Most people had an idea of their dream job as a child, but few will have taken steps as early as teenhood to make those dreams became a reality. Not so for Alice Williams, vice-president of services excellence at Schneider Electric.
“I completely knew what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “I was going to be a pilot.”
Williams was so set on taking to the skies that she applied for a flying scholarship with the military aged just 15. The application resulted in heartbreak: Williams was told, in no uncertain terms, that she was too short to be a professional pilot. Undeterred, she tried to elicit a growth spurt through a combination of exercise and protein shakes. When it didn’t happen, she had to reassess.
While she could not follow her dream, the army did see potential in Williams and offered her an engineering scholarship before her A-levels, which then became a university bursary. After studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Loughborough (and attaining her private pilot’s licence, because old dreams die hard) she spent nine years in the army.
“I’m a real product of the military system,” she says.
She worked in a variety of roles across intelligence, reconnaissance and engineering, as well as spending a couple of years in Brussels at NATO’s headquarters. But Williams reached the stage where she had to choose between a lifelong career in the forces or a new direction. She opted for the latter.
“I was leaving with this real excitement of not knowing what I was going to do, for the first time as an adult,” she recalls. “I think it’s one of the reasons I felt good about leaving. I was just genuinely excited about how many different options there were - so many industries, so many things to learn about,” she adds.
Adjusting to civilian life
Leaving the the military and rejoining civilian life is not an easy transition for many. The first step many ex-service people take is to enlist the help of an expert, who helps them translate their experiences in the forces to the outside world. For Williams, this turned out to be a more crucial step than she had anticipated as she found her new role directly through this process.
“The man I was working with on my CV happened to be the next-door neighbour of one of the members of the talent team at Schneider Electric,” she explains. The neighbours would often talk shop and it transpired that Schneider was looking to recruit from more unusual talent pools, including veterans.
“We started a very organic conversation about what a role for me could look like,” says Williams. “I’m always thinking about how I can add more value, so I tend to look left and right and say ‘I think I could do something here, can I build that into my role?’ and it has just grown from there.”
Now entering her fourth year with the energy management and digital automation specialist, Williams’s career path has been defined by this way of working: seeing where her expertise lies and matching that up to the organisation’s needs – and those needs are ever-evolving. The company, originally an iron foundry set up by a pair of brothers in 1836, has shifted focus a number of times over its 187-year history. It has been a manufacturer of heavy machinery, an electric engineering firm and, in more recent years, an automation expert and provider of data centre equipment and industrial software.
As vice-president of services excellence, Williams’s remit covers all operations functions, from project management, training and scheduling, to health and safety and supply chain. This love of complexity makes operations a good fit for Williams. She leads a 400-strong team where each function must work well on its own and with others in order for the organisation to meet its high standards.
“I love complexity,” says Williams. “This is partly a learned behaviour but I really thrive in chaos. If there’s something where it’s a bit complicated, we’ve got to figure it all out, we’ve got to bring the dots together and design something for the future, I like that – the messy, in-the-middle bit – and I’m very comfortable there.”
Managing a team and helping those in it develop is one of her favourite elements of the job. “Being short and being a woman, I might not necessarily be the poster child for leadership,” she says. “I was thrust into it in the army, but now I get a real kick out of seeing other people achieve their potential.”
The key attributes of a leader
Many people, Williams believes, are attracted to leadership for its public recognition. Williams, however, sees her position as a much more internal-facing one.
“The mission of a leader is to create vision and clarity so people understand the direction in which you want to go and that it makes sense for them,” she says. “The role is to set the conditions to allow change to bubble up from within the organisation, so it’s about understanding what’s important to everyone and giving them their own piece of that journey.”
This is particularly important at Schneider, where transformation is a constant and staying at the cutting edge of industrial technology is crucial.
In any organisation, but particularly one of Schneider’s size (it has more than 162,000 employees worldwide) an operations leader must be able to zoom in to look at the minutiae and zoom out. “You’ve got to be able to manage that top-end strategic vision but also have a preparedness to go into the detail,” says Williams.
You’ve also got to be willing and able to listen. Williams believes that “the more senior you become, the less you hear the truth,” so management becomes about keeping your ear to the ground, taking on board feedback and facilitating change. You cannot ensure smooth operations if you don’t understand exactly what is happening.
Finally, she says, leaders need self-awareness. “Increasingly, I’ve realised it matters more who I am being than what I am doing,” she says. “It’s very hard to fake an energy level for transformation, so you have to manage yourself really well and be honest.”
Coming out of the army required Williams to reassess what sort of worker and leader she wanted to be. It may not be the job she dreamt about as a child, but it is clear Williams has ended up exactly where she was meant to be.