As a young single mother who hadn’t finished high school, Susan White joined Alcoa as an ‘admin temp’, (and worked a second job bartending in the evening) to “buckle down” and provide a home for her two children.
Further education was the last thing on her mind. She had no time for pipedreams like that. At least that’s what she thought.
But her manager at Alcoa, Michael Keep, immediately saw something special in Susan. He suggested she consider a university degree, and her life has never been the same since.
“Alcoa saw my potential before I did”
“I didn’t think I was ‘smart enough’ to go to university. After all, I had not even completed year 10! But my manager could see what I was capable of – even when I didn’t see it. He showed me what I had to offer – and how Alcoa could help me develop my potential.”
After securing a permanent role in HR Shared Services, her manager helped Susan enroll in an undergraduate degree in Training and Development (now Organizational Behavior) that worked around her family commitments.
“A university degree was not something I could have even contemplated, but Alcoa fostered my desire for learning by supporting me through my degree.”
Learning and development that helped her flourish
Over the next few years, Susan progressed rapidly at work, first moving into a recruitment position, and then delivering training in refining operations. Along the way she found herself learning more and more about the processes and different roles, people had within the projects.
“I loved it and I flourished! I loved working with these incredibly talented engineers in the central team and breaking down what they were building into something that even I could understand, and then sharing that with others in operations. I still consider the people I worked with then to be some of the best at what they do in the world – and that is no exaggeration.”
Following her degree, Susan was further supported by Alcoa in completing postgraduate studies in Business Administration and Human Resources Management.
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The rewards of her career and studies
Susan’s journey has taken her from a temporary assignment in a single operating location to being a Senior Consultant in a global corporate role providing services across all business units. Her studies and experiences have helped her identify where her professional interests and unique skills lay.
“I found I was able to join the dots and bring people together with the global central team. And partnering up with others ALWAYS got better results!”
Susan says the most rewarding part of her role was seeing “how empowering people and including them in the running of the business enabled them to step up.” She says, “people who were considered to be ‘troublemakers’ became ‘champions’,” and through collaboration and bringing people together they were able to transform their careers.
“I saw people experience pride, receive promotions, gain qualifications, enjoy recognition, and feel supported – all because they were given the opportunity to step up. It changed their lives!”
Following a split in the business, Susan was transferred to Corporate IT and says she is now on a learning journey again, learning about the enterprise side of Alcoa’s business.
“At 55, and a grandmother of three, I am really excited that I am not considering ‘winding down’! I am looking at where else, and who else’s life within Alcoa, I can make a difference – just like Alcoa did for me.”
Alcoa is a truly diverse company
Aside from supporting her through her professional and educational development, Susan is also grateful to Alcoa for their culture of diversity and inclusion. With offices based around the world and teams made up of international employees, Susan says Alcoa “really celebrates everyone’s differences”. She says there is respect between roles, which builds trust and openness. Susan says outsiders are often surprised by how connected the teams are, even though Alcoa is a global organization.
“Working with global teams, we celebrate our differences. There are some embedded behaviors that I think are really valued, such as acknowledging a holiday when on a call with attendees in another culture/country or greeting someone in their native language. Even our quirks are embraced. We are encouraged to bring our whole self to work, and that uniqueness is what makes the teams special.”
Susan is also proud of Alcoa’s LGBTQ+ equality action group EAGLE, also known as Employees at Alcoa for Gay and Lesbian Equality. Susan says, “EAGLE creates a safe environment for people to be themselves at work, helping promote a culture that is not judgemental and where inclusiveness is part of our DNA.” And it’s just one of the many reasons Susan continues to love working at Alcoa.
“Diversity is a gift. It enables broader thinking and innovation. You can have a much richer life by not judging others and being open, by embracing and learning from those who have a different story to tell. I love that Alcoa is not full of ‘sameness’, and our differences foster better results for the business.”
Susan’s takeaway: It’s OK if you don’t have a plan
Susan is keen to remind people not to panic if you don’t have a five-year or ten-year plan with clearly defined professional goals. She says her own career blossomed through the help of her leaders and by following her interests.
“My career was not planned and there weren’t any formal ‘promotions’. I just recognized where there were needs, went to people I trusted and shared my thoughts and together we went from there.”
After 21 years with the same company, Susan is showing no signs of leaving. But with the support and encouragement she has received and the career growth she has achieved, she asks why would she choose to be anywhere else?
“Alcoa pushed me to grow and were kind and patient enough to encourage and coach me. If you’re willing to put in the work, Alcoa will help you flourish and realize your capability – they did it for me!”