September 30, 2020

Learning to lead while balancing a family

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Debbie Kempton has over 25 years’ experience in engineering, a son who’s recently started secondary school, and a career of exciting stories. We spoke to her about leadership in engineering and maintaining boundaries so you can have a family and other interests. Read on for tips and tricks on making your career work for you.

Over 25 Years of Exciting Projects

Working as a research assistant with a Masters in Aerospace Engineering, Debbie applied for and became the first new hire in 10 years at a company soon acquired by BAE Systems. She has now been with BAE Systems for over 25 years, and says she’s remained because,

“I’ve done some incredibly interesting things, from playing with explosives in the desert to secondments to business development, manufacturing and finance. In a company this size, you’re spoiled for choice; I’m never bored.”

Her career highlights included a Driver’s Rear Viewing Camera System, replacing tank brake lights with smaller LEDs and adding a camera, allowing tanks to see behind them before reversing and improving crew safety.

“We went from something that was an idea in a bid to full military qualification in nine months. That’s almost unheard of!”

“I also especially loved working at the US Army’s Explosive Standoff Minefield Clearance system. It was a great team, out in the desert blowing stuff up, the project was interesting, and I loved every minute of it.”

Now, Debbie is Head of Engineering Function, Air. She is also certified at the Program Management Institute and a Chartered Engineer.

For someone wanting an equally varied and interesting career, Debbie suggests trying everything,

“Because you never know. I would hate for someone to do the same thing for 20 years just because they’re afraid to try something new. We’re all going to make mistakes, but you’re always learning.”

Becoming a Leader

Engineers generally face a fork in the road when they choose between being deeply technical or moving into a business-oriented engineering management role. Debbie chose the management route, but says, “Engineers get promoted because they’re good engineers, but no one teaches them how to be program managers.”

For people following the leadership path, it’s important to maintain enough technical depth to be able to sense check engineers, project decisions and timelines, while building program management skills like estimating costs and schedules, critical path development, contingency planning, risk identification and mitigation.

There are also important soft skills to develop as a leader;
  • Recognizing that you are a leader and stepping up into that role.
  • Creating a clear vision and getting people on board.
  • Strong communication, because you interact with all contributors – engineering, technical authorities, program management, senior management.
  • Listening is critical, as people will come to you with problems and ideas, and you need to be able to hear what they are saying.
  • Managing difficult conversations.
  • Influencing, negotiation and mediation for teams in conflict.

There is also a key skill in recognizing if you can see a project going awry. The biggest failures happen when people think they are already too invested to stop a project.

Debbie has been building a family while building her career, and has an inspiring approach to balance.

Balancing Family and Career

When her son was born, Debbie took 6 months of maternity leave (BAE Systems typically offer 18 weeks fully paid, followed by 21 weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay). She initially felt guilty leaving work to do day care pick up or if her son was sick, then realized,

“I’m not going to live my life that way, or apologize for being me or having a family.”

Now, Debbie leaves work at 3pm to do school pickup and is back online at 4pm while her son gets some downtime. She told us a story of being on a conference call when the Itsy Bitsy Spider suddenly came blaring on, and everyone just laughed.

She has always laid out her requirements for flexibility around school pick up early on and it’s never been a problem, although she admits there are jobs that she has turned down due to a lack of flexibility or a requirement to relocate.

It can be scary to have that conversation with your manager about working flexibly, but Debbie had some tips to help get it across the line;
  • Be honest about what you can and can’t do.
  • If you face discrimination, raise it internally – “that’s the only way things are going to change.’’
  • Frame it with your intention that you want to do a good job and have some constraints around your life, so how can you manage it to be mutually beneficial.
  • Put the business case forward, explain how you’ll deliver the responsibilities and your plan to do it in reduced hours. You may also be saving the company money so be sure to highlight that!

We know working mothers are the most efficient workers, and Debbie is more focused and efficient being prescriptive around her working hours. Her boundaries around supporting her family are clear though; “I’m a hard worker, and I’m going to get it done. I would rather find a different job than work for people who couldn’t understand that my son is the most important thing. It’s not a rare thing for people at work to have children.”

The Future is Yours

To her younger self, Debbie would say;

“Don’t always accept the status quo. You can challenge it, and if you’ve got a different idea speak up. You never know what might happen. Nothing happens to you; you either let it happen or you choose.”

Looking back, she shares; “I love my career. I feel tremendously fortunate to have done as many different things as I have.”

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About the Author
WORK180 promotes organizational standards that raise the bar for women in the workplace. We only endorse employers that are committed to making real progress so that all women can expect better.

Looking for a new opportunity?

Our transparent job board only has vacancies from employers we endorse and lets you see what benefits, policies and perks come with the job.