While working for Bayer MaterialScience in 2009 (now Covestro), you successfully led a significant change initiative at the Baytown, Texas facility. What advice do you have for workers and management confronted with major change in their workplace?
Don’t forget the people side of the change! Especially as chemists and engineers, we are good at changing processes, tools, etc. but we often forget what people need to adapt and to embrace the change. At our Baytown site, we now have a group of employees who, in addition to their “day jobs”, are certified to manage the people side of changes. This “Change Council”, as we call it, is a diverse team, including management, technical staff, shift operations personnel and more. They coach project teams and help everyone make changes more successfully. This approach works, since the Baytown Site Change Council is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in June!
You have said that communication and relationship building are critical to overcoming workplace challenges. Did you receive adequate training in these areas during your undergraduate and graduate years?
My undergraduate training in these areas was non-existent, except for what I picked up “on the job”, during college internships. We also didn’t have formal classes in graduate school but through chemistry department, large and small group meetings, as well as opportunities to present and publish my research, I did gain valuable experience. My advisor, Mike Heinekey, also promoted teamwork. My graduate school chums and I helped each other solve problems and we were good sounding boards for one another.
If not, how can early career chemists planning or pursuing a career in industry obtain these important skills?
While I was very fortunate to have some great experiences in school, I certainly developed more of these skills over the years. I recommend taking advantage of the leadership courses and opportunities within ACS. Working as part of a volunteer team for your local section or student chapter gives you the opportunity to practice these skills in a safe environment and network with others who can advise you as well.
How have your parents influenced your leadership style?
First and foremost, my parents never told me, “Girls can’t do that”. They exhibit strong work ethic and integrity – clearly expecting that from me as well. My mother, an accountant, taught me to approach each person as an individual, to listen, and to never stop learning. My father, a mechanical engineer, set a leadership example of not expecting others to do something you aren’t willing to do and basing your decisions on facts plus gut instinct, but not ruled by emotion. These are valuable leadership lessons that have served me well over the years and I still go to my parents for advice. I can summarize their influence on my leadership style as “you have to earn respect”; and that’s the real key to being an effective leader!
You successfully managed the transition from senior chemist to senior management. How did you accomplish that often difficult and challenging shift?
One key factor was building my network and relying on it to help me grow into new roles. I’ve always found benefit in working on special projects, in addition to my normal job scope. This is a great way to learn and build valuable relationships. Colleagues at all levels, in all roles within an organization, have great ideas and contributions to make. By sincerely supporting positive change, I’ve been able to help the company progress and I’ve progressed with it. In each new role, I value the resources from my extended network and strive to share mutually beneficial experiences and practices with current and former colleagues.
For women in particular, the path to a chemical plant manager role is narrow. What can you share with women to widen that path a bit for them?
I would share these same words of wisdom with anyone, regarding this path. This is not a job for the faint of heart but it is very rewarding. As with any job, you should try to assess it for characteristics that are important to you, first. Observe and question those who are in such roles. Then, if desired, you should strive for well-rounded experience and knowledge in preparation. Learn about not only production but safety & environmental aspects, maintenance, logistics, etc. Additionally, understanding the customers, business model and strategy are crucial. Demonstrate your leadership skills and ability to negotiate. You also need to be able to remain calm under duress and yet act with courage. Find opportunities to showcase your abilities and make sure you let your mentors and managers know of your interests.
At its core, what does it take to be a strong and effective leader?
The willingness to serve and not be served. Recognize the strengths in others and build the best team possible. Support them, provide a vision, and go for it!
ACS appears to be close to your heart; you have served as a Society volunteer for over twenty years. ACS has benefitted from your contributions. But how has it helped you advance in your career?
The opportunity to learn and practice leadership skills within ACS governance has been invaluable to me; including taking courses and serving in various roles. Over the years, I’ve been able to utilize these same skills professionally and share what I’ve learned with others as well. Involvement in ACS has also allowed me to build an extensive network of colleagues and friends, who have mentored me in so many ways as we’ve journeyed together.
You grew up in Idaho, and now live in Texas. As someone who loves the outdoors, does each state have a particular place that you most enjoy?
I have to admit that even after over 20 years living in the Texas gulf coast area, I still miss the mountains. Hiking in 100% humidity, while fending off 27 species of mosquitos, is not quite the same. I do enjoy vacations in the Rockies, hiking or cross-country skiing. I have adapted as well; highly recommending water sports of all kinds – swimming, fishing, kayaking and more. Also, Houston offers a wide variety of activities with full air conditioning, if you ever visit during the summer.
Amber Hinkle is Vice President with Covestro, LLC where she’s worked in various roles, primarily in the materials science area, for the last 24 years. Currently she’s Plant Manager for the Covestro Polyols manufacturing facility in Channelview, Texas and responsible for operation of their U.S. based propylene oxide joint venture. Amber has also been volunteering with the ACS for her entire career and finds particularly rewarding the opportunity to assist ACS groups with strategic planning.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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