The power of vulnerability for career success

January 15, 2023
Picture of Kerry Hancock, a senior leader at Mott MacDonald.

In 2020, Kerry Hancock gave an internal presentation at Mott MacDonald about the struggles she faced when she came out as gay in the early part of her career. 

And while the people who watched greatly appreciated her presentation, the most memorable reaction she got came about a month later.

Out of the blue, a graduate who was in the audience reached out to her. 

He told Kerry that she was the first visible gay leader he had met, and it meant a lot to him to see that.

This encounter surprised Kerry, and it made her realize the larger impact of her story.

“I don’t feel like being LGBTQI+ defines me, but I recognize that it’s important to be more open.”

This openness – this vulnerability – this willingness to put herself out there is exactly what has empowered her to succeed in her career. 

As Mott MacDonald’s Regional Development Director for the UK and Europe, Kerry knows all about the power of vulnerability – she’s demonstrated it throughout her life. 

On being openly gay

Coming out as gay may seem common today, but it was a different story just over a decade ago.

Kerry came out around the time she started working in Mott MacDonald almost sixteen years ago, and it took a while for her to feel completely comfortable about it.

“At first, it was just with my immediate colleagues, for no other reason than I wasn’t sure how people would react.

“Over the years, as I got more confident and as the business became proactive in promoting our equality, diversity, and inclusion strategy, I’ve opened up more.”

And over time, she found herself filling a bigger and more meaningful role.

“As a gay woman in the business, I feel like I have a responsibility to not just be a female role model, but also a role model for the LGBTQI+ community.” 

This isn’t to say everything came easily once she came out. 

Kerry had her share of tough moments in her personal life, moments that reverberated to her work. But the benefits of putting herself out there and being authentic have far outweighed the challenges.

“It can be uncomfortable. I don’t like being defined by my sexuality, but I’ve realized it’s important to share this more widely.”

With flexible working arrangements and an inclusive and anti-discriminatory culture, Mott MacDonald is leading the way for women in engineering and development consultancy.

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On being a generalist in a specialist industry

Kerry will be the first to tell you that she’s not a specialist in any particular field. 

“My background is in advisory services, which is quite unusual compared to others in similar positions who come from technical specialties. I’m more of a generalist.”

But this is exactly what makes her so valuable and such an asset to the company.  

Despite not being an engineer or technical expert, Kerry is able to lead teams in projects across the company’s vast spectrum of influence.

Whether it’s working with the Department of Education to build schools or overseeing projects in the water and energy sectors, Kerry has been able to manage projects and achieve positive outcomes for both sides.

“I became known for being good at growing relationships with clients.”

But it wasn’t just the clients she worked well with – it was also her teammates and colleagues in the company.

And it all boils down to her ability to genuinely connect with people, which stems from her willingness to be open and accepting of others’ ideas and emotions.

Vulnerability, after all, is the bedrock of human connection. 

So, as it turns out, Kerry does have a specialty that’s incredibly valuable: people.

On taking chances

Throughout her life and career, Kerry had moments of vulnerability and uncertainty that pushed her forward.

“I went to a pretty rubbish school. My history teacher once had me in a corner wearing a dunce’s hat. Horrific to think of now, I know.”

That didn’t stop her, though. She was the first in her family to go to university, graduating with a politics degree and later getting a master’s degree. 

But after a few years of doing corporate sales for a telecoms business, Kerry felt bored and lost.

She was at a crossroads. 

Fortunately, her openness to opportunities and her willingness to try anything paid off.

“I was referred to Mott MacDonald by a friend I went to uni with. She got sick of me saying how exciting her job was. She finally said, ‘Just give me your CV, and I’ll get you an interview.’ And that was it.”

Despite not being an engineer or technical expert, she jumped on the opportunity and flourished. She succeeded in the role, brought value to the company, and rose through the ranks.

Years later, however, she hit a career crisis.

“I did have a bit of a difficult challenge in my middle career. I didn’t know what my next step was. I nearly left the business.

“The reason I stayed was when I really thought about it, the variety of work is amazing – there’s so many different roles and projects. And I really had such great people around me who helped champion me into new opportunities.”

Kerry also realized that the culture and people at Mott MacDonald were different from others. 

“I’ve been championed by leaders within the business, and I was recognized and pushed to continually try new things and push myself.”

“Everyone who works here is fundamentally nice. I love the great values of the business. And I like feeling like I’m making a difference with the work we’re doing.”

In perhaps the most vulnerable moment of her career, Kerry remained open to all possibilities and ultimately chose the option that gave her more success and fulfillment.

On being a role model for women

As Kerry’s responsibilities grew as a senior executive, so did her impact as a role model for women.

She’s excited to see that things are much better for women in the industry today – especially at Mott MacDonald.

“As a woman joining the company, you’ll see many women in senior leadership roles.”

But she knows there’s still plenty of things to improve.

“It’s still a challenge to have more women in the engineering world. But the good news is that it feels very different now than when I started. I’ve seen a change and felt a change. But we have more to do.”

Given her record of setting an example and leading the way, we have a feeling Kerry will get it done.

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About the Author

Jacynta Clayton’s career started in recruitment advertising and employer branding, working with global clients to create and deploy strategic and creative content. Now she combines her industry experience with the knowledge from her psychology and professional writing degrees to write unique and resounding stories. As a WORK180 storyteller she relishes the opportunity to elevate the voices and experiences of so many amazing people, while also empowering and educating audiences on how to choose a workplace where they can thrive.

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