As chairperson of LDG’s board of directors, Brenda Nichols is one of a handful of women who leads an architectural/engineering firm in Pennsylvania. She is recognized as one of Pennsylvania Business Central’s “Women Making a Difference” and frequently shares her leadership wisdom with professional and community groups on the recurring theme, “Believe that you can make a difference.”
A member of the firm’s board of directors since 1996, Brenda is LDG’s longtime chief financial officer. During her career, she has developed a widely admired and unique leadership style — inquiring, honest and down-to-earth.
As part of our Celebrating LDG Women in Leadership series, we’ll learn more about Brenda, from her path to leadership to the advice she has for future leaders.
What were the circumstances when you first had an inkling that you might become a leader someday?
I was a senior in college taking a business policy course. The professor pulled me aside after class and asked me what my major was. I told him accounting and he said, “You won’t be an accountant very long.” I was crushed and asked him why he thought that. He said, “Your mind is inquisitive, you always ask questions and you love to learn. Your career will take off quickly and you’ll be in management.” In hindsight, he saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.
What inspires you as a leader? What do you enjoy most?
Making a difference. Participating in moving an organization forward. Assisting in solving problems. Encouraging others. I love change—it’s stimulating. It provides opportunities for learning and reflection.
As a leader, I believe in asking lots of questions. Don’t wait for your team to ask questions. Encourage your team to ask questions also. Get their opinions. Seek their input.
Who has been your greatest inspiration and/or mentor?
My first mentors were Sam and David Simon, owners of Simon Resources in Williamsport and investors in Chromographic Processing. They’re very traditional men, and people were surprised that they had hired me. I was 28 years old and they hired me to be a controller for their start-up company. I was young, in a role that I was probably unprepared for, and they were patient and helped me. And they had faith in me.
My greatest inspiration is my mom. She was just a great human being. She was kind, she was generous. She loved kids. And she died way too young of what began as breast cancer.
How important to you is the team that you lead? How do they contribute to your success?
I think it’s the other way around. If you read The Serving Leader by Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert, a person’s success is directly related to how they help their team succeed. Leaders need to help everybody flourish, and in turn, they will thrive.
Has your path to leadership been a straight line? Zigzag? Other?
I never saw myself as being on a leadership path. I had people who took chances and helped me to succeed. LDG founder Ken Larson took a chance on me. I was relatively young when he hired me to help with a newer company. I wasn’t on a path to leadership. Instead I felt I had an opportunity, and I made the most of it. And by doing that, I learned. I was always willing to open my mind and accept challenges.
For example, at Chromographic Processing, one of the first assignments I had was being in charge of the shipping department. I knew nothing about shipping. I just went out, got to know the guys, became a good friend of one of the guys, and he helped me.
What are some of the most significant obstacles you’ve overcome in your career? How did you accomplish this?
The biggest obstacle I’ve had early on was being a woman in mostly male-dominated companies. I’ve worked in manufacturing and engineering, and I had to figure out ways to get beyond the stereotypes that men can cast on women.
I’m really good at acting as if I don’t notice things. If there was a situation where someone treated me differently, instead of making that something that stopped me, I ignored it and persisted. It’s not that I didn’t notice it, but I didn’t allow it to be a distraction from my goals. That applies to everything, not just being a woman in a man’s world. If a man sounded condescending, I acted as though I didn’t hear it and pushed ahead. If my father made statements like “You’ll never amount to anything”, I ignored him and kept going.
As a working mother, what values, techniques, or support systems have you used to achieve balance?
Ask for support. Seek help. Speak up yourself. Request that your husband pitch in. You need to find ways to do better at using your support system or making one. Get past the annoyance that you have to ask and just ask.