Put people first, always. People are the core of why we do what we do, and it only makes sense to put them first. A good leader understands the power of relationships. They care about people and genuinely want them to succeed. If you focus on helping people sharpen and hone their skill sets, everyone benefits.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Bianchessi, Co-Founder of Kinsmen Group.
Jessica is a change agent for digital transformation and serves as a trusted advisor for companies seeking to transform their information into their most valuable asset. She is passionate and dedicated to the success of customers and thrives on adding value at every touchpoint.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve possessed ambition and internal drive for continuous improvement. Whether it was helping my mom rearrange furniture for practicality, organizing Mrs. Andreson’s books in alphabetical order to find them more efficiently, or giving my Barbies a glam-up and haircut, I’ve always been motivated to make a better mousetrap.
Although, in hindsight, the Brittney Spears haircuts and Sharpie eyebrows were far from improvement, at least I was willing to enact change, lol.
When I landed my first gig at nineteen in the Oil & Gas industry, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, who I was, and what I wanted to be, but I did have a good feel for what I was naturally good at (process improvement), so I started there.
I was the Document Controller at FMC Technologies for the Agbami project. The $3.5 billion Agbami oilfield project is one of Nigeria’s largest deepwater developments, and the average net daily production from the field in 2019 was 90,000 barrels of crude oil and 14 million cubic feet of natural gas. My responsibility was to control the review and approval of engineering and project documentation between FMC, sub-contractors, suppliers, and Chevron. During the design phase, if engineering drawings take too long to get approved, it can have a negative impact on the overall project schedule. Any delays an Oil & Gas company has in achieving First Oil have a material financial impact not only on the project but for the company as a whole. Consequently, it was a central job that came with substantial responsibilities, especially for someone who, at the time, wasn’t old enough to have a beer at happy hour with co-workers.
In that role, I discovered that my strong drive for process improvement was a benefit to the business. I wanted to help my team be faster, better, and more productive — that’s how I looked at everything from process to technology.
Through experience and seeking out information on my own, I learned how technology systems like Meridian, M-Files, SAP, SharePoint, and other Information and Asset Management Systems could help people become more productive, and aid in helping the company’s bottom line.
With hands-on experience, a can-do personality, and desire to be super helpful, I found myself being pulled into many different projects internally, and my influence grew within the company. In 2011, I caught the eye of a technology company I was helping to implement their software for an internal Shell project. I was recruited as a consultant, and my career took off from there.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Well, hmm…perhaps it’s recency bias, but I don’t believe there has been anything that’s happened that’s more interesting or impactful than the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus came in like Chuck Norris karate-kicking you in the throat. Many companies have struggled to persevere, and some have unfortunately gone under.
Thankfully, our company is holding strong and kicking back. It’s been a combination of strategic change, bracing for impact, and button-mashing. Nonetheless, our employees are the true heroes of our endurance. They’ve crafted unique services and solutions to help us not only adapt to the new normal but help define it.
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?
As I mentioned, I started in the Oil & Gas industry before I knew anything about engineering, technology, or I really had any real-world life experience. During that time, the only international trip I had taken was to Mexico, where we lived for a few years. Although I have since traveled the world, this silly little story has always stayed with me.
I came into the office one day feeling like Jackie Kennedy. I wore my first suit, it was navy blue, and I remember my sleeves were way too long. I was walking to the kitchen when my co-worker, who is British, says, “Hey Jess, you look smart today.” Out of politeness, I said thank you, but I was confused. I sat down and thought, well, have I looked stupid every other day?
It’s kind of an embarrassing story, but it’s too late for me to stop now, lol. I went to her office and casually questioned her. “Do I always dress like a fool or something?” She started laughing and explained that “smart” in the UK, actually means nice and presentable.
It wasn’t the first or the last time I misunderstood something someone said, especially since Spanish is my first language, but it is a simple example of a big lesson I learned in general. If there’s something you don’t understand, have the courage to ask.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When I was working for a software company, I can’t tell you how many times we drove ourselves sick to deliver a technology implementation on-time and on-budget, just to find out a few months later that the customer wasn’t using the product.
The solution was clear, but it wasn’t a service we provided. I took my concerns to the CEO, and he basically told me that we needed to focus on selling licenses and leave the customer to sort out their own problems. That answer obviously did not sit well with me, and it’s essentially when the idea of Kinsmen Group started to develop.
Most of our employees come from competing software providers, and most have experienced a failed software implementation at one point or another. We are all competitive and passionate about customer success and created Kinsmen Group because we wanted our customers to thrive with our guidance.
You can have the best product on the market, you can do a bang-up job at installing and configuring it, but if your customer doesn’t adapt to it, use it, and benefit from it, then the implementation project is an epic failure.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Definitely! I am excited to talk about it; we are working on a unique new strategy called Best Documented Asset, BDA, for short. BDA is about owner-operators realizing the safest, most profitable, most productive, and most reliable facilities possible.
It’s a complete strategy geared towards operators of large assets. It targets specific use cases by bringing together leading technologies, applications, processes, people, and tools to deliver a more integrated, yet tailored set of solutions. The strategy helps ensure operators have all their assets 100% documented to company standards, which means they can increase the safety and productivity of people.
There is no better feeling for me personally than to know we can help avoid an incident where someone is injured or dies on the job. The work that we do can be very rewarding, and I love that.
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?
Women have come a long way since the days of pioneers like Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale. The role of women in STEM over the last 30 years has improved dramatically. Although I can’t say that I am entirely satisfied with the status quo of women in STEM, I am definitely thankful for how far we’ve come.
I strongly believe that there has never been a better time to be a woman in America, and I am proud to be a part of that. I also believe that we have to continue to press forward and that each of us has a responsibility to help ensure that the female youth of America are never intimidated to pursue career paths that have their foundations in STEM.
It’s important to encourage girls to embrace STEM…making it both acceptable and accessible. Today, I see lots of STEM-inspired girl-oriented toys on the self, and I always say to myself, man, I wish they made that when I was growing up! That does make me feel confident that we’re making progress on that front.
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?
In my experience, it’s a misconception that women in STEM fields endure more challenges than men. As I mentioned, we have come a long way since the 1980s, and I genuinely believe we are far from the days of discrimination against women in these fields. I think the challenge here is the misconception itself, which might discourage young women from pursuing a career in STEM.
We need more female mentors to talk to young women about their positive experiences in STEM. They need to know that there isn’t some mob or glass ceiling trying to hold them back from doing what they love.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Here is the bottom line; women can succeed no matter their circumstances. It all comes down to pursuing what you love to do and breaking down barriers if they get in your way.
Because other female leaders have paved the way before us, most discrimination barriers have been broken down already. It’s now up to us to spread the word. We simply can’t allow young women with the passion for STEM to buy into the idea that they can’t make a difference.
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.)
Hmm, I have learned so many lessons in leadership over the years, what are my top five? I guess for starters, I don’t believe leadership has anything to do with gender, so I would apply the same advice, male or female.
I would say the very first lesson I learned was to put people first, and everything else will fall into place.
- Put people first, always. People are the core of why we do what we do, and it only makes sense to put them first. A good leader understands the power of relationships. They care about people and genuinely want them to succeed. If you focus on helping people sharpen and hone their skill sets, everyone benefits.
- Performance management really does matter. Not all managers do performance appraisals, and I think that’s a huge mistake. The appraisal process helps the employee understand how they’re performing and what they can do to improve. However, the process also helps the manager understand how they are leading and what they can also do to improve. It’s not a one-way street, but a mutually beneficial relationship.
- Don’t be afraid to assist. I hear a lot of advice from leaders about delegating, which I do believe is important. But I do think it’s equally vital to get in the thick of things when your team is looking at a tight deadline. People need to know that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to help them. You’re in this together.
- Create a competitive culture. I don’t believe in participation trophies; it’s just not how I’m wired. I think building a culture of healthy competition among your teammates is a great way to drive success within the team. I remember when I led a very large team of document controllers when I first became a manager, I would say “Tomorrow I am going to work with you, and if you can process more transmittals than me, with absolutely no quality errors, I will take you to lunch.” That mentality has become ingrained over the years at my current company, and I would say the people that work with us are some of the most competitive and motivated people I have ever worked with in my career.
- Have fun. I think fostering a fun work environment helps people be more creative, more productive, have less stress, and helps employees become more engaged. From my perspective, it’s a great feeling to work on a project that delivered beyond expectations while having a blast in the process. We work so many hours a day; it’s nice to get in a few hard laughs. As I said, it’s all about the people for me, and enjoying the time I spend with my co-workers, customers, and partners is important to me.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I’d say learn someone else’s lessons…lol. Start with lessons one through five that I just mentioned.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Everyone on your team is an asset, so you should be investing in these relationships across the board — don’t stop at your direct reports.
Your management team is important because they help drive your strategy but connecting with everyone is key. You should make an effort to understand everyone’s role on your teams and show them you care about their contributions. Building relationships across the board will help ensure everyone is invested in the strategy and all pulling in the same direction.
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?
Thankfully, I have had many mentors along the way, but the most memorable of them all is Shelagh Osborn. She was my hiring manager at FMC Technologies, the impression she made on me, and lessons she taught me stuck with me through the years.
When she hired me, I think she saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily recognize. She really challenged me with stretch projects that I thought were impossible at the time, but it truly helped me grow and improve my overall skill set.
I remember she was promoted to another senior role within a different department, and we didn’t have another manager to replace her at the time. There was a vacancy for an Information Manager position, and I was next in line for the promotion, plus I was already doing some of the work for that position.
I met with the interim manager, and he said, “everyone tells me you’re the right person for this role, so it’s yours.” I said, “great, what’s the compensation?” He proceeded to tell me that he was moving me to a salaried position, and I was actually going to make less than what I was currently earning because I didn’t have the degree necessary for the role.
Um ok, I get that — education is obviously important, and I was young at the time. However, don’t offer me the job if I am not qualified for it. If you are working the job, you should earn the compensation appropriate for the responsibilities of the role.
So, I got up, and in more words than this, I said thank you, but no thank you. Afterwards, he sort of suggested that I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I remember thinking, oh, I have a choice, you’ll see, lol.
I called Shelagh, really upset, she was always good at listening to us. She was also a problem solver. So, she quickly created a position within her new department, one that really amplified my skill set and helped her overall strategy. I know she wouldn’t have stuck her neck out if it wasn’t for the value I brought to the table, but she didn’t have too. She really broke down barriers and helped paved the way for women like me. It’s that fighting spirit that really inspired me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have been very involved in many charity initiatives throughout the years, but the one that I have put my heart and soul into is human trafficking. Roughly 27 million women, men, and children worldwide are victims of human trafficking each year. Tragically, only 1–2% of victims are rescued and set free.
I just can’t believe that in this day and age, that human beings are still being trafficked across the world. What’s even more frustrating is the overall lack of attention and awareness that this terrible scourge on humanity gets in the general press.
I get it. It’s a tough topic to discuss. But slavery is slavery…and it’s happening right now. We need to start with awareness, so if you’re reading this interview and you’d like to know more about this silent epidemic, please start by going to https://www.a21.org/
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. :-)
Global awareness of human trafficking. As they say, knowledge is power, and people need to know that slavery is a problem today so that we have any chance of eradicating it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Some of the best leadership advice I have received is from the teachings of Jesus Christ. He said, “If you want to be great, you must become a servant.”
I know this isn’t a popular concept in today’s self-serving culture, but I think this is the true secret to leadership: Jesus measured greatness in terms of service, not status.
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 :-)
I would love to meet Rick Warren. He is the pastor for Saddleback Church in California, and the author of one of my favorite books, “The Purpose Driven Life.”
I like starting my mornings listening to the word of God for at least 15 minutes. I find that when I start my day with positivity and reaffirming my values, the rest of my day goes smoothly. When I am looking for something to listen to, I always tend to click on Rick Warren’s Daily Hope podcast. I just love his outlook on life and his ability to describe how much God loves us and how much we should love others in return.