Problem-solving in industry and blazing a trail for future generations
Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design
I am the eldest of three girls born to Jan and Wanda Allen. We lived in Chillicothe. It was a nice little town in which to be raised. The schools were big enough to offer a variety of courses and activities, but small enough to avoid getting lost. They had a very strong band program to which I migrated. I enjoyed playing several instruments and joined the concert, jazz, Dixieland and marching bands. My sisters also enjoyed music. We were a “band family.”
Mom and Dad were good parents who somehow managed to raise us well enough by the time we were teenagers that we were able to survive the turbulent event of losing them both in a car accident. I was 17 years old. As you might imagine, this traumatic event changed nearly everything for all of us.
What led you to become an engineer? Did you experience any pushback as a female in a male-dominated field?
I grew up in a Caterpillar family and Caterpillar town. Dad was an engineer and came home with stories about the products he worked on, the people he worked with, the places he travelled, and the places his products worked around the world. Much to his chagrin, I didn’t want to follow his footsteps and instead wanted to study music. He acquiesced, but only when I said I would learn to do engineering drafting in case my dream of music didn’t come true. He died before I changed my mind and my major to engineering before entering college.
Dad always told me that girls can do anything they want. I was a fast runner, and he set me up to run against the neighborhood boys who ran track. He brought home engineering drawings created by a female draftsman who worked with him to share as an example of what women can do. My high school physics teacher also told me I could be an engineer “if I tried really hard.” That was enough of an encouragement to be a dare. It never really dawned on me that I faced barriers unique to women. To the contrary, Dad always told me that I’d never lack a date if I chose engineering school. (He was wrong on that, by the way.)
Of course, I’ve experienced numerous pushbacks, setbacks and unconscious bias over the years. It happens to everyone who steps out of the norm. These experiences, while unpleasant, helped to shape who I am today. They also give me the courage of my conviction to make things better for coming generations. I have a daughter and two granddaughters to motivate me!
Tell us a little about your early career path at Caterpillar and your ambitions to move up the ranks. What challenges did you experience as you shifted into management roles?
I started my career at Caterpillar as an engineer in the College Graduate Training Program. My early roles were quite technical. Specifically, I worked on diesel engine emissions reduction. Over the span of my career, we’ve reduced the regulated constituents by 96 percent. To have been part of that journey is a source of pride for me. The engine systems we designed to reduce engine emissions are still the model for Caterpillar engine design today. I’m humbled by that legacy.
I always enjoyed problem solving and found I added the most value when leading a problem-solving team. As my career progressed, the problems I was tasked to solve became less technical and more business-related. But they were problems nonetheless—often with broad enterprise impact. The biggest challenge for me in moving from technical work into management was the increased stress. Over time, and with the support of family, friends, co-workers and mentors, I found ways to manage that problem, too.
As a vice president at Caterpillar, you’ve led the Product Development Center of Excellence, the Industrial Power Systems Division and Perkins Engine Company, and now the Large Power Systems Division. How have these roles been similar and different from one another? What benefits have you experienced by moving to different divisions?
As an officer of Caterpillar, my job assignments are made through appointment by the board of directors rather than through a traditional application process. These appointments have in common, first and foremost, the objective to serve the enterprise and customers. As an engine person, my appointments have also had in common the objective to grow our legendary engine products businesses. As the company’s chief technology officer, I was involved in product development of machines and engines. That was interesting and fun, but I missed running a business with profit and loss statement (P&L), and thereby accountability.
The power systems roles have both been leading reciprocating engines businesses with a P&L. I enjoy running an engine business. It’s fast-paced, competitive, exacting, and calls upon my technical background as well as my problem-solving skill. One of my assignments was based in the UK, and I very much enjoyed experiencing British life and culture firsthand. My current assignment is based here in Mossville and is actually the business in which I started my career at Caterpillar. It’s good to be home.
What are some current challenges and future plans for the Large Power Systems Division?
Caterpillar’s large engine business (LPSD) designs and manufactures engines and engine system components used in electric power, marine, oil and gas, and rail applications and in large Cat machines. By “large,” I mean engines with displacements greater than 18 liters and ranging in power from 400 kilowatts to 16 megawatts. Our engines are used to power data centers and airports, ocean-going vessels, oil and natural gas well sites and pipelines, freight trains, and large mining equipment. We also remanufacture parts for engines and components, returning those at the end of their usable life to “as new” condition so they can continue to provide value for customers. Our nearly 9,000 employees in some 20 facilities around the world make power possible for the businesses and communities that drive economic progress. Like all of Caterpillar’s businesses, ours is focused on providing solutions that help our customers build a better world. This comprises our current work and our future plans.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career?
As a technical person, I’m proud to have been part of the journey to near-zero diesel emissions. Caterpillar invested billions of dollars in research and development and brought our best technical and business minds together to create products that aren’t just meeting government regulations, but are helping our customers be more successful than they could with the competitors’ products.
What inspires you?
People who continue to push themselves to achieve and contribute throughout their life, but especially into their later years. One’s value and potential should never be defined by one’s age.
If you could swap lives with someone else for a day, who would you choose and why?
I’d like to swap with my husband. He does many things I don’t fully appreciate, and I’d like to see life through his lens. Plus, he’s really tough and strong and I think it would be fun to be a true outdoorsman for a day.
Who is your favorite musician? Why?
My favorite musician is John Lennon. He was his own man and a true artist. I love that he let his wife, Yoko Ono, record on his albums. It shows that he loved her very much and was not threatened by her own unique style. As a result, his art became even more rich, and we are all fortunate for that.
As a business leader, I’m proud to have responsibly managed some of Caterpillar’s core businesses through multiple challenging economic cycles in a way that has sustainably improved their profitability and the workplace experience of their employees.
Describe your board service and community involvement. What causes are near and dear to you?
I’m a board member of a small industrial conglomerate, SPX, based in North Carolina. My board colleagues are seasoned business leaders who come together to provide guidance and perspective to the management team. We’re a diverse bunch who work well together and leverage each other’s strengths. This external leadership opportunity has broadened my perspective and, I believe, is making me a better business person and Caterpillar leader.
I’m also a board member at the Heart of Illinois United Way. This is an extremely well-run charitable organization. They provide an excellent service in assessing community needs, securing solutions from agencies, fundraising, and allocating funds to the solutions. They are a lean, capable and highly dedicated team fulfilling an important mission for our community.
Although I’m not as involved as I used to be, I support the Central Illinois Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. This group works tirelessly to advance STEM education and engagement opportunities for young people in our community. Engineering is an important profession for the future of our country. Anything we can do to expose more young people to it, I support.
What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
I keep a mental list of the balance of my attention paid to my work versus my personal life. When one side of the ledger gets out of balance, I take action to remediate the gap. It’s never perfectly in balance, but I try.
My family and I also accept that my role comes with personal sacrifices. Some things, like evening gym time and homemade dinners during the week, aren’t on my to-do list. But I try to make up for that in other ways. To keep fit, I run every day I can; and to nurture my family, I cook most weekends and always host holiday dinners at my home.
What is your leadership style or philosophy?
I’ve been fortunate to have been coached and mentored by some truly great Caterpillar leaders. I’ve also studied and tried to emulate characteristics of some influential business leaders outside of Caterpillar. There is one constant in those leaders whom I consider to be the best of the best: principle. I aspire to be a principled leader. My philosophy is simple, and I do my best to follow it every day: Do the right thing, and do the thing right.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Early in my career, a friend whom I admire pointed out to me that we are always being judged. It’s part of the human condition. It’s naïve to think otherwise. Know this, my friend advised, and be conscious of how you present yourself. Strive to present your best self rather than a subpar version or, worse yet, an imitation of someone else you’d like to be. Words to live by. iBi