Communicate clearly and effectively: Regular communication will not only increase engagement and productivity of team members, but also foster trust between them as they start to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses. If you want to be appreciated as a leader and a valuable team member, communicate frequently, effectively and express your opinion with humility.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Annie Torikian.
Annie Torikian serves as director of Delivery Management, Enhanced Business Solutions for supply chain technology firm, Tecsys. She began her career as a software developer, and over the past 30 years, has expanded her technical expertise and leadership skills. Her love for mathematics and problem solving, combined with a passion for music, led her to major in computer science and complete a piano diploma simultaneously. As an avid volunteer, enthusiastic public speaker and a believer in giving back to the community, Annie has held various positions on boards and committees, participated in panel discussions and lectures. Among these, Annie participated in a panel discussion about “Women in Technology” hosted by The John Molson Supply Chain and Business Technology Association (JSBA), where she counseled young women in their pursuit of a STEM career, commented on the progress women are making in the technology workplace, and provided insights on the future of the industry from her perspective as a bona fide leader in the field.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was young, I dreamt of being an astronaut. Growing up in Lebanon in the 1980s meant that this was a rather fanciful dream, but the idea of pushing the boundaries of science and technology was with me from a very early age. See, during most of my high school and university years, albeit a beautiful country, Lebanon was tainted by a civil war that lasted decades and deeply impacted our lives. When I was in my last high school year, Beirut, the capital, was divided into east and west, and crossing the divide was a heroic journey at times. And amid that national chaos, universities offered limited options to students who wanted to pursue their education, and astronomy was not on the list.
I was born into a family with a rich Armenian culture and a strong tradition of excellence in education. Despite ongoing struggles, bombardments, and everyday challenges, going to school and staying in school were never questioned. I remember clearly sitting in the back seat of my mom’s car, going home to the east side, and having a conversation with one of her friends who was riding along with us. We were discussing universities, possible majors, and the options that would be interesting to math lovers like me. He was talking about computers, technology and the role they’ll be playing in the future… That was it! My mind raced with the possibilities of what this new field could portend. That’s when I decided I’d go into computer science, a relatively new major in those years.
It wasn’t particularly a lengthy decision process, but rather one that just ‘clicked’ and made the most sense to me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I’ve been at Tecsys for 23 years, and it has been fascinating to witness from the frontlines the evolving nature of our business, the now thriving role of women in STEM, and the manner with which we all come together in moments of crisis; but what resonates for me the strongest is the indelible compassion with which this company treats every employee.
For me, this came to light just three days after accepting my job offer at Tecsys, when I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I was a little embarrassed, but I had to call HR to inform them. A little hesitant and uncertain of their reaction, I wondered how this would impact my career. It was a great relief to hear congratulatory words; nothing would change in our agreement, and I was of course still welcome at Tecsys. I later realized that this was a reflection of the deeply prevailing inclusive culture at Tecsys, a great family-oriented company that recognizes talent, and values individuals for their hard work and skills.
It is a feeling that will stay with me forever because in a moment of great vulnerability, my new employer gave me confidence that I could thrive both personally and professionally without compromise.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the funny mistakes I’ve made in my career as a developer was coding an infinite loop. An infinite loop in programming is when your code executes endlessly, and never stops unless an external intervention occurs. It usually is the result of bad design.
But that’s what dragged me into one of my first white nights, in my career as a developer. That day, I was trying hard to finish my assignment as quickly as possible. I had completed coding; there were no compilation errors, so I start testing… It was just taking too long, so I impatiently stopped the program and started looking into my code, trying to optimize it to improve its performance.
After many iterations of review, change, compile, test…. It just hit me, my issue wasn’t performance at all; I had coded a perfect “infinite loop” that was behaving exactly like it should, going round and round, executing the same set of code lines without ever stopping.
There are a few lessons I learned that night:
- Never be impatient. It doesn’t help you reach the finish line.
- When too tired, take a break. It helps you solve the problem at hand much faster.
- Always have an exit strategy. And this applies not only to programming but also to life in general.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Besides the usual things that make a business stand out, like faster service and greater value, what makes my company stand out for me personally are the values it stands behind with every decision. Integrity is the backbone of this organization, and that backbone supports unbridled professionalism, respect for the individual, cost consciousness and social responsibility.
I find the grassroots culture of giving back through charitable efforts particularly heartwarming. While I could list off myriad fundraising initiatives that have taken place over the years, one that comes to mind is from way back in 1998, when I had just joined the company. We had curated and compiled a recipe book. It included specialty dishes from 18 different countries, reflecting the multicultural composition of Tecsys. We sold the recipe book and sent its proceeds to a charitable organization. I still have that recipe book, and even have a few favorite go-to recipes from it!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working in the supply chain management industry, and what’s more exciting than that — especially considering the challenges posed by the COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions. Certainly COVID-19 has really put a spotlight on the supply chain; the impact of disruptions halfway around the world, the complexity of balancing supply and demand for both commodity supplies like face masks and capital expense supplies like ventilators, not to mention the rollercoaster all of this has had on third party logistics companies navigating some of the most volatile volumes they’ve ever seen. Every single new requirement that we are asked to address is aiming at increasing efficiency of operations and building a sustainable operational excellence.
For me, given this economic backdrop, these are far more than just supply chain projects; they may very well serve as the lifeline for many of these organizations. They have undergone massive industry changes, oftentimes with underwhelming technology, and when my team comes into play, we are bringing in brand new capabilities and functionalities that help define the next chapter of their operations.
One example that comes to mind is a major European brand that was enjoying healthy market share, but whose business model relied on foot traffic and in-person commerce; sure enough, the pandemic stimulated their online business as consumers were shopping differently, but the company was struggling to keep up from a systems standpoint. Our team was able to engineer a workflow and technology backbone that helped this organization to keep their customers happy even though there had been a fundamental change in the way those customers were interacting.
Another example was of a recent project involves the rampant stock supply shortages spurred the pandemic, and the dynamic strategies undertaken to mitigate disruption. As ‘original’ stock items were scarce, many companies had to replace several items by their substitute models. More recently, as the supply chain got back on track, original items once again became available, resulting in big volumes of the substitutes left to sit on shelves and age. Since substitutes are as efficient as originals, we helped one of our customers, a large healthcare organization, ensure that orders are fulfilled by their substitute item first to avoid unnecessary waste.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
The number of women pursuing careers in scientific fields is increasing each year, but the representation of women varies widely across STEM occupations. While the majority of health-related jobs are held by women, they remain underrepresented in other job clusters, such as the computer sciences and engineering. We’ve come a long way, but there is still work to be done to encourage girls go into STEM studies, graduate in their fields, and pursue a career in it. In my opinion, what could change this status quo is to attract more young girls into STEM in the first place. And to do that:
- Give more visibility to successful women in STEM field, for the younger generation to see, get inspired and have role models.
- Publicly recognize women, at any level, for their contributions in STEM — not only for big achievements but also for small wins in the field.
In addition, we all know that a greater diversity in workforce strengthens performance and creativity, so companies should aim to gender balance their employee base, and make sure to address gender equity issues along the way.
We should also aim at increasing the number of women in executive positions for the unique perspective they bring to the table.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Amongst the myriad of battles currently underway for women in tech, I’d like to focus on the one I consider the most difficult: Parenthood and work/life balance. Unfortunately, I believe that for women, career and family are still often perceived as an either/or pursuit, and this can be exceptionally challenging, even under the best of circumstances. From a career progression standpoint, any form of leave is essentially time spent in the ‘penalty box’; it is a period of time not spent advancing one’s career aspirations. With only a small window of child-bearing years, that professional ‘penalty’ usually comes along just when your career is taking flight.
There is a tradeoff. I don’t know that the perfect formula to overcome this challenge exists, because it is likely different for everyone. For me, I did face a professional slowdown while growing my family, and I do not regret for a second letting my young children be my primary responsibility; I could catch up professionally, but family doesn’t idle. To anyone with competing priorities, it is always an option to consider ‘plateau-ing’ in one area of their lives to focus on another area more fully, and then refocus when the time is right. Who knows? What is disguised as a professional ‘penalty’ may actually be a personal ‘powerplay’ — and be the advantage you need to win the game!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
There are many myths about women in STEM, but I’d like to focus on three of the most rampant
- Women are biologically less capable than men. This is a stereotype and nothing else. There is no evidence that a woman’s biology makes them incapable or unable to perform in high demanding STEM fields; on the contrary, over the years, females have proven to be as competent as males in various areas of STEM specialization.
- Women and girls aren’t interested in STEM careers. This is incorrect. Some studies reveal that 74% of middle school girls show an interest in STEM subjects, but that the interest drops as they progress into high school and beyond. Some of the main reasons cited are lack of encouragement, male-dominated culture, and gender bias.
- Gender pay gap doesn’t exist. It does; women in STEM earn less than their male colleagues.
An OECD publication ranks Canada as having the 8th highest gender pay gap out of 43 countries, and a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis shows that there are sizeable pay gaps between women and men in STEM jobs.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Communicate clearly and effectively: Regular communication will not only increase engagement and productivity of team members, but also foster trust between them as they start to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses. If you want to be appreciated as a leader and a valuable team member, communicate frequently, effectively and express your opinion with humility.
- Showcase both soft and hard skills: Hard skills are necessary to fulfill your responsibilities, that’s a known fact. However, equally important are soft skills. Those are what differentiate high-performing employees from others with similar hard skills. How you communicate, how you work with others, how you solve problems, how you manage your time, how flexible you are and how easy you adapt to new circumstances will determine your success.
- Bring forward new ideas: Don’t be afraid to bring a fresh perspective, even if it’s not the prevailing opinion in the room. Innovation of thought is a real benefit to your team, your company and your customers. Be sure to emphasize on the value it creates and stay focused long enough to increase your chances of success.
- Neutralize biases and prejudice: Equip yourself with great skills, demonstrate your value, push your limits and behave more assertively. Because at the end of the day, extensive knowledge, expertise, utmost professionalism, and true talent will be recognized and embraced regardless of biases and prejudice.
- Persevere in pursuit of greatness: Women are often too harsh on themselves. They underestimate their value and often lack self-confidence. My advice is to believe in yourself and trust yourself; be authentic, be resilient in the face of failure, persevere, be receptive to feedback, be ambitious, don’t wait for opportunities to come to you, chase them until you reach them. And if, at times, you experience some discomfort, know that the feeling is just part of the process as you navigate your way to success.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I believe that a thriving team is a reflection of its leader’s efficiency and success. In my experience, here are a few things that help:
- Remain authentic and approachable. These two qualities combined make you a trustworthy leader, a reliable and dependable person around whom people feel comfortable and at ease. Your team members will come to you with all kind of ideas without fear of being judged. What a great way to nurture their creativity.
- Build a healthy and inclusive culture. It is necessary to build strong and trusting relationship between team members and for this one, I believe leading by example works best. Always remain respectful, listen to everyone’s opinion, and foster healthy relationships. It will only boost your team members’ self-confidence and productivity.
- Accept your team members’ differences. This is somewhat related to the previous point; it is in fact a prerequisite to building an inclusive culture. Your team members come from different backgrounds and bring distinct perspectives to the table based on their own experiences. By recognizing those differences, we create an enriching and stimulating environment, allowing team members to learn from each other and bring forward innovative ideas. After all, isn’t diversity the mother of creativity?
- Give opportunities to your team members and expose them to as many different experiences as possible. As a leader, ensuring your team members’ career growth is your responsibility, especially if you are concerned about employee retention. Therefore, to avoid career stagnation, to keep your team engaged and motivated, and to spark ambition, you have to provide various experiences to your employees. Even if at times those experiences fall outside of their comfort zone, it is the only way to encourage and foster growth.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Managing large teams is a challenge in itself. The focus should always be the team’s ultimate objectives and managing to those objectives. Depending on the size of your team, building personal rapport becomes much harder, and holding frequent meetings becomes inefficient; in these cases, you must master the art of delegating while remaining at the helm.
My advice to all leaders seeking to strike that balance is to focus on being a strong, reliable resource who is well organized, transparent, and prioritizes listening. Among your employees, promote an open-door policy and nurture trusting relationships to that even when you’re not there, they can depend on one another to move objectives forward. Inform every one of the team progress to create awareness and increase their engagement and productivity — and celebrate that progress as a team rather than through individual wins. And whenever possible create a social dynamic, organize get-togethers, and team activities to bring members close to one another.
You are the glue that holds the team together. Empower your team members, facilitate group discussions, and encourage everyone to participate, elaborate and collaborate whenever possible.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It would be disingenuous of me to single out one person over the panoply of positive influences that have helped me get where I am today; I have been inspired and motivated by various people who I have come in contact with, from bosses to colleagues, classmates to professors, and family members. By learning from each of them, by adopting the good I’ve seen in them and by abiding to my own values and beliefs, I have forged my own leadership style. Indeed, it is through the kaleidoscope of these encounters and experiences, while looking for challenges, being ambitious and of course a lot of hard work, that have guided me through my career and life.
For example, I have always been a perfectionist, but throughout my career, as I met and worked with successful professionals, I came to realize that perfectionism is hardly achievable; it’s very relative, and often painfully deceiving. With time, my quest for perfectionism has been replaced by the pursuit of excellence, which requires a lot of commitment, persistence, hard work and determination. This mindset pushed me to go back to university in 2015, enhance my professional skills, competencies, and knowledge, thus enabling me to believe in myself and embrace my next career move.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Volunteering has always been a huge part of my life. I was raised in a family where offering help to worthwhile causes, to people in need, and to the wider community, was not only important but almost a duty. Whenever possible, I put my time and experience in service to help where needed through charitable activities and giving back to the community at large. Throughout the years, I have found volunteering has proven to be a character enriching experience and ultimately a way to make us all better humans.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am a staunch advocate for free and accessible education for everyone.
I don’t think anyone can dispute the importance of education in our lives. It is the foundation of self-efficacy, self-encouragement, and boosted self-esteem. It gives a person knowledge to lead a purposeful life, make smart choices and be a better citizen. But the benefits of education reach far beyond the individual; they are reflected onto society through a person’s deeds, development, flourishment, and success. By shaping future leaders through education, we are investing in a brighter future for our society.
Ultimately, education will narrow the gender gap by giving equal opportunities to all, thus playing a major role in empowering women.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many, but let me share one that I think has done wonders in my life:
“Holding a grudge doesn’t make you strong; it makes you bitter. Forgiving doesn’t make you weak; it sets you free.” Dave Willis
Indeed, holding a grudge will always hold you back and waste your energy. The constant feeling of resentment that results from it will paralyze you and prevent you from moving forward, from growing, from being successful and being happy, to say the least. Whenever tempted, think: Is it really worth it? Is it that important? Is it helping you achieve anything at all?
As for forgiveness, learn to forgive and forget. It is a gift to yourself as much as it is to others. Being able to move on lets you focus on your own life rather than get mired in the sludge of resentment.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Of course, I’d love to have a chat with Angela Merkel, who’s recently retired from her political career. For the last 15 years, she’s been the most powerful woman in the world. I admire her not only for her political career and accomplishments, but for her leadership, her personality, and her values. I love her resilience, pragmatism, calmness, rationalism, simplicity, and humbleness. I’d love to learn her secret for remaining so grounded while leading one of the most powerful countries of the world and facing so many barriers.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.