A well-examined career: How Laurie Swami made it to the C-Suite in a male-dominated industry
With the help of Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge, Human Capital Solutions, Laurie Swami landed the role of President and CEO of The Nuclear Waste Management Organization. Here she offers advice for other women looking to move up the ladder.
By Hailey Eisen
In the nuclear industry, where less than 20 per cent of the workforce is female, encountering a woman in the role of President and CEO doesn’t occur very often. But Laurie Swami, who became the President and CEO of The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) November 2016, believes the tides are turning.
While the nuclear industry may be disproportionately male, Laurie says she’s seen a significant shift over the duration of her 30-year career, most of which was spent working for Ontario Power Generation (OPG).
“When I started in the industry there were concerns around radiation exposure to women, but radiation was and continues to be safely managed and posed no more of a threat to women than men,” she says. “That myth was dispelled and soon there were many great opportunities for women.”
With an Engineering Chemistry degree, Laurie believes that to achieve success in STEM-related industries (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the key is to balance the technical skills and knowledge achieved through training and education with “softer skills.”
“When people think about STEM professionals, they often think of individuals like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory,” she says, adding that, in real life, you need more than a high IQ to achieve success in the field. “You also need to be able to develop strong emotional intelligence.”
One of the greatest challenges in her own career has been adjusting to each new level as she’s climbed her way up the metaphorical corporate ladder. She’s had to learn not just how to manage people, but more importantly, how to lead them. Laurie recalls when she got her first job as a supervisor, for example, she was advised that instead of trying to do everything herself, she needed to learn how to develop other people and empower them to do the work.
“As you move up, your behaviours need to change and the way you work must evolve,” she says.
Lisa Knight, Executive Search Managing Partner at Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge agrees. “In our experience, the most successful leaders are those that recognize the value of soft skills. They’re inherently self-aware, emotionally intelligent and great at communicating and motivating. At the same time, they recognize there’s always room for improvement and are constantly searching for new ways to strengthen existing skill sets,” she says.
“The most successful leaders are those that recognize the value of soft skills. They’re inherently self-aware, emotionally intelligent and great at communicating and motivating.”
As a mother of two university-age daughters, one studying medicine and one mathematics, Laurie has no problem serving as a role model for women in STEM. To those young women who look to her for advice, Laurie says the key to success is fairly simple, but not easy: “You have to be willing to work hard, dedicate yourself to the goals of the organization, constantly develop your skills and be committed to lifelong learning.”
Prior to joining NWMO as President and CEO, Laurie was working as Senior Vice-President of Decommissioning and Nuclear Waste Management with OPG where she was responsible for implementing OPG’s low and intermediate-level nuclear waste deep geologic repository and overseeing operation of nuclear waste management facilities. Moving into a new organization and joining the C-suite meant a significant shift in the way she thought about things.
“The President and CEO role is a lot more strategic and aspirational, which is why it appealed to me,” she says. “But in the recruitment process, I realized I had to change my approach to demonstrate that I possessed those skills.” Throughout the process, Laurie says she focused on thinking through her own desires and values and demonstrating how they matched those of the NWMO.
“You have to be willing to work hard, dedicate yourself to the goals of the organization, constantly develop your skills and be committed to lifelong learning.”
Since taking over at NWMO in November, she’s focused on boosting the company’s internal communications, highlighting the important role the organization’s employees play in the company’s success and encouraging them to work collaboratively toward a common goal.
“I ascribe to a participatory style of management, I like to listen to what others are saying, to engage them in dialogue, and move forward together,” she says.
Under Laurie’s leadership, the NWMO will continue to develop and implement — collaboratively with Canadians — a management approach for the long-term care of Canada’s used nuclear fuel that is socially acceptable, technically sound, environmentally responsible, and economically feasible.
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