Thriving In A Male-Dominated Industry: Zillah Doyle, Mechanical Engineering Ventures

Zillah Doyle is an Expert Senior Executive and has a proven record of delivering strategic growth in global organisations and is CEO of Mechanical Engineering Ventures. Zillah is able to manage multicultural, multidisciplinary teams to achieve competitive targets, aimed to consistently meet and exceed customer expectations.

As Zillah was a regional winner of our International Business of the Year Award (Yorkshire, North East & Scotland) we caught up with her and asked about her experiences so far.

How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in today?
I had a passion and talent for maths and sciences, and my sports background meant I fancied being a physiotherapist - but that was considered not challenging enough by my parents and teachers, so medicine was my chosen career path. Then came the dreaded work experience week, always a challenge for parents to find a suitable placement! My father worked in a large engineering firm with a full-time medical centre and an on-site nurse, so this was selected for my work experience. However, I became fascinated by the actual engineering company, the people and what they did (not the medical centre!). This was a huge turning point for me.  Very quickly my University applications changed and my career direction was decided. And I have never regretted it!

I was fortunate to secure sponsorship, which dictated a year in industry prior to attending Leicester University, where I had a wonderful time.  Five girls on the course with a hundred boys.  I only ever struggled when they used car technology for reference!

What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I still get a little tingle every time I do the wage run, the fact that we have been able, in less than a year, to employ so many really good people, and in some cases, make real differences in their lives. From the 19 year old work experience student, studying English that had no idea what he wanted to do, who is now doing extra college hours in order to be able to start an Engineering degree course in September, to the retired senior engineers working for us part-time to pass on experience to younger team members. The only downside for me, and this shows my job is fairly neat, is that it doesn’t allow me to be fully stretched.  I left a role running 12 sites globally to set up a business of my own.  This means more time for family and lots more flexibility but not always as mentally stimulating. I recognise this and the responsibility sits with me to seek out further opportunities to develop myself.  Next year I hope to pick up some Non-Executive positions and maybe do some more mentoring work.

What is most important to you and your organisation - mission, vision, core values? Why?
For me everything flows from your core values and morals, these drive and are behind every decision you make, either consciously or subconsciously. Strong leaders are those who are very clear on what they believe. If you are very clear and communicate your values well, your team will know what the right thing to do is. Then these values flow into your mission and vision. For example, this decides whether your mission is very profit orientated or whether you want to set up a legacy for others, assist charitable organisations etc.

Can you give us examples of any common stereotypes you come across as a successful female leader?
I recently came out of a really successful pitch with two male colleagues. I had written and presented the pitch with my colleagues giving their input.  Afterwards, we were having lunch with the clients on a bit of high as it had gone so well, when the client said to me “I get what your colleagues do, are you here to make everything look pretty?” We got the order and his attitude sadly didn’t improve.  I still very quietly run the project but with a male face to the customer.

When you’re considering partnering with another person or business, what factors are deal-breakers for you?
Your choice of partner/s is so important.  Talent and experience are vitally important but the key for me is that we have the same morals and sense of right and wrong.  We have to have each other’s backs completely, nobody gets it right all the time, but we work together to fix the issues. I trust my partners completely, I have known them a long time and history shows they have my back. We don’t always agree but we know each other very well and know what is important to each other and when to let it go.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Leaving my role as CEO of the engineering company I worked for and setting up with my partners in 2016! I had always wanted to be a CEO and I had made it in a very male-dominated field. I didn’t, however, find the particular field of engineering challenging and knew I wanted to stretch myself more. But leaving a role with an excellent salary and job security was a real leap of faith for me and my family.

On average, how much sleep do you get each night?  Is it enough?
I am one of life’s early risers!  Which is handy as my husband gets up early to avoid the traffic and despite his protests to the contrary he is very noisy!  I have always used the early mornings to catch up on emails and make my work list for the day, then domestic chores before the children wake up.  Time for any working mother is precious and filled with guilt, and squeezing in proper quality time with children is key.  My team particularly like my morning baking sessions with the kids before nursery/school resulting in a cake in the morning meetings!  This being said, I like my sleep and get to bed around ten, for my seven hours. I mastered very early being able to sleep and focus on issues the next morning.

Do you think it is more important to be liked or to be respected?
Through the various phases of a business you may not always be liked but if your team believe in your capabilities and you communicate well it should allow it to be possible for you to be respected.  We spend a large amount of our time at work and at times make large sacrifices for our companies so it is very important to me that my employees enjoy what they do and that we have fun, and ultimately this will give you better results.

What is your ‘Super Power’?
Self-evaluation is hard, but talking to my team my Super Power is Patience and Impatience in perfect balance! Throughout my career, I have been very keen to learn from other people’s strengths and weakness.  However stressed or busy I am, if someone visits my office they should get my attention, either in a polite “really sorry I can’t help you now and I will get back to you”, or turn everything off and listen.  I get paid to be stressed not them!  I am happy to explain and re-explain until everyone gets it and it is my job to understand what makes each member of my team tick.  The flip side of this is if I have an idea or a plan I am probably going to want it done yesterday!  And I will make it happen!

What is your motto in life?
My Motto has always been trying to do something scary every day!  I don’t always manage it, but it is a great motto to live by.  I am not at my best in a steady state - to get the best from myself I need to keep raising the bar!  I have, on several occasions, left really good jobs and gone into the unknown in completely different fields to push myself!

What are you most proud of?
British Engineering is very important to me, we have an ageing knowledge base and it is very important we encourage people to go into engineering and then to develop them.  We have started a new engineering firm in the UK, which is something I am very proud of. Engineering has been very kind to me and allowed me to travel the world.  I genuinely love what I do.  I reinstated the apprentice scheme in my previous company and one of my first apprentices is now in his late 20’s and working in my new company.  We are only a small company but last year we had a university student on placement, and currently have an apprentice who is keen to progress and will now be starting University in September 2018.

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