Mercedes Sierra, SENER Country Manager in the United States
We interviewed Mercedes Sierra, SENER Country Manager in the United States; an example of growth, professional development and leadership ability, but also of SENER's multidisciplinary nature. Since joining the company in 1985, Mercedes has taken part in and led numerous projects. She has also held various management positions, first in the aerospace sector and then in energy and infrastructure and transport. She is currently responsible for expanding SENER's activity in the United States, primarily in the area of large, technology-heavy urban and rail transport projects.
In fact, in recognition of her achievements, in 2005 the Spanish Ministry of Economy appointed Mercedes to be the Director of Aeronautics and Space at the Center for Technological and Industrial Development (CDTI), where she served as a representative of the Spanish Government in different international organizations and meetings until 2009.
Mercedes, your career at SENER demonstrates a great commitment to innovation and to providing highly technological engineering solutions in any field of activity. You have a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Cantabria (Spain) and an Executive MBA from the IESE Business School. Did you always want to work in engineering?
I liked mathematics and it was actually what I was thinking of studying, but at the time I was advised to do something more practical like engineering, and that's how I became a civil engineer.
Did anyone inspire you?
My mother's brother was an industrial engineer and I got along great with him, but when she asked him about my plans to study engineering, he answered that it would better to forget about that and consider becoming an executive secretary. I have a lot of respect for that profession because I have been lucky enough to work with very professional secretaries who have helped me a lot in my work, but it wasn't a profession for me. I'm not sure I would have been a good one.
As you look to the future, in what areas would you like to keep advancing, what challenges have you set for yourself?
It might seem that at this stage in the game, I have little to learn or grow career-wise, but I still consider myself a jack of all trades and master of none. Recently, I've been interested in topics that could be considered "softer": how to better understand people and ourselves. I realize that we often over-react or have bad times because of issues that, at their core, have to do with our fears, with wounded pride, with thoughts of "they're going to think I'm not cut out for this," with being too hung up on the approval of others, which is so volatile. Also, not knowing how to put yourself in the shoes of the person in front of you, believing that only those who think and act like us are worthy... I have seen too many initiatives fail due to clashing egos or arguments that have a lot to do with all this, and I think we need to evolve in that regard.
We have made a lot of progress in technological aspects, but we continue to have the same personal problems we've had since the dawn of time, and I think engineers are generally not particularly good in these aspects. We think people should work like machines. In the end, the key is always people, it doesn't matter how smart we all are. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."
It's been shown that diverse and inclusive work teams get the most out of each individual's personal skills, foster innovation and are beneficial to project development. From your point of view, what role do women play in the field of Science and Technology/Engineering?
I recently read the rather discouraging news that enrollment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers is decreasing in terms of women's interest in them. I think a lot of things still need changing. The general perception is that the work involved in these careers is extremely competitive with highly aggressive environments, and many women have decided that the battle isn't worth it. I think there has to be a more balanced way of doing things. Fortunately, many people, both men and women, understand this. I have a lot of faith in the new generations.
Do we need structural changes in how work is organized to make sure we can all, regardless of age or gender, contribute and work as a team?
We need to be more open-minded; think about what this person who thinks differently can offer me, rather than listening while at the same time calculating how I can counter their arguments. I think that diverse groups yield their best results when they are in a setting of mutual trust and respect. Greater diversity at the top of the organization certainly helps; I believe a lot in leading by example and in the influence of role models.
It happens to me: in SENER's office in the United States, we have a very diverse staff, with people of different ethnic backgrounds. Of course, it's easier and more comfortable for me to relate to Spanish people because we have a common cultural base that keeps you from having to explain many things, but I think that the effort to understand and integrate "others" ends up enriching you and it's beneficial to the team dynamic, which ultimately yields better results.
It's about normal women having access to the same jobs as normal men. I think one thing that holds us back is thinking that we're never sufficiently prepared when opportunity knocksMercedes Sierra
Education is essential to advance personally, professionally and socially. As a professional, what message would you give to an 18-year-old woman who is about to start her higher education and doesn't know what area to major in?
I would tell her that STEM degrees will allow her to have a very interesting career, and that the trend that will undoubtedly take hold in coming years will mean that her professional life won't have to advance to the detriment of her personal life. Work is going to change a lot, in ways we can't even imagine.
I believe that work-life balance remains the great challenge for everyone. We must find a way for normal people to succeed at work while letting them have a life outside of work.Mercedes Sierra
What would you tell other women to help them further their career and balance it with their personal life?
I would tell them that they don't need to be perfect to "have a seat at the table" (to use the term by Sheryl Sandberg). It's about normal women having access to the same jobs as normal men. I think one thing that holds us back is thinking that we're never sufficiently prepared when opportunity knocks
To what extent do you think the digital transformation can help us improve work-life balance?
I think flexibility is wonderful and the digital transformation is contributing a great deal to this. Something I've always liked about SENER is that management relied on trusting people and giving them freedom to act, and not so much on controlling them. I don't know what we would have done this year with COVID-19 without the right tools. Having said that, I believe that work-life balance remains the great challenge for everyone. We must find a way for normal people to succeed at work while letting them have a life outside of work. I think we're relying too much on "heroes," and that's not a sustainable growth model.