Navigating a Male-Dominated Field: Melissa Searle's Journey at Laclede
About Melissa Searle
Melissa Searle, the Director of Product Management at Laclede Chain Mfg. Co., says she never would have guessed she'd end up in manufacturing, much less as a director at a company with 210 employees spread over three states in four locations.
“Manufacturing kind of just fell in my lap,” Searle said. “A recruiter with Laclede reached out to me after I graduated.”
Searle graduated in 2016 with a mechanical engineering degree from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri, located about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis. She is from St. Louis and after a few rounds of interviews, was hired to work in the company’s manufacturing plant in Maryville, Missouri, in the northwest corner of the state, 100 miles north of Kansas City, Missouri.
“When I got there, I had no idea this is how chain was made and the environment. It was the first time that I had ever been exposed to manufacturing in general,” Searle said. “I fell in love with the atmosphere of our plant and the idea that what I was doing on a daily basis could change and that I was going to be able to get a lot of different experiences under my belt in a short amount of time because I could be on a sales project, then I could be on a plant project. I could be on a random ISO (International Organization for Standardization) project. That kind of flexibility and being able to have hands in different aspects of our company was very intriguing to me.”
From there, Searle learned everything she could. She describes herself as outgoing, a rarity when it comes to stereotypical engineers. She started taking more and more sales questions and started to become a unique product engineer that her company was looking for.
“Melissa is an exceptional engineer. She listens to a customer’s and/or internal team’s challenges and then often comes up with a solution that solves their problem. She is technical and connects well with everyone she comes into contact with,” said Laclede CEO Tim Riley. “Those are exceptional, but what is the biggest thing for me is that she is able to take something very technical and translate it to a non-technical person. Then, she can take feedback and convert it back to adjust the technical specifications. It is a rare ability and she is really, really good at it. That is when Melissa is wearing a sales/engineer (individual contributor) hat.”
“About two years into my career, they moved me from Maryville back to St. Louis and created a position for me to be more focused on product design and more sales engineering,” Searle said. “From there, I started getting more involved in going on customer visits, going into different industries, and being a part of different trade shows and just fell in love with it.”
Leadership Development and Support
Her career continued to advance as she began to focus on her leadership skills. Laclede enrolled her in a business development program to grow her management style to help her take that next step. Searle says Riley has been supportive of her since day one, something she believes has been pivotal for her success and growth in such a male-dominated field.
“He’s very, ‘I don't see gender, I don't see anything. All I see is talent, and I want to grow that talent.’ So luckily my CEO has been very helpful and supportive of me over the years,” Searle said.
“My background includes working overseas for almost 10 years. Throughout my career, I worked with many different people from many different places and backgrounds. I find that we get better decisions when we have people of different backgrounds and points of view that share their ideas. That means different ages, genders, races, etc.,” Riley said. “The buzzword is DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), which I find a charged word. It is not diversity for diversity’s sake. I have truly experienced that we get better results when we have men and women both contributing to coming up with the solutions to our challenges. Manufacturing is mostly a male-dominated industry and space. I want to make it more comfortable for all people to work in this space and at all levels. We’ll get better results when we do. When we all look the same and come from the same experiences, we likely approach and solve the problems the same way. That’s simply not good enough in the current challenges we face as a society and as a manufacturing company trying to stay relevant. Not only will we perform better, we will also attract the best talent over time.”
Riley wants to make it clear. Laclede cares about bringing in different perspectives, but his people are where they are because of their talent and skills and not to hit certain numbers.
“Melissa is on my team and in her role because she is damn good at what she does and she is a trusted confidant for me and others on our leadership team,” Riley said.
Searle believes Riley has helped her excel by simply taking the time to sit down with her and listen. She sees that as something other executives can do to help foster and advance their female employees.
“In my opinion, actually listening to women, putting them in a room and hearing what they have to say and implementing what they have to say. Obviously, as a leader, CEOs can’t implement everything everyone says. That would be impossible but just having that conversation with them. Not just locker room talk with the guys, actually sitting down and having those conversations with women and hearing what they have to say would be helpful,” Searle said. “That's something that my CEO really did for me. He took a lot of time to talk about things like what I want to be and who I want to be as a person and as a leader, and he’s really taken the time to listen, get to know that, and then encourage me to take the different steps to get there.”
Boosting Confidence and Career Advancement
Confidence is key when it comes to being a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry. It’s also something women report struggling with. They report feeling like they have to work twice as hard for the same recognition as a man and that they aren’t allowed to make the same mistakes their male counterparts can or else they lose all reputability.
“I think the confidence level (of women in manufacturing) might start a little low, so if we can do anything, let’s boost their confidence and let them know they do have a career path here. I also think women are less likely to vocalize something than men are. I think men are very quick to say, hey, I want to grow. I want to be a manager, be a leader. I eventually want to own my own company. They're very vocal about it, where women I feel like tend not to be vocal, so just allowing them to see there is a path to whatever you want. Let’s map it and let’s build the confidence to get you there,” Searle said.
“I think it is very beneficial to just be able to sit down and see my career path with my boss. It has really helped me, because at first, I was like, there’s no way to grow. I’m going to be stuck in this role forever and instead, it was, let's put you in this business class. Let's do this. That vision that we built together helped me see that there was greater potential of what I could do in this company and in the manufacturing world.”
Knowing that the company’s CEO cared about her success at the company and believed in her gave Searle that initial boost of confidence she needed to keep moving up. Overcoming that initial lack of confidence Searle says has been a challenge building a career in manufacturing.
“Just that encouragement alone I think goes a long way, especially for women. For me, before it's always been, like hey, know your spot. Women don't get to grow. Women get held back a lot and so coming in with confidence isn't something that I've always had,” Searle said. “To have your CEO and to have people that love you encourage you to get involved really is helpful and builds your confidence.”
Even once she had more confidence in her abilities, Searle says it’s then a mental game of balancing the difference of perceptions her peers have of her as a woman. Research indicates that when females behave assertively, they are stereotyped as “aggressive” or “bossy,” whereas men showing similar traits of competencies are seen as “assertive” or “demonstrating natural leadership qualities.” This is known as the double-bind, which leaders should consider as it negatively impacts the success of not only the female individual but the team and company as a whole.
“I think my biggest challenge is getting over the fear that if I am vocal about my opinions, or I am vocal about whatever I want to be vocal about, that I could get called an (XYZ), or that I'm not ambitious like a guy would get called,” Searle said. “Getting over that fear alone has been a challenge for me because I don’t want to be labeled as that, I want to be ambitious. I want to be labeled as that go-getter, that self-starter.”
The Power of Female Role Models in Manufacturing
Searle says that something else that had helped her as a young woman starting out in her career is knowing that she wasn’t starting from scratch. Laclede has other female leaders she was able to look to and see that that kind of advancement was possible for herself. Lalede’s leadership team includes three women: the Director of Marketing, Crystal Miller; the Director of HR, Deana Juergens; and of course, Searle herself.
“Something that helps me a lot in Laclede is being able to see other women get into higher positions. I think that would be helpful to others too, being able to see more women in power and being able to have access to those women in power through mentorship or coaching,” Searle said. “I think it’s cool to see that it doesn’t always have to be the common roles like HR and sales for women. It’s cool to see a female engineer make that move. It’s not something you typically hear.”
“Our leadership team is made up of all my direct reports – CFO, COO, Director of Product Management (Melissa), Director of Marketing, Director of IT, Director of HR, and VP of Traction. Melissa is a vital member of this team. She is the facilitator of our weekly staff meetings – that means she runs the meetings and often determines what we cover,” Riley said. “She leads from the front. She has been a vital part of developing the values and purpose we have developed over the past few years. We have brought the work of Brene Brown (Dare to Lead) into our organization and she has been a key driver of this rollout. People all over the organization have changed their work and personal lives due to this influence.”
Searle says something people not in the manufacturing industry might not know is that her job is fun. She says she could see why women on the outside might assume a career in a male-dominated field would be a constant struggle, but that has not been her experience.
“I really enjoy being a part of this career, being a part of this company and the culture we’re building with this company, and being on that team to drive it. I would really love to see just more growth in me with this company and more growth in general. I think if you’re not growing, you're dying, that's kind of what I like to say,” Searle said. “As far as manufacturing, I feel like the chain world, the lifting world, the trailer world, it has a way of captivating you and not letting you go. It's very open and friendly and once you’re in, you're in. People are very accepting and just open to having those networking relationships with you outside and inside of work and really open to helping you in your career in general. I really enjoy that about manufacturing.”
Driving Product Development and Collaboration
As Director of Product Management, Searle is focused on product development. She and her team are currently working on making complementary products to chain such as fittings, hooks, etc. She enjoys bringing teams together for a smoother product design process. For example, she says sometimes engineers can get focused on what they want in the designs and not take into consideration what will work best for the manufacturing side. She likes to be that bridge and bring all the involved players together.
“What I love about my current role is just being able to be creative in the designs that I get to pick. Also, I really enjoy trying to bring multiple teams together and have that collaborative relationship and be that in-between between our manufacturing and our sales and get all parties involved to come up with the best possible solution for our customers,” Searle said. “I really try to get all teams involved and have that collaborative style relationship instead of just, ‘I’m going to take it from here’. I’m going to be that go-between person and instead, let’s just get everyone in the meeting and have a brainstorming session before we even start thinking of how to develop a product. I really enjoy being able to do that and having that flexibility.”
For the future, Searle says primarily she wants to keep growing. Maybe she’ll take on more responsibility. Maybe someday she’ll get to say she’s a female CEO in the field that challenges and continues to captivate her. She cares about leading and continuing to lift others up alongside her. No matter what she chooses, she says she’s going to run with it.
“I would eventually love to get into more being a mentor for different organizations or having something inside of our company itself where you promote mentorship to newer employees and bring them along,” Searle said. “I genuinely have a passion for helping people in general. Any place where I can step in to be a mentor to someone, or to give them advice, or help them along in their careers, I just genuinely want to see people succeed and create a culture where people can succeed.”
Laclede has been a member of NATM since 2000. You can find out more about them at www.lacledechain.com.
To submit article ideas or your own membership stories, contact Tracks Editor Samantha Darling LaCount at Samantha.Darling@natm.com.
Melissa is NATM'S September #WomanCrushWednesday!