove I was qualified. Over time, I've figured out that having confidence in my expertise and the unique expertise of my teammates, is a much more effective way to build and lead a team than trying to have all of the answers myself.”

Successful Approaches

To support women over the next five years, Michelle believes the industry can continue to highlight women who are currently in M&R roles, showing those who are in the field, or considering the field, what is possible.

When asked what advice she would give to a woman who is new to M&R, Michelle highlighted the importance of networking with others in the field, regardless of gender.

“I've found the community to be amazingly supportive. So many in the field enjoy ‘geeking out’ and sharing their knowledge with anyone who shows interest.”

Leading Through Experience – Suzane Greeman, ASQ-CMQ/OE, CAMA, CAMP, CMRP

Several mentors shaped the trajectory of Suzane’s career.

When she first became a maintenance engineer, Suzane was taught that managers need to view the management of maintenance (and maintenance management systems) as a discipline distinct from the act of doing maintenance.

Another mentor taught Suzane the value of non-technical development. Business, finance, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills were among the recommended subjects. Suzane’s efforts in these areas are evidenced by her many achievements and thriving business.

Positive Perspectives

When it comes to handling stereotypes, Suzane takes an approach of acceptance and opportunity.

“I think that one of the most important things that has given me much lateral freedom is the realization that I will not be everyone’s cup of tea and that people will hold misconceptions about me, for one reason or another.

I do not dwell on misconceptions as I believe those views are limiting. I focus on the things that stop people from accessing a better version of themselves, like character and motivation. Those are not easily seen but speak volumes when others interact with you. If you look beyond the misconception, an opportunity to thrive usually presents itself.”

Noteworthy Advice

“If you want to be a successful leader, study other successful leaders and hone your unique approach. I would very much dislike being called a woman leader. I would like to know that I am an effective leader, full stop, and that my leadership triggers the men and women that I interact with to become better versions of themselves. I do not think any part of that is gender specific. It took me years to realize that I simply needed to be me.

There may be theories that disagree with me, but I believe in a few things:

  • Good leadership is universal, anyone can do it, and anyone can be it.
  • Be yourself. Authenticity brings confidence and confidence keeps people attracted to you.
  • Think about the worst leader you had and decide never to be like that person.
  • If your authentic self needs work, work on it.”

Increased Awareness

Suzane believes that a multi-pronged approach is needed to address the gender gap in skilled trades and technical occupations.

“The first thing is for industry to ensure that women have the same opportunities to succeed, to the same extent as men do, for the same effort. Secondly, women in M&R need to be exposed to good mentors and advocates.

There are many ways to misstep in organizations socially and politically and not even know it. Mentors and advocates can provide the guidance to prepare oneself and to identify and access opportunities. The same kind of approach needs to be taken in post-secondary schools as the first widening of the gap starts there.”

Teaching a Generation – Nancy Regan

For Nancy, reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) is more than just a technical subject—it’s a way of life.

Nancy’s father exposed her to aviation as a young girl, and she fell in love with airplanes. This love led to a degree in aerospace engineering, which was put into practice at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

One chance call paved the way for Nancy to sink her teeth into RCM, and the rest is history.

New Opinions

Nancy says she’s been fortunate to experience few occasions in her career where she was discounted for being a woman. She believes that being a female in a male-dominated industry can be a big advantage.

“I stand out, and my expertise is sometimes unexpected. When you mix those two things with excellence, you can make yourself unstoppable.”

A great example of this occurred in Bahrain a few years ago, following an RCM presentation Nancy gave.

“Immediately after I finished presenting, a male attendee came up to me while I was still on the stage. He shook my hand and said, ‘I have underestimated women in Reliability my whole professional life. You just changed all that for me.’ He immediately turned and walked away. That was an awesome moment that I will never forget. You never know how you might touch someone.”

Valid and Invalid Fears

Nancy’s approach to closing the gender gap in M&R focuses on two elements: desire and fear.

“First, it’s important to understand that if you have the desire to do something, that’s Nature’s way of telling you that you have all the necessary talent inside of you to bring it to fruition. It’s one of life’s laws, as certain as the law of gravity. If a woman feels compelled to pursue a technical career, it’s important to honor that feeling.

Second, some women say they feel uncomfortable or afraid because there are so few women in our field. Fear can be crippling. Christina Thomas-Fraser (a mentor) taught me a valuable lesson about fear. All fear is real, but there are two kinds of fear: valid and invalid.

If a car is driving right at you, that fear is real and valid! Conversely, a woman may be afraid about performing well in a technical field because she is outnumbered gender-wise. The fear she feels is real, but it’s invalid because her gender has nothing to do with her expertise.

It’s vital to learn how to deal with the invalid fears that try to keep us from achieving our goals.”

Thoughtful Leadership

“In our industry, we talk about machines a lot. But it’s important to remember that people take care of the machines. And people are complex creatures—far more complex than any advanced system we may find in industry. To lead effective teams, you must be able to manage varying personalities and help team members with the myriad issues that arise. I think women are in an excellent position to do that.”

Looking Ahead

While M&R remains a male-dominated field, female professionals have much to celebrate as we’ve seen with Sanya, Michelle, Suzane, and Nancy. These women exemplify leadership in Maintenance and Reliability.

As we look to the future of M&R, we must all support one another. After all, success and failure know no gender.

Leader Profiles

Sanya Mathura, MLE is the founder of Strategic Reliability Solutions Ltd. Her vision is to connect M&R practitioners with the experts and quality information they need. Sanya recently obtained her Machinery Lubrication Engineer certification from the International Council of Machinery Lubrication and is the first in her country of Trinidad and Tobago to achieve this designation. Clients in the automotive, industrial, marine, construction, and transportation sectors have all benefited from Sanya’s training programs and problem-solving abilities.

Michelle Ledet Henley is the president of TMG Frontline Solutions, where she has spent the past 25 years helping hundreds of organizations navigate the difficult waters of organizational change using a game-based simulation. Co-authoring various articles and the book Level 5 – Leadership at Work, the sequel to the popular Don’t Just Fix It, Improve It, Michelle has become a thought leader on the emerging and often misunderstood topic of defect elimination.

Suzane Greeman, ASQ-CMQ/OE, CAMA, CAMP, CMRP is the president and principal asset management advisor of Greeman Asset Management Solutions Inc. With over 23 years of experience spanning multiple disciplines and sectors, Suzane is an asset management consulting executive with clients who manage more than $23 billion in assets. She is also the author of Risk-based Asset Criticality Assessment (R-b ACA©) Handbook.

Nancy Regan is the founder and president of The Force, Inc., a company dedicated to the implementation and promulgation of reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) principles as they were originally intended. With a degree in aerospace engineering, Nancy spent seven years as a US Navy civilian employee. She has more than 20 years of experience facilitating RCM analyses, conducting RCM training, and implementing RCM programs, and is the author of The RCM Solution, A Practical Guide to Starting and Maintaining a Successful RCM Program.

Author Profile

Erin Gutsche, P.Eng., CMRP, is a reliability systems engineer at a world-class petrochemical facility. She is also the president of Words with Purpose, Inc., where she provides technical writing and editing services to engineering firms and industrial businesses.

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