Life lessons from a corporate warrior

Written by ProfitGuide Staff

Can women have it all? “Yes” says Judith McKay, “just not all at once.” The chief administrative officer and general counsel for DuPont Canada learned that lesson after 20 years in the corporate world. Speaking recently in Toronto at the 21st annual Deloitte Women’s Spring Breakfast, McKay says there is no magic formula to finding balance. Women must create their own definition of “all.” “We all define what success is for us at various stages of our lives and careers,” she says. “It is within your power to be successful on your own terms.”

That lesson hit home when McKay and her husband decided to have children. As a new parent, she quickly learned about the great joy and challenges to raising children and to help juggle the workload McKay shifted to part-time work and later took a leave of absence. “Many people told me this would be the death knell of any career aspirations that I might have.” Instead, McKay found that taking time off with her kids didn’t hurt her career long-term because institutional memory is short. “A few short months after I returned from a 15-month leave of absence,” says McKay, “most people had forgotten I had been gone. You have to figure out what works for you and your family and do it.” Here are other life lessons from Judith McKay.

Starting out

“I excelled at math and science in school and was mediocre in English — the telltale signs of a future engineer. But I was very intimidated by the idea of pursuing an education in a male-dominated field and was terrified of failure. Trying to figure out how to avoid my fate, I said to my Dad, “I can’t be an engineer, I’m not mechanically inclined — I don’t even know how to fix my own bike.”

Life lesson: “The obstacles I faced were self-imposed. I am mechanically inclined — I just had never tried before. If you really put your mind to something, you can do it. My dad was my first mentor and still is a wonderful source of support encouragement and great advice. He believed in me. But at the end of the day ambition, determination and hard work got me through the grind of engineering studies.”

Macho macho man

“My first summer job I worked in a detergent and soap factory. I was the only female engineer. The male workers were nice people individually, but as a group morphed into a wolf pack that hooted and hollered every time I walked by. But the real challenge was the management team. I had been hired to “fill a quota” and they were not keen on having a girl on the team. They were always too busy to help me and when I tried to book meetings with them, they invariably would not show up. My line manager told me I was the best summer student they ever had in terms of technical capability and the quality of my projects. Nevertheless, he would never recommend hiring me back. I was ‘too feminine’ to survive in a plant environment.”

Life lesson: “There are some battles one person can’t take on by herself. I was an immature 21-year-old woman in a macho environment and had neither the experience nor the confidence to turn around an ingrained culture. Change the game to one that works for you. I chose to go into an environment where the deck was not so strongly stacked against me — and I’m glad I did. The factory was not an environment in which I could thrive at that early stage of my career.”

New challenges

“When I finished school, I consciously decided to seek work in a more amenable environment and an opening at a patent department in a law firm provided what I was looking for. One of the partners was a particularly fantastic mentor and with his support I passed the patent agent qualifying examinations with the highest standing across Canada.”

“When I first voiced my thoughts about pursuing a law degree many people discouraged me. Why would I want to forgo a secure job and salary? Nevertheless, I was restless and started looking for new challenges, and I jumped at the chance to work at DuPont as a patent agent. Less than a year later, two people encouraged me to pursue my dream — including DuPont’s then general counsel.

Life lesson: “If you really want something you should go for it. Getting more education opens many doors — I would not have achieved my current position without going back to school.”

Just do it

“My husband and I switched hats when the kids were school aged, and I pursued my career full speed ahead. An opportunity came up to lead the Canadian legal aspects of the sale of DuPont’s nylon business — a $4.2-billion dollar transaction. A daunting challenge? Yes, I had never led a mergers and acquisitions transaction. The project took about a year and I learned about the challenges and rewards of leadership and teamwork. Our team worked day and night to achieve what seemed like impossible goals.”

Life lesson: “It would have been very easy to say no to this opportunity. You can grow exponentially as a person by taking on more than you think you can handle. Too often we women underestimate our capabilities and are not willing to test the limit of our potential.”

Reach for the top

“I thought I had reached the pinnacle, but in the middle of the project my boss elected to retire and I was offered the chance to become general counsel. There was more. Once the transaction was over, our CEO asked me to consider a broader leadership role. A week or two into the job was enough for me to realize that this was an impossible job. For a while it got worse before it got better. I really had no significant experience about being a leader or a manager. Furthermore, my leadership style at the time didn’t mesh well with the rest of the management team.”

“I had just spent a year on a high-pressure project, which required negotiating and intense mental sparring. I went into the leadership team with the same fierce battle-ready attitude: shoot first, and ask questions later. When I realized things weren’t going as well as they should, I asked for coaching and got a wonderful executive coach who helped me understand myself and to adapt to my new role.”

Life lesson: “There are people who can help you continue to grow and mature and become a better leader — mentors, role models, coaches and teammates. You only need to seek them out. For the most part they are delighted to help.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com