Home DEI Lessons learned from taking the path less traveled

Lessons learned from taking the path less traveled

by The 100 Companies
Pam McGinnis

In May, we honor women who have taken on the job of motherhood by celebrating Mother’s Day.

When it comes to the regular workforce, women make up nearly half of U.S. workers, but represent just 27% in STEM fields, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

So, we interviewed a woman, mom and engineer to understand her path to engineering, overcoming adversity and navigating to a global leadership role at a Fortune 50 company.

Pam McGinnis, vice president of Global Marketing for Phillips 66, believes embracing inclusion and diversity is the key to unlocking creativity and solving the energy challenges ahead.

You’ve said before that engineering wasn’t necessarily your “natural path.” So how did you land on engineering as your field of study?

I say engineering wasn’t the natural path for me because I grew up in a rural, blue-collar environment with a generation of parents that hadn’t yet seen women in the workforce. We didn’t have a whole lot when I was a kid, and college just wasn’t something we ever talked about.

But I loved science and math, and I was good at it. And thankfully, as I was about to graduate from high school, a counselor challenged me and said, “You’re at the top of our graduating class. Where are you going to college?” And I said, “I don’t know, but I’d love to go.”

She provided great guidance and suggested the University of Arkansas, which was right in our backyard. She said, “You’re good in science and math, so you should try engineering.” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time, but I knew that it sounded right, and I wanted to try.

So, you suddenly went from farm kid to engineering student, to entering your professional career as one of the only women in the room, to now leading a global business for a Fortune 50 company. What were your keys to success?

I came from a family of hard workers. So, when I went to work as a professional, I was just focused on working hard. Many times, I was the only woman in the room, but at the beginning of my career, I didn’t even realize it, because I was so concentrated on the job and doing it well. About five years into my career, it finally hit me. That moment began to shape me in a different way. I suddenly had a new awareness of how important it was to be a champion to get other women into the mix.

About 10 years into my career, I knew leadership was the path I wanted to be on. I shifted my focus from trying to be an expert to being a good leader. I had always been willing to take on new and different challenges. I went from working as an engineer in pipelines to running retail gas stations, to being in corporate planning, to starting a truck and rail transportation business. I didn’t know much about any of those things, but I knew I wanted to grow my leadership capability. Because I was willing to take on all those different roles, I got the cross-company experience that helped position me for the job I have today.

How did you overcome that fear of the unknown as you ambitiously jumped from role to role?

I think I’m just naive enough or just dumb enough to not know I should be scared. But I also relied on other people to look out for me and not steer me in the wrong direction. Being humble and coming from a hard-working farming background where you just did what needed to be done helped me demonstrate flexibility and perseverance in my career. When I was a kid, if there was a fence to be built, we built a fence. If it was Saturday morning and dad wanted to plow up all the potatoes, we got up and plowed potatoes. It didn’t matter if you wanted to, you just did the job that needed to be done.

I vividly remember being asked to do the truck and rail job, and I didn’t know anything about semi-trucks or types of loads or rail cars or anything else. I’d seen trains go by my grandma’s house when I was a kid, but I didn’t know anything about that business. I didn’t hesitate to sit down with the people that worked for me and just say, “teach me.” If I would have thought, “Oh, they’re going to think I’m stupid,” then I probably wouldn’t have done it. For me, the natural thing to do is learn.

Are there any other skills that you gained as an engineer that have helped you be successful in your career and leadership journey?

In industrial engineering, you get to learn about business and economics, but there’s also a big focus on human factors and how people behave at work. That human element, that softer side of industrial engineering, is one that I’ve pulled on many, many times in my career.

There are also strategic and visionary skills that I bring to the table that don’t have anything to do with being an engineer but are a big part of my skill set. Being able to pull together a vision and strategy and get people focused on going in a particular direction together is important.

And obviously, engineers are extremely process-focused. We think about how things work best and most efficiently, and those skills are huge in just about everything we do. Engineers have an incredible ability to make order out of chaos.

Making order out of chaos, that’s a skill I’m sure you’ve mastered as a mom, too. We just celebrated Mother’s Day, and you are a mom of two young children. How have your career experiences shaped you in that role?

I was 25 years into my career before I became a mom, and that helped me realize that what I want most for my kids is for them to maximize their potential. I think if I would have become a mom earlier in my career, I would have wanted them to be really good at something specific and been very prescriptive in terms of my expectations of what they can achieve.

My job as a mom is to help my kids be the best they can be and to teach them that it’s okay to be who they truly are, no matter what that means. It’s similar to our company’s focus on inclusion and diversity. I want my kids to be able to bring their whole selves and to feel really good about what they’re doing, regardless of what passion they decide to pursue. And I want to get all the barriers out of the way so that they can achieve that. 

You’ve been a big proponent of inclusion and diversity at Phillips 66. Why is it so critical for the sustainability of all companies going forward?

Corporations are finally starting to understand that the workforce of today has different expectations than the workforce of 25 years ago. This generation doesn’t understand why we wouldn’t have an inclusive environment with all forms of diversity, because that’s just inherent in who they are. If we want to attract and retain top talent across organizations, then we must provide that environment. There is a real business case around inclusion and diversity, and it’s also just the right thing to do.

Mid-career, I was forced out of the closet at work. I had to suddenly share who I really was with colleagues, my boss, and everyone else. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t think it was safe to do that, but I had to do it, and so I did. What I learned is how differently I felt coming to work every day after that. I felt happier, more fulfilled, and more supported than ever. Being able to share and bring my whole self to the table made work more fun and enabled me to build better relationships.

I know there are a lot of other people out there today who don’t bring their whole selves to the table because they feel like they can’t. And I know they’re missing out on something. If we have an inclusive environment, and we value diversity, then we’re going to unleash all those people. We’re going to unleash all their creativity because if a person feels safe, they’re not afraid to share ideas. More ideas spur better business solutions and innovation. That’s how we’ll transform our company and our industry.

Speaking of innovation, what are you most excited about as Phillips 66 tackles the energy challenges in front of us? What will be the critical roles of engineers in the energy transition?

Without brilliant engineers, we won’t be able to find, develop and commercialize new forms of energy. We won’t get through the energy transition at the speed we need to if we don’t have a lot of technical know-how coming into this industry that isn’t afraid to challenge the way we’ve always done things and bring new ideas around emerging technologies and emerging energy to the table.

I’m excited about it because I think it’s so important for our company’s longevity, but also, we need to take care of our world. Reducing emissions is a good thing and will help make the world a cleaner and better place to live. I’m excited to see our company focusing on it and putting resources towards developing new and more efficient forms of energy. Being on the leading edge of innovation like Phillips 66 is, helps bring more great talent into the organization.

What is your advice for women who may be considering a career in engineering or in energy?

Women are smart. Engineering shouldn’t seem like an obstacle. Women can make a life-long career in energy. My story is the perfect example. I wasn’t afraid to do something that I hadn’t seen other people do or wasn’t considered the natural path for me. I would encourage everyone who has an interest in engineering to try it. You can always change and do something different, but you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t try. If you’re interested, explore it. There are many colleges and universities out there that want women and other underrepresented groups in engineering.

And as soon as you graduate, there are companies like Phillips 66 that are eager to hire the best and brightest engineering candidates. The industry is working to solve the greatest challenge in its history… providing energy to a world with growing demand while achieving a lower carbon future. The only way we can do that is to innovate. The only way to innovate is to have different perspectives. The only way to get different perspectives is to hire people with different backgrounds and upbringing, and gender, and race, and all those things. We need more women and people from all walks of life in engineering if we’re really going to solve energy challenges ahead.

– Nellie Betzen, The Engineering 100

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