Debbie has been with Keighley Laboratories for her whole career, starting as an office junior in the Accounts Department, when she left school. She spent her early years developing and progressing in the finance function, which eventually led to her controlling the department. By 1997 she was Company Secretary.
Although Debbie had ambitions to become a Director at the company, her move into the role of acting Managing Director in 2007, was unexpected. She stepped in and took on the reigns when the former Managing Director became ill. She took the permanent role of leading the company the following year and has now been Managing Director for over five years. She told EEF, that having a financial background is beneficial when running the business, but it did not prepare her for the level of interaction with customers and external bodies, when she became the face of the company.
Having taken on the role by circumstance rather than design, she has relished the challenges and rewards the job has brought, saying “it’s a very demanding role, but I wouldn’t change it.” However, one thing she would alter is the opportunity to have a mentor. Having a mentor would have helped her make the transition from finance to Managing Director, allowing her to seek advice on wider business decisions. In fact, her belief in mentoring to grow and develop employees has led her to act as an informal mentor for her senior management team. She explained to EEF “I am there as an advisor, a mentor and a confident.”
Optimism, drive, persistence and compassion are the attributes Debbie believes she brings to the role of Managing Director. Confidence is another of her strengths, something she feels is essential in senior roles, but which can be developed throughout your career and with mentoring. Contrary to popular belief, she is not convinced that women lack confidence over men and furthermore she does not believe that this is the main barrier to either gender progressing in their careers. Instead, she believes it has more to do with whether they have the willingness to learn and develop. Additionally, in her experience “the opportunities are there to be had,” but the awareness of these chances may be lacking.
Development of staff is a high priority at Keighley Laboratories. They not only assist employees that request further development, but also proactively identify aspiring individuals and encourage them to take on additional skills and qualifications, so that they can progress within the company. Her only restriction in developing employees, can be finding suitable external training, such as relevant apprenticeship programmes.
Debbie sees the value in having diversity at board and senior management level, as she thinks this “gives a breadth of experience and opinion.” Nevertheless, she is adamantly opposed to any form of positive discrimination in favour of women, whether this is quotas for boards or policies within companies to support female progress. In her view “if somebody has the drive and wants to progress, then it will happen naturally.”
She feels the poor image of the manufacturing industry is its biggest challenge in attracting in the next generation. Young people in particular, are more drawn towards office based occupations in more glamorous sectors. She explained to EEF this is why she believes that even though senior women can act as role models, at this time, this will do little to entice women into the industry.
Debbie is also Director on the management committee of the Contract Heat Treatment Association (CHTA), the only woman among 19 officers.
Debbie believes the industry’s unpopularity as a profession is compounded by the structure of the current education system, where there are two main stumbling blocks for driving talent into manufacturing. Firstly, the lack of promotion of the importance of the STEM subjects to pupils, limiting the career opportunities which are open to them. Secondly, she considers the way in which schools and colleges are funded is a disadvantage. They get paid to retain pupils in education through to A-Level, which means they are unlikely to encourage youngsters to consider vocation careers, such as taking up apprenticeships. She also feels this may have a detrimental effect on the level of interest in manufacturing from local schools. For example Debbie told EEF she would willingly accept any invitations to talk in schools, however the last visit they undertook was several years ago.
In the past, Keighley Laboratories ran work placements and site visits for schools, but again this has stopped. The company is still very keen to work with them, but the schools find the paperwork associated with complying with risk assessments for Health & Safety too onerous to make it a viable option.
Regardless of the concerns she has over the wider perceptions of manufacturing, she is keen to point out that women can advance in the sector, as in her experience “there are no glass ceilings anybody can progress.” Her final suggestion for aspiring women is “Work hard be determined and have faith in your abilities.”