eXXec: A Pipeline for Women in Engineering Leadership Roles

SWE’s Executive Leadership Program provides an empowering and potentially life-changing learning experience.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

Dawn H. Fleurizard thought she was going to a typical industry conference where technical experts would speak while she sat, listening attentively, in the crowded audience.

Little did Fleurizard know when her employer sponsored her to attend eXXec, SWE’s Executive Leadership Program, that she would be among 15 high-achieving women of varying ages, industries, and leadership experience who would be enriched by new insights into themselves and learnings from one another.

Fleurizard, who has worked in various engineering roles in the semiconductor industry for 25 years, said she emerged from her SWE eXXec experience inspired, enthused, and ready to build a work team. That’s because she was newly armed with valuable insights into how she can better react and communicate with her direct reports. “It was beyond anything that I had imagined,” she said of the eXXec experience, her first in professional leadership development.

“I realized that it’s important to give myself permission to develop myself, and that being a good leader requires time,” she said. “We learn to put ourselves on the back burner. But I realized that if you work to fulfill your goals, you will be better at helping others fulfill theirs.”

One outcome of her experience is that Fleurizard is working to, as she put it, “put down the superwoman cape.”

“I have a tendency to jump in and take over,” she said. She realized that people who report to her or who are in a junior position may feel intimidated when she does that. “They might read it as, ‘I’m not going to do [the assignment] because you don’t think I’m doing a good job.’ That interferes with people’s growth,” she said.

Fleurizard also came away from the program with increased confidence, feeling empowered to speak up and to be more transparent and authentic.

Her self-exploration couldn’t have come at a better time. Fleurizard’s Durham, North Carolina, employer, semiconductor maker Wolfspeed, had started increasing its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she had just begun to build a team as senior program manager in charge of automotive power train new product introduction execution. She ensures that corporate customers get their orders on time, with no mistakes and designed to specifications. The company’s end products, ranging from solar panel grids to electric-car battery and inverter modules, are made with silicon carbide.

“I realized that it’s important to give myself permission to develop myself, and that being a good leader requires time. We learn to put ourselves on the back burner. But I realized that if you work to fulfill your goals, you will be better at helping others fulfill theirs.”

–Dawn H. Fleurizard, senior program manager, automotive power train NPI execution, Wolfspeed

Leading self, leading people, and leading change

The three-day Executive Leadership Program, held at SWE’s home base in Chicago, provides a safe, personal, and potentially life-changing leadership development experience centered on three pillars: leading self, leading people, and leading change.

It starts with three self-assessments that Fleurizard described as “quite powerful.” The “leading self” portion ends with an action plan detailing how the participants will use what they’ve learned in their work. They leave knowing specific issues that might derail them, as well as their strengths, opportunities as leaders, and the importance of taking care of themselves.

In a video interview on the eXXec webpage, FY23 SWE President Dayna Johnson, P.E., the emerging technology programs and operations leader for GE Gas Power, said she has learned about herself as a person and as a leader.

“It’s been incredibly helpful, after taking so many previous personality and leadership assessments, to be able to walk away from eXXec with something that felt like a holistic view of myself and to deeply understand all the different personality traits that make up me,” Johnson said.

“Gaining the experiences from eXXec, I was able to learn about myself, really figure out how to leverage my qualities to help other people, and ultimately, to figure out how to manage through change and through really stressful situations,” she said.

Thao Nguyen said her participation in SWE’s eXXec program in June, thanks to a recommendation from her company’s vice president, Cindy Hoover, F.SWE, came at a perfect time. Nguyen had just transitioned into a new role as the integrated product team leader at Wichita, Kansas-based Spirit AeroSystems.

Hoover, vice president for defense and space engineering, research and technology, and core engineering for Spirit AeroSystems, served as FY20 SWE president.

Nguyen’s new role requires that she oversee a defense project, giving direction and feedback to cross-functional team members who don’t report directly to her.

“I’ve always been pro-active in giving feedback,” said Nguyen, whose expertise includes structural analysis, fabrication, and product design.

But she ran into an employee who misunderstood her good intentions when she offered specific feedback. The eXXec program helped Nguyen take the time to write down a feedback strategy. The structure included an exercise asking everyone to think about a piece of feedback they needed to deliver. They scripted out what to say in that conversation.

The exercise included asking “powerful coaching questions” that come across less as commands and more as concern and empowerment: What do you want for your career? What has worked in the past? What’s standing in your way? What is your ideal outcome? What are you trying to achieve? What is stopping you? What is your role in this problem or situation?

It’s also a strategy to help the person receiving feedback take an active role in their future. The manager guides the discussion by helping the employee identify desirable outcomes, generate ideas for how to proceed, and define the next steps.

“Gaining the experiences from eXXec, I was able to learn about myself, really figure out how to leverage my qualities to help other people, and ultimately, to figure out how to manage through change and through really stressful situations.”

–Dayna Johnson, P.E., FY23 SWE president

That’s especially important in today’s competitive job market, where, in Wichita, aircraft companies vie fiercely for high-quality employees, particularly in design and stress engineering, Nguyen said.

Beyond gaining greater insights into the thoughtfulness behind employee feedback, Nguyen said she learned more about her own leadership style by listening to the other women leaders in the eXXec program. “It was a great seminar,” she said. “Just meeting other women and listening to their stories, understanding their personalities and leadership skills and comparing them with my own, I was able to say, ‘OK, I can do better with that category’ and reflect on my own experiences.”

Meeting learning needs and goals

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the program involves subject-matter experts who customize the content to the attendees’ learning needs and goals so they can challenge themselves in a trusting environment, said Valerie Bland, SWE’s director of content and programs, who created eXXec as a way to build a pipeline for more women in engineering leadership positions.

There is also a program facilitator, who plays a key role in the program’s beginning. It starts with a welcome reception to help the group form connections with one another. The facilitator also connects the learning goals to ways the attendees will apply the content they learn. The facilitator starts each day with goal setting and ends each day helping the attendees apply the lessons to their lives and careers.

The eXXec speakers and facilitator use the attendees’ experiences to help them achieve breakthroughs. One example: A speaker for a “leading people” segment asked for a volunteer to come to the front of the room to share a real problem she had been facing. The remaining attendees had the opportunity to practice asking questions and giving feedback to the volunteer. The speaker coached the attendees as needed — and they all learned powerful lessons.

In that example, the facilitator cautioned the participants to make sure they don’t take out the results of a bad day on their families, Bland said.

The program also features morning yoga sessions and other get-togethers, such as a dinner cruise, to help strengthen the network among women facing similar challenges.

The women end the program with a coaching session and write a letter to themselves with reminders of their goals. Bland mails those letters back to their authors two months after the program ends.

So far, the eXXec program — held in 2017, 2019, 2021, and this year — has hosted 57 attendees from 27 organizations and received near-unanimous applause for the new perspectives, personal insights, and even potential “derailer” thoughts and behaviors it elicited.

As might be expected amid the COVID pandemic, this year’s participants emphasized their need to adapt to changing environments as a key priority, Bland said.

Fleurizard advised anyone thinking about seeking their employer’s sponsorship to apply and join the next eXXec group. “It’s worth the investment,” she said. “It’s worth asking [for the opportunity].”

The next eXXec programs are scheduled for June 26–29, 2023 and June 24–27, 2024, in Chicago. To learn more, visit exxec.swe.org.

“Just meeting other women and listening to their stories, understanding their personalities and leadership skills and comparing them with my own, I was able to say, ‘OK, I can do better with that category’ and reflect on my own experiences.”

–Thao Nguyen, integrated product team leader, Spirit AeroSystems

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