Reaching the top: Luck, competence and teamwork

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Diane Creel
Diane Creel
Diane Creel
Diane Creel

Linda Mastaglio interviewed Diane Creel (referenced in a BusinessWeek profile here) for a recent SMPS Marketer issue. Creel, now retired, broke several barriers beyond her gender to achieve her career success. She was a marketer without professional engineering qualifications, who rose to lead billion-dollar, multi-branch engineering companies as chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

Creel retired in 2008 “and now lives on a  300-acre ranch near Fredericksburg, TX, with her 12 horses, a herd of longhorn steers, and champion mules (yes, one of her mules was a world champion two years ago,” Mastaglio writes. “Dianne has never been shy about her beliefs.”

Creel starts out with one of the basics. You can’t do it alone.

“If you want to move beyond marketing, I think the first thing you have to have is someone to give you that opportunity — someone who sees beyond your capability in marketing,” Creel said in the interview. “We get put in our box, and we don’t have time, energy or effort to get out of that box to learn about other aspects of the firm. . . . If you want to progress into new areas of your company, get out of your box, even if it’s on your own time, and learn about other aspects of the business. Just do it. Then, when opportunities do arise to work in higher positions, you have a foundation.  Show your firm’s leadership that you have a passion for their business, that you can offer them more than they realize.”

Of course, you need to have some luck to create that opportunity — or you need to move to an environment where it can exist. In Creel’s case, she ascended in part because the engineering practice was set up with an overall holding company and different branches. The branches were led by engineers, but the holding company didn’t have that professional requirement. This allowed her to work outside the conventional “box” of a professional practice, where the leadership and culture — and opportunities — were defined by professional designations.

“It was different in our company,” she said. “Marketers and women managers were held in high esteem — no ceiling for either in our company. We attracted the best talent, because they wanted to work for us, because they knew they would be respected. When I started in the industry, marketers were second-class citizens and were for many years. In some firms, that may still be true.”

These observations lead to some other insights that may be helpful for both businesses and individuals seeking to break out of the mould and achieve greater success.

As a business, can we design/manage our organization so that competency, not stereotypes, really define the opportunities?

This is easier said than done, I realize. First, once a business achieves a certain culture or dynamic, it is really hard to change. I think, however, we can design selection and management criteria to ensure objectivity and encourage diversity. (Our own business uses a competency working test rather than interview system to evaluate potential employees and contractors; ironically, two of our most successful recent hires included something of an opposite situation — the potential job-seekers interviewed others (former employees/clients) before applying. Once the candidates received positive reviews of us, they were ready to join the team. We then tested them with some working projects, and they passed the evaluation quickly.

As an individual, can you look beyond your current scope and see the bigger picture, and contribute accordingly?

I think this is easier said than done, in part because we have other life responsibilities beyond work. How do we find the “extra time” to connect and interact beyond our direct work-related responsibilities, especially if we have family considerations (and in many cases, exceptional challenges, perhaps with aged parents or children needing special attention and care)?  The answer here is to combine practicality with flexibility, I think. With one exception, our business allows the employees to have as complete work-life freedom as possible, with home-based offices and flexible hours/schedules. The exception, the office administrator, needs to work in our physical office, although I’m sure she would be happier if she could work from her home. I weighed the costs/benefits of allowing her this extra freedom, and considered that the business needs a reliable focal point to ensure communication and stability — but of course she can take off time when required for urgent personal needs.

One piece of good news, I think, is that many other businesses have succeeded in understanding the diversity message. We’ve been profiling “women in construction” stories for the past few months in several regional and special interest publications. The offer of editorial features describing the women’s success has proven surprisingly successful — businesses that are leading the way in applying diversity in their hiring/management policies want others to know about their success.

Diane Creel may have been a pioneering women CEO in engineering practices. I think the trend will continue, if both employees and employers remember the importance of luck, competence, and teamwork — and are ready to reach beyond their stereoptypes.

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