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Keys to Long-Term Success: Lessons From a 50-Year Career

Jean Bye

This column is the first of seven installments based on Jean Bye’s 2022 Hoyt Memorial Lecture delivered at CastExpo in Columbus, Ohio.

Fifty years in the foundry industry … When things were going right, time flew. During the challenging periods, time seemed to crawl. Through both good and tough times there were lessons to be learned. Challenges force us to learn and think differently.

I started working for the Dotson family in 1972. My career moved through increasing responsibility for every area of the foundry. Most people think of their career as climbing the ladders with increasing upward responsibility. I certainly did that when you look at 50 years. But over those 50 years I also had a huge amount of lateral movement. Those lateral moves were some of the most important moves as they gave me a very cross- functional perspective. 

I have managed through the peaks and valleys of the industry, from the economic crash of the 1980s to the economic expansion of the 1990s to the COVID crash of 2020. I have managed through multiple fires, supply chain constraints, and massive offshoring. The industry has faced many threats and many opportunities. 

I would be remiss not to also mention that no career should be at the expense of family. Every person’s family dynamic is different, but it was important to me that my career augment and not diminish family relationships and the joy of raising a family.

It has been an honor and a challenge to learn and grow in this industry. I have had so many wonderful mentors who have shared their experience and knowledge to support my growth in the industry, and I am honored to be able to share some of my most significant lessons with the industry here. 

Lesson #1 – Diversity Is Important

Diversity of people, of ideas, of approaches. Cognitive bias, racial bias, gender bias…. We hear about this all the time in the news and at seminars—but what does it really mean in our day-to-day work in a foundry? What is bias and what is diversity and why do we even care?

Business Insider has identified 20 cognitive biases. I list them here as an example of how many different types of biases exist. Take anchoring bias as one example—that is being overly reliant on the first piece of information you hear. Choice supportive bias is that if you choose something, you are likely to support it even if the choice has flaws. Stereotyping is expecting a person to have certain qualities without having any factual information about the individual. Confirmation bias means we tend to only listen to the information that confirms our preconceptions.

These examples are cognitive biases. In addition, there is racial bias, gender bias, and other types of bias.

With that many biases, one might wonder how we can get any decision that is not biased. It is difficult because so much bias is unconscious or even counterintuitive. I would argue that all decisions are biased. But with diversity in the room, the biases of one are balanced with the biases of another.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, I have had the opportunity to be a woman in a man’s industry since the 1970s. I’ve watched it evolve, yet there is still more to do. I thought some of the biases I experienced were in the past, but just this year I had an exceedingly talented colleague tell me that while at an industry event she was asked who she slept with to get her responsibilities. That type of comment does not endear a woman to want to be a part of this industry. We have work yet to do.

I have early career memories of walking into an AFS meeting with over 100 attendees and seeing a sea of black suits and bald heads. I was the only woman in the room. The bias of stereotyping was not unusual as other attendees would assume I was the wait staff and ask me for coffee.

In this environment, meeting breaks were a mixed blessing. The women’s room would be completely deserted while a lengthy line would be outside the men’s room. There was networking and discussion taking place in that long line and in that men’s room, to which a woman was not a party. That was a career disadvantage.

I also learned that you had to meet the men on their turf to be a participant, and that meant even though I might prefer some of the social discussion topics the wives were discussing, for the sake of my career I needed to involve myself in the men’s discussion, which often were around hunting, fishing, or sports—all of which were a stretch for me. It was those connections with the other executives, who all happened to be men, that would support my career. At industry events with spouses involved, it was common to have someone say something like, “let’s get a photo of the ladies.” As the executive in the group am I still one of the ladies? It was all very well meaning, and I thoroughly enjoyed being with the wives, but it was awkward from a career standpoint. Again, part of that networking was to build the career relationships.

The issues around a minority fitting in with a majority can be applied to any minority. As a minority, it can be difficult to be taken seriously. Until my reputation in the industry was well solidified it was not unusual for someone to assume my husband was the foundry person and immediately start the discussion with him. Even dressing could be challenging. At a black-tie event where the men are wearing suits, is it best as a woman to wear a suit and try to “fit” in with the men and look like the men? Or do you follow the wives in the room and wear a cocktail dress? In one outfit you look like you are trying to be someone you are not and in the other you may not be taken as seriously. These were the challenges from 10, 20, 30 years ago. They demonstrate how it is quite easy to become isolated as a minority.

Both inside and outside the foundry industry there are higher standards for the minority than for the majority. A 2021 Harvard Business Review article pointed this out with a recent study that found when a company was doing well AND when women were the minority on the board, women directors received fewer dissenting votes than their male counterparts. However, when the company was under threat or the number of women on the board increased, that support disappeared. If the perceived threat was from the board members themselves, such as having poor absenteeism, votes were 27% higher against female directors than male directors for the same absenteeism. The thought is that men are seen as better able to safeguard the firm and that when the women are absent it is thought their family is getting in the way and the same concern is not attributed to men. The article concluded that until those biases are resolved, a woman’s board behavior must be faultless while a man is given more latitude.

A recent Carnegie Mellon study confirmed that while both sexes interrupt, men talk and interrupt more often than women. And when a woman complains or stands up for herself, she is more likely to be negatively viewed—even by other women. How can each of us be more conscious of these biases and assertive on rebalancing conversations?

A bias is a shortcut—an automatic association. They are often unintentional, but it can be exceedingly difficult to break out of that automatic association without risking judgement. One of my favorite sayings is, “You are not responsible for your first thought, but you are responsible for your second thought and your first action.” Apply this concept to bias. Your first thought may automatically be biased. However, it is important to work to recognize the bias and use the second thought to adjust for it.

Why should we care about this bias and diversity from a business standpoint? Harvard Business Review found that boards of financial institutions with women on them were fined less often and less significantly. One woman on the board was not enough to change this as one person could not fight the battle alone, and they were viewed as tokenism—not a cultural change. But as the number of women on the board went up, the fines went down. The study controlled for a wide variety of factors including age and race. While more research remains to be done, the initial thought is that women are nurtured to be more accommodating and less aggressive—seeking personal gain less. They also felt it was influenced by the fact that women are more risk averse so more likely to see fraud as dangerous. And a third factor is that women are much more harshly punished for the same infraction and therefore much more likely to speak up. The diversity on the boards allowed for checks and balances which resulted in better outcomes.

Research has shown that having diversity brings much greater success to companies, boards, and associations. Yet it is hard to achieve for several reasons. First, we are all more comfortable with like-minded people. We often don’t realize that we are excluding in subtle ways, like how we draw someone into a conversation or how long we leave pauses in our conversation. Second, for a minority to be successful, you can’t just drop unprepared people into positions and then wonder why they are not executing at the level we like. We need to move all the way to the bottom of the pipeline and change the stream of people entering the pipeline. That takes time. You need to be very intentional.
Being intentional about the pipeline is something that has been worked on at AFS over the past five to ten years. There was a time when it was difficult as a woman to network within AFS. Women in Metalcasting was created to give a forum for women to find each other, build the connections, and establish a critical base of women that would attract other women to the industry. In just six years, this group has grown from 60 interested women to over 800 interested women.

Attendance at events has doubled over that same period. This will draw additional talent into our industry and increase diversity.

Another shift to gain diversity of perspective at AFS came via the creation of the Management Council. Several decades ago, the vast majority of the pipeline to the higher positions within AFS came through the technical committee structure. You started at a chapter, got yourself to a committee, then to the board and then to the executive board. This meant that most of the people active at the higher levels of AFS’s volunteer structure came via a technical background. Yet I would venture to say that more foundries fail due to the management and people side of their business than the technical. It seemed obvious that AFS needed to create an avenue for the non-technical employees to network and contribute. We needed to merge the thinking of HR people or purchasing people or accounting people with the thinking of the technical people. Not that the technical wasn’t important. It was very important. But we could do even better as businesses and an industry when the technical people and the people people were working together. In addition, we wanted to build the same industry connections in the management employees that would keep them networked and in the industry. AFS and its members are stronger today for having the management council than we were without that diversity of thought filtering through our board and other decisions.

When hiring and building a team, it is much more comfortable and natural to fill it up with people who think like you and act like you. You bond and connect quickly. When sitting in a meeting, it is easier to have everyone thinking the same and on the same page. But one important lesson I learned in my 50 years is that easy seldom gets you the best decisions, and it is worth the dissonance and extra effort to fill that room with people who aren’t afraid to speak out with different ideas. It is in sifting through that variety of perspectives that the best thoughts are uncovered, and the strongest organizations built.
Enjoy the controversy and the big leaps that can come out of them.

At Dotson we just finished a $6.5 million building project that was primarily for showering, lockers, and break facilities. We had a lot of tough discussion about not letting our space define our approach to diversity, inclusion, and communication. We decided we were not going to let our past practice flow through into our future and that we were going to dispel a locker room mentality. We wanted to proactively temper the locker room conversation and make that conversation available to all.

As a result, we built our shower rooms with individual cabana style showers—each with its own individual changing room. There are no men’s and women’s, and when in the unlocked areas all employees have the same networking opportunities available.

At the same time as it makes the same opportunity accessible to all, it enhanced the locker room experience for all by eliminating the teenage locker room behavior that could occur (think towel snapping) that made some of the newer employees less comfortable with the old “gang” shower approach. Additionally, the employees have a sense of increased security. In the group situation, women were concerned a man might walk in when they were alone in the locker room. Today they are not alone. In the locker area all employees are together and when they are showering, they are locked in by themselves.

Today, all our employees are afforded an enhanced and equal experience. Yes, it was a bit more expensive than if we had gone with the traditional men’s and women’s gang locker rooms. And yes, we had to work against plenty of traditionalists who did not want change. But this is a step in taking down some of the unintentional barriers that exist.

Smoking can be another example of this same type of unintentional exclusion caused by your physical spaces. Smokers group up and have their own inside click. If you have smoking managers, they can be a part of that click if you have a smoking space. Dotson has no smoking anywhere on the property to avoid the smoking click. Do not let how you define space define exclusion or inclusion.

A bias is a short cut—an automatic association. It is often not intentional and can be very hard to see. But diverse groups can overcome that individual bias. The thought process that went into this shower room design is an example of overcoming that bias.

TAKEAWAY #1. Every time you are in a group, examine it for diversity of age, race, sex, and experience. If it is not diverse, then be very intentional of the biases. Filter your conversations and decisions for bias. Diversity helps us balance out our biases.      

Click here to view the column in the May 2022 digital edition.