Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Deborah Potter of Metal Supermarkets On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Have a clear focus on the end result. Set goals for yourself and always have growth in mind. By knowing what you want, it’s easier to set a clear path to success. My goals have helped me identify what positions I want to work up to while also preventing me from being stuck in a job or role that was no longer serving me. Setting a plan, owning it and going after promotions will help define your career path and ultimately, help you grow.
In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Deborah Potter.
Deborah Potter is the Chief Growth Officer of Metal Supermarkets Family of Companies. With more than twenty years of experience in product development, brand management and integrated marketing with franchise and industrial brands, Potter is a high performing leader who thrives in collaborative, fast-paced environments. Prior to joining Metal Supermarkets, her previous experience includes executive marketing roles at Concrobium (a Rust-Oleum brand) and Hallmark.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was born in Quebec City, Canada to an American father (from the Bay Area) and a French-Canadian mother. When I was three, we moved to the south shore of Montreal. The area we moved to was predominantly French, so I only learned to speak English when I started school at about five years old, but most of my education was in all French until I graduated high school. After high school, I attended Vanier College in Montreal where I studied business and psychology and then went on to get my degree in psychology at McGill University.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
The journey to my career path was a bit of a fluke. When I graduated from McGill University in 1995, my plan was to take a gap year and from there, I would get my master’s in psychology. At the time, my cousin had just taken over his family business — a welding and industrial distributor in Montreal — and was growing so fast that he needed immediate help with purchasing. He asked me if I could help him for the summer and I accepted on a whim.
The day after I graduated, I started as a purchasing agent at his company. I had never worked in an office and knew nothing about purchasing. I made so many mistakes in the beginning that I am sure the office staff wondered what he was thinking bringing in someone with no business experience. But, within a month I had mastered the process and was “cranking” out hundreds of PO’s a week. By the third month, I started implementing process improvements and by the time summer was over, I decided I liked working in an office environment and found I had a mind for business after all. Back then, there was less of a focus on your degree being aligned exactly with your career path, so it allowed much more flexibility to pivot. In early September I was offered the position of purchasing manager and accepted it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It is difficult for me to judge what stories people would find interesting, however for me the once-in-a-lifetime (at least so far) experience of being part of an executive team at Siamon’s International (Concrobium) during an acquisition by a large US company like RPM (parent company of Rust-Oleum) was certainly interesting and eye opening. I had been through an integration before at Hallmark when they closed down most of the Canadian operations, but an integration from an acquisition was very different. It was very much like a relationship. First the courting; information gathering such as: looking at our financials, assets, marketing collateral and the skills and experience of the team. This took many months and no stone was left unturned. Once the purchase was finalized (marriage) the focus was shifted on integrating all parts of the business and how we would work and together as one company. Of course, we could have no interruptions to the business and all this had to be invisible to our customers. Once the year-long integration process was complete and the dust settled, the reality set in that we were then part of the big corporate machine, with very little influence and impact on the future of the brand. That is when I knew it was time to move on (divorce).
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The number one character trait that has always been instrumental to my success is being a good communicator. In the past I’ve had leaders who would go weeks — even months — without communicating in-person or by email. I saw how their poor communication quickly eroded their teams’ motivation and found that if employees don’t know what their leaders are trying to accomplish, there is very little engagement. From those experiences I’ve learned to be an open, honest and very transparent communicator. I naturally want to communicate with my team on a regular basis. When I start a new position, I try to communicate the vision and goals of the department as much as possible, setting up weekly meetings in my first three months of a new role. Not only do I communicate my goals and ideas, but I am there to help my team. I build a sense of trust in a number of ways by listening, helping and getting to know details about each person and asking them what I can do to help them in their job and career development.
When I started as a product manager at Hallmark, I had a small team of four and immediately implemented regular team meetings and one-on-ones. I quickly realized that the team was dysfunctional, disengaged and all around unhappy. One team member in particular was on the cusp of being let go by the previous manager and was very disgruntled. After meeting with her regularly and listening to her story, I realized she had been blamed for a very costly mistake that, in my opinion, the manager should have taken some responsibility for. Once I had her trust and she felt the psychological safety we built, she became my top performing employee and was promoted the following year. If I had not been open to listening to her, I would never have uncovered this incredible employee, and she wouldn’t have improved.
The second character trait that has been instrumental to my success is my determination and grit. If I’ve learned anything from my career, it’s that feedback is not personal, it’s business. If you feel like you’re not being supported in something you believe in, you need to keep at it. If you pitch something to your team and they don’t seem on board, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Their initial doubt gives you the chance to go back and identify what’s missing. Sometimes you need more data and facts, or sometimes people simply need time to absorb your idea. I like having a team that challenges me and plays devil’s advocate. In fact, I encourage it because they become my voice of reason and motivate me to go back, reanalyze and work with my team to gather more information that can get us to the next level. If my ideas are initially turned down, I make sure to keep the conversation going. If you don’t have that determination, your voice will never be heard.
Lastly, I am very results-driven. As a leader in the business world, you need a result-driven mentality to properly grow a business. Being focused on results keeps you focused on the big picture, otherwise you get bogged down by the process and the minutiae which often becomes an unnecessary distraction. Focusing your attention on the goal and taking action will result in success. While you may not have all of the answers right away, you will be able to move forward more efficiently.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?
The biggest obstacle I encountered early in my career was not being heard. I’ve had countless experiences where I share an idea in a meeting and no one reacts, and ten minutes later someone else says the same thing and it’s the “best idea ever.” From those experiences, I’ve learned to repeat myself, take ownership of my ideas and own my place at that table.
I have also had to overcome gender stereotypes. Early in my career, I was a senior manager at a company where there were only 3–4 other women. We were subconsciously expected to take meeting minutes and order food for the team due to gender stereotypes. One day we said, “Okay, we’re not taking minutes anymore, it’s your turn,” and stopped. Be aware of when gender stereotypes start to creep in and know when it’s someone else’s turn to handle a task. Remember: it’s okay to say “no.”
Being a working mother was also a big challenge to navigate. Early in my career, a lot of men at my job had stay-at-home wives, so they didn’t have the extra responsibility of taking care of their children like I did. Thankfully, my husband and I split the responsibility, but the men at my company didn’t understand what it was like to take on that role. While this is handled much differently today, it’s surprisingly still an issue that many working mothers face.
Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?
Simply put, the main thing I have done to gain acceptance among my male peers is by working hard. You need to show people you are committed to the company and that you will do what it takes to get the job done. People will respect you when they see you’re putting in the time and the work.
Also, be sure to keep your skillset up. This can be challenging when also balancing family and work but showing that you’re constantly learning goes a long way to earn people’s respect. Several successful women I know have taken the time to earn additional certifications because they felt there was a gap in their knowledge base, and they continue to grow and thrive in their careers because of it.
But, all in all, my recipe for respect is as follows: work hard, be determined, have a goal in mind, have a strong support system, have confidence and go for it.
What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?
If you work in a male-dominated organization, you have to make a conscious effort to recruit women. Obviously, don’t hire someone who is not fit for the job, but try to find women for specific positions, even if it’s challenging. Men and women often approach things differently so it’s good to have a mix of those traits on a team. And, the same goes for any minority group. The best teams I have worked on were a mosaic of people from different backgrounds and cultures.
Another way to enhance recruiting efforts to attract more women is to have a group within your organization dedicated to female empowerment. The group can host guest speakers and provide an environment for women to talk openly about empowerment in the workplace. If there are clear examples of ways you support the growth of women in your organization, they will be more likely to want to be a part of it, especially in historically male-dominated industries.
Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A supportive partner. I would not be where I am today without my husband. If you want to be successful in business, you need to have people in your life who unconditionally support you in your career and ambitions.
- Own your confidence. To succeed in a male-dominated industry, you need to build your confidence. As women, we tend to stay in jobs that aren’t supportive of our personal or career growth because we don’t believe that we have other options. I have made the difficult decision to move on in my career because I didn’t feel I was valued and my skillset wasn’t being used. Women need to have the confidence to say to themselves, “I can do better.”
- Have grit and determination. As I mentioned earlier, having grit and determination is essential to anyone’s success, but especially for women in a male-dominated industry. It can be incredibly intimidating for anyone to ask for a promotion — it takes a lot of grit. However, if you know that you are ready and deserving, you need to stand up for yourself and take control of your professional development. Most of my promotions I had to ask for and ended up being more respected and valued for doing so.
- Know how to own your place. Knowing how to own your place in the company goes back to the notion of being confident in your abilities. A lot of women are often hesitant to share their opinions or ideas, but by withholding these thoughts you’re not only hindering yourself, but you could also be taking away opportunities for the company to grow. Have confidence in your work, ideas and opinions and don’t be afraid to speak your mind.
- Have a clear focus on the end result. Set goals for yourself and always have growth in mind. By knowing what you want, it’s easier to set a clear path to success. My goals have helped me identify what positions I want to work up to while also preventing me from being stuck in a job or role that was no longer serving me. Setting a plan, owning it and going after promotions will help define your career path and ultimately, help you grow.
If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?
Some women work better in female-dominated industries. However, if the friend was like me and was thinking about entering a male-dominated field, I would advise them to go for it. I have worked for industrial companies for most of my career and am often the only women at the boardroom table. I personally enjoy working with men, especially because it provides me the opportunity to help other women who want to work for that company or in that field. On that note, I would advise my friend to purposefully recruit women to her company, build a support group and provide mentorship opportunities.
As for her personal development, I would tell her to be herself, don’t overthink, speak up, be patient and have confidence. I’d also advise her to build relationships with her team members. The people I work with — male or female — are my peers. By getting to know them, they see me as “Debby, chief growth officer,” not “Debby, my female boss.” This takes away the male/female hierarchy, and I haven’t noticed gender differences being an issue like they might have been in the past.
Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past ten years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?
Yes, I have absolutely seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries. While there are certainly still challenges, the younger generation of women don’t have the same barriers I had when I started my career. Women are more educated than ever before and have so many great role models to look up to.
60 years ago, women had the mental capacity to achieve what women are achieving now, but they didn’t think logistically they could do it. Now, that’s hardly a thought in a young woman’s mind. My 22-year-old daughter never thinks, “How am I going to balance work and home life when I have kids?” But, a few decades ago, that may have been what prevented many women from following their professional dreams.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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.
Marisa Thalberg, the executive vice president and chief brand and marketing officer at Lowe’s, has always inspired me. She is very career-oriented, yet she’s not afraid to show her personal, “human” side.
She makes an effort to create opportunities for team building and facilitates “feel good” empowerment projects for women in her company and has won many awards for her accomplishments, including being named to Forbes’ CMO Hall of Fame. Overall, Marisa is not just an incredible leader, but she is an outstanding role model.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.