A whisper at the top…
Kirsty has always held people as central to a company’s success, but as she progressed at BP, she realised it can be a challenge for management to stay connected to their employees’ needs on the ground. “It’s often said that a whisper at the top becomes a shout at the bottom, while a shout at the bottom becomes a whisper at the top. As I moved to more senior positions, I realised I needed ways to stay in touch with what was happening on the front line. What do the engineers and operators need and what are they actually thinking? Am I just being told what I want to hear? These were the questions I wanted to address so I could give my team the support they needed - to develop themselves and improve the plants/equipment they operated.”
This inclusive approach led Kirsty to change many things, from the introduction of Six Sigma (a management technique for process improvement) to the structure of meetings. Her aim was to ensure that the people with the most important ideas and concerns, rather than the loudest voices, were given an opportunity to express them. She also had a significant focus on her colleagues’ career aspirations. “I became a lot more sensitive to different approaches to career development – not everyone is as forceful as I can be! Some people find it hard to get themselves noticed and are quieter in the way they work and approach things. I was always looking for ways to make sure they were still recognised and supported in a way that worked for them and their approach.”
In her 26 years with BP, Kirsty worked in the UK, Asia and the US and managed teams in a number of different countries, always taking with her a genuine passion for supporting the development of her team members.
While working in the United States, Kirsty recognised a real need to introduce a mentoring system. With the help of her US colleagues, they set up a team of mentors and mentees from all levels of the organisation. “A real personal highlight for me is helping people to realise their capabilities and potential. For example, an experienced female colleague was doing her current job easily but was thinking about a sideways move rather than a promotion, as she felt she wasn't ready for that step up.” Kirsty went through different job descriptions with her and discussed why she would be well suited, but her colleague was still reluctant to apply. “After six months, she came back and said, ‘you were right, I could have done that job and I would have been good at it’. She eventually went on to get a different job in a higher position, which was really brilliant for her.”
As well as supporting mentoring schemes, Kirsty feels it’s important for more staff, particularly women, to have a sponsor in their company. “A sponsor is someone within your line management who knows your career aspirations and supports and encourages you to progress in your career,” explains Kirsty. “They should be talking about you to senior leaders and suggesting you for roles, promotions or projects aligned with your aspirations. They have the power to influence your progression and make sure you get recognition for what you're doing. It’s important for people to have both a mentor and a sponsor. In my experience men are generally more likely to ask for a sponsor than women. They can see that need for recognition and championing, whereas women often expect this to happen organically and if it doesn't, they see it either as lack of support or a failing of themselves.”
Women into Manufacturing and Engineering
In her current work as chair of Women into Manufacturing and Engineering, Kirsty is working with companies in the Hull and Humberside area – including Siemens, Airco and Spencer Group – to encourage more women to take up roles in locally based firms.
Manufacturing contributes 17% of employment in the Humber region, compared to 8.7% for England generally, but despite the high demand for people with STEM qualifications, women are still under-represented. Kirsty wants to support more women to take advantage of the opportunities available on their doorstep.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from women returning from career breaks or looking to change careers. We also see women who've moved to the area from abroad with their families and already have an engineering or STEM background but don't know how to access the roles in the Humber area.”
Kirsty has also been working with local schools, giving talks to students about her career. This gives Kirsty the opportunity to dispel some of the stereotypical ideas about male and female careers. “I try not to just focus on the technical side of my job but also mention some of the other exciting things I’ve been able to do as part of my work, such as learning Korean and travelling to offshore platforms in helicopters. It can help to bring the story to life a bit more.”
“I’d like to do more work with careers advisors in schools; they often don’t get enough information on the huge range of jobs available in manufacturing and engineering. Students tend to be told that there are lots of jobs you can do with a background in chemistry but more guidance is needed to help people narrow these down so they can see how their qualities and priorities fit into the field.”
Supporting recognition in industry
Kirsty feels she can bring more of an industry perspective to our Inclusion and Diversity Committee and is particularly keen to encourage more people from industry to apply for our prizes and awards. “In industry, it can be hard to know whether you can apply for prizes and awards because the lines between what’s chemistry and what’s engineering/manufacturing are blurred. We need to make it easier and more inclusive for industrialists.”