CSMO Jessica Martin-Lane reflects on mentorship and being a woman in engineering

CSMO Jessica Martin-Lane reflects on mentorship and being a woman in engineering

WithersRavenel’s Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer Jessica Martin-Lane has been in the engineering industry for more than 20 years. In that time, she has had the opportunity to learn from both professional and personal mentors, many of them women. She shares some of the thought-provoking questions her mentors have asked and her answers, as well as guidance on how to identify a possible mentor and find the next step in your career path.

Over the past month, we have been spending a lot of time at WithersRavenel talking about women in engineering and the role that mentorship plays in a person’s personal and professional career development.

As a woman in engineering, I can honestly say mentorship has been not only present, but also played an invaluable role in helping to shape me into the person and leader that I have become today. For me, mentorship has been more informal and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes throughout my career.

But the one mentor that has been a constant for me has been my father, Dennie Martin. Now, I know what you all will say, that your father isn’t really a mentor; but honestly, he has been. And many of you who know my dad will also say that he has also been a mentor to you as well.

For me, mentorship started at the age of 17 when I was headed off to college and had the lofty dreams of being an architect or a dancer. Dad was there with the sage advice of “you will starve to death.” However, this counsel was quickly followed up with a challenge, where he asked me to think about three questions before deciding what I wanted to study:

  • What was I good at?
  • What did I enjoy doing?
  • What will there always be a demand for?

You see, I was that kid who took things apart just to see how they worked and then figured out how put them back together. I was also a great problem-solver and I loved to find better and faster ways to accomplish tasks and objectives. In school, my best subjects were math and science, and I had a passion for animals and the environment. Put all of these things together and I naturally found my way to the field of engineering. Engineering seemed to check a lot of the boxes for what he challenged me to think about.

Fast forward many years later, to the recession of 2007–08, when he taught me tools and tricks to keep our family business afloat as we navigated rough waters—skills which I must say are coming in very handy into today’s economic rollercoaster environment. And then, once again a few years ago, when I was facing one of the hardest decisions to make, I came to him and said, “Dad, I think it is time to sell the family business.”

At every step along the way, he has been there for me to patiently listen, challenge my questions and my thinking, and help me navigate to the right decisions and outcomes. He never told me what I wanted to hear, he never told me what to do; he simply challenged my thinking, which expanded my horizons and helped me consider and weigh all the possible options.

Mentorship comes in all shapes in sizes.

Another way that I have seen mentorship shape me is through the presence of strong women leaders who served as role models in my life. Throughout my career, women have helped foster my leadership potential and navigate the challenges of rising through the ranks in a predominately male environment. One of the most memorable times in my career was during a period where I worked for a high-growth human resources startup called Exult. During this time, I had the honor of serving under Barbara Williams and Maureen Scholl. While each of these women had very different personalities and leadership styles, they both helped me learn and grow in ways that I would have never imagined.

Barbara was a tiny little powerhouse of a woman who never took no for an answer. She continuously pushed all of us to do more and be more, not only for ourselves but for the company. Nothing was off limits for Barbara—personal or professional—and she was an amazing role model for how hard work and tenacity pays off.

Maureen, on the other hand, led with a much softer approach. She, too, always encouraged me to stretch beyond and do more. She would put me in stretch roles and then support me to be successful.

Both of these amazing women enabled me and allowed me to serve the organization to my potential and was not based on my age, past experience, or my current position. And, more importantly, they allowed me to learn, grown, voice my opinion, and make mistakes in a safe environment.

Two other noteworthy women that have shaped my career are my mother, Kaye Martin, and Kris Bunnell. From an early age, my mother set the example that it was okay to have a career and have a family. Both of my parents, coming from very meager upbringings, challenged me to strive for more and work hard at everything you do.

In recent years, Kris Bunnell has served as a phenomenal example of a woman CEO that gracefully navigated the challenges of leading rapidly growing organizations, attempting to balance work with life, and dealing with this thing us working moms refer to as “mom guilt.” While there is no such thing as work–life balance, Kris was a great example of how you can be a mom and still have a fulfilling and rewarding career. She is also an amazing creative and innovative entrepreneur that focused on continuously evolving her companies and her sales models.

All of these women served as excellent mentors by motivating, setting a great example, and being compassionate and genuine.

I would be remiss in talking about noteworthy mentors in my career if I did not mention a few others like Steve Unterberger, Mike Salvino, Bob Crites, Kevin Campbell, Colin McGinnis, Hoyt Hackney, Alan Lane, and Eddie Staley. Each of these gentlemen were and are highly passionate individuals who exhibit great enthusiasm in their fields of work. They are all extremely hard workers, innovative and creative, and dynamic leaders.

While they each interacted with me from different viewpoints—boss, client, peer, employee, husband—one common theme was that each of them was willing to share his skills, time, knowledge, and expertise to help me excel, grow my career, produce meaningful results in my work, and be a better person. They also made time for me and showed an interest in my development. Each of these mentors were also willing to have the tough discussions and provide very open and honest feedback, even if I didn’t want to hear it.

As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, I encourage all of you women in engineering to think about your career objectives and the role that mentorship can play to help you achieve goals. I also encourage you not to overthink it, but instead consider some key criteria:

  1. In what areas do you feel like you need to grow? Who do you know that does these things today and would be a good resource to learn from?
  2. Whose job would you like to have in the next ten years?
  3. Who do you look up to? Do you have a role model where you currently work?
  4. Who do you respect or see as a leader in the areas you see yourself going?
  5. Who do you connect with? A mentor doesn’t have to be your friend, but you do need to be able to connect with them and speak openly and honestly.

Finally, to all of my mentors mentioned above, thank you! Whether you knew it or not, you made a difference in my life, my career, and my personal and professional development. You have all touched my life in different ways, and for that I am eternally grateful.