By Shan McMillon, ARA 2nd Vice President/Treasurer, Owner, Cocoa Auto Salvage
I have been in the automotive recycling industry for most of my life. I have seen it all and, quite frankly, at times it is challenging as a woman auto recycler. I love this industry with my whole heart. Those who serve alongside me throughout the years will tell you of my dedication to empower ALL of us to achieve our goals. Since this issue is dedicated to women in the industry, I appreciate Scott Robertson offering me this platform to share my thoughts on being an industry woman in leadership.
Lead for Impact
I truly believe most auto recyclers – no matter who – are doing their very best. Most people do not intentionally set out to diminish the opposite sex in the workplace. Yet, for women, being in a male-dominated industry has challenges that need to be directly addressed. I will attempt to share what I have learned, although this column probably isn’t enough space.
Unfortunately, society still imposes an underlying code of expectations into certain business environments, like the automotive sector. Without real efforts towards change, we default to predictable roles.
Women sparingly receive the credit we have earned and deserve. I must be blatantly honest: as women, our male customers, employees, vendors, and peers are still challenged to accept that ‘she’s the boss,’ ‘she’s the decision-maker,’ and ‘she’s the leader.’ I’ve experienced this time and time again. Most of the time I get a chuckle from it; but on a rare occasion it can be completely offensive.
In my career, I have had to make hard decisions to position myself so that it is not confusing to others who is the boss. Men do not have to position themselves as a leader, or even worry about being aggressive or competitive – people expect it.
Yet, I have had to temper my positioning so that it isn’t off-putting.
When it comes to earning respect, my brother used to say to me, “Don’t tell me about the pain, show me the baby!” He encouraged me to prove myself by doing. So, I encourage you also to do your best. You won’t always succeed, but often you will. You earn others’ trust in your leadership by showing them the baby you are building! That baby you worked so hard on, gave it life, made it happen!
My brother is right. My facility is my ‘baby.’ I do think you show people who you are by your actions, not by your words. People trust you when you lead with purpose and integrity. This is a relationship-dependent business, not authoritarian.
Ask for What You Want
There are so many women in our industry who have been designated for the office or bookkeeping roles merely because that’s historically what we did – what we were deemed “best suited” to do. Many women in our industry enjoy it and thrive in those roles. Hey, that’s where I started – but for me it was not by choice.
I was working with my dad in the office, learning salvage operations – which was what I really enjoyed and I should have focused on – when, after a family meeting, “we” decided that I would oversee the accounting department, while my brother managed operations.
At the time, I was agreeable to do whatever was best for my family. As women do, we tend to put other’s needs before our own. It was a real mistake for me personally to leave the hands-on learning of operations to take on the accounting role without voicing my true wishes to my family. I learned a valuable lesson: Ask for what you want, you may not get it, but at a minimum you voiced it.
Thankfully, I got the opportunity to move to operations – many years later – when my father wanted to retire, and my brother had other interests to pursue. I took an active role on the front lines, eventually taking over the business completely. In the beginning, was it intimidating? Yes, to say the least. But ultimately, I feared regret more than failure.
Continue to educate yourself. Be involved. Build relationships. The road is not always easy. There is still a degree of “good ‘ole boys club” operating. But as next-generation leaders come on board, this will surely diminish.
To all the fathers, brothers, uncles – look around! You may have the one that can lead your business to the next level right under your roof! As women, we often don’t ask for the opportunity because we don’t feel it’s even a possibility. It may be that you have not cracked open that door for your company’s women leaders. Your exit strategy may not be to sell but utilize a capable second- or third-generation woman family member!
I want to see more women raise their hand to lead. We all add value in different ways to the team dynamic. There is plenty of room for you. Will it be easy? No. Will you be accepted? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Will you be one of the guys? Probably not. You may be part of a tight community of leaders or a force to be reckoned with, but as a woman, you will be viewed as a woman. Does this diminish the respect you attain or the accomplishments you may achieve? Absolutely not. Don’t let this hinder you – instead, acknowledge it and move on to do great things.
In my years of service at the state level, and now the national level with ARA, serving alongside so many capable male leaders whom I respect and admire, I have found that there is sometimes a “brotherhood” aspect that has been challenging to work around. It is something that naturally occurs when guys hang out together (which women together also form).
Yet in the bonds that male peers share, at times it can leave women out of conversations that pertain to what we are doing as leaders of the association. It is certainly never intentional, but I’ve reluctantly had to share with peers how it impacts me as a leader and a person. Ultimately, I would find myself behind the curve, not knowing what’s happening or what’s being decided.
I’ve worked hard to have a seat at the table. I want to do my best. It was important to learn how to summon my fiercer side without coming across as bitchy. (Yep, that can be a struggle.)
On my leadership path, I have had to get over the feeling of loss of control in situations where I would not consider myself an expert on the subject. I have accepted that I don’t have to know everything! I have also come to understand that no one else is an expert on everything, either.
Sometimes I still wonder, though, “What in the world am I doing here and am I really good enough?” Those times are fewer and farther between now as I’ve built strong relationships over many years (it takes time) with many kinds of people in the industry who mentor me, encourage me, and guided me.
You may be asking, “How do I get started on my own leadership path?”
Get involved in our associations – go to meetings and volunteer for committees. Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. Growth and comfort do not co-exist. Be your authentic self. Be your best self. Don’t let people walk over you. Do your homework. Surround yourself with those who build you up. If you want to be taken seriously, act accordingly. Try, try again…
Take your seat at the table when you’re invited, and if you’re not invited, pull up a chair.
The bottom line is we need more women leaders in automotive recycling. We bring something very different and highly valuable to the table. You, too, will have your own lessons to learn. But in learning them, you become more confident in yourself and more accepting of others’ inefficiencies – which in my book makes you a great leader, period.