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A View from the Top: Brandy Powell

June 1, 2014
A View from the Top: Brandy Powell By Tom Peric

One of the first things you learn when talking to Emerson’s Brandy Powell is that she values the power of teamwork. While she currently leads a team of engineers and marketers from all over the globe, she considers acting as a role model one of her most important responsibilities. As a leader, she prefers a “make it happen” style, knowing that you can’t accomplish big goals or big projects alone.

Powell’s credentials as a woman in HVACR are impressive. She is currently vice president of variable speed for the Air Conditioning business of Emerson Climate Technologies. The global team she leads is working in a start-up environment to develop, launch and grow variable speed compression, power electronics and controls technologies that will continue Emerson’s global technology leadership.

After explaining the goal of this Women in HVACR issue to her, Powell says the starting point for women is to remove the “guy thing” that clings to the profession. As an Air Force Academy cadet, she was one of only 10 percent of women and the only female aeronautical engineer. (According to the most recent study from the American Society for Engineering Education, 18.4 percent of students graduating with an undergraduate engineering degree in 2011 were women.)

“What young women don’t see is the creativity behind engineering,” says Powell. While engineering has pocketbook appeal as a respected and well-paying profession, Powell observes that today’s youth seem more idealistic. “Exposing young people to the possibilities that they can actually change their world, creating and improving our environment and helping people through the power of engineering is eye-opening,” she says. “They get excited realizing they can help create cleaner air, design products to save energy or connect to the ever-growing smart Internet.”

When asked if she has risen to a high-profile position in a large company because she was simply smart, proven by her admittance to the Academy, Powell shrugs off the indirect compliment. “I’m not sure how much being smart has to do with it,” she says. “Looking back, one of the best lessons I took from the academy and the military was how to thrive in a male-dominated environment. Since I was young, I didn’t think much about gender. If I won praise or criticism, it’s not because I’m a woman, but it’s what was or wasn’t accomplished that is measured.”

Powell urges women to become “learners” as she describes it. “Seek out information, learn from whoever can teach you,” Powell says. “I’m always ready to ask questions, I’m ready to pair up with someone more experienced and I’m not afraid of asking someone to explain [things] to me. I’m challenging in that manner.

“I strive to be very collaborative; it’s just how I work with people. In my experience, women tend to be a little more collaborative and men more directive. That’s good, because a successful HVACR business needs both types of skills. The military taught me that everything depends on the team – where you learn and collaborate. Stand back and think about it. No one truly accomplishes anything alone – you train together, mobilize, and if needed, go to war together.”

When this writer casually mentioned that he heard Powell had received an award in the industry, she immediately deflected the praise. “I accepted the award, but it was a team award, not my award,” she said. (The Next Generation Copeland Scroll variable-speed compressor line from Emerson won the Product of the Year during innovation ceremonies at the 2014 AHR Expo in New York City.) “We develop solid technology at my company, and when we win awards – it’s because we had a first-class team that stayed focused on its goals.”

Any discussion of women in HVACR eventually turns to recruitment. Powell puts a micro and macro stamp on this issue. The larger issue is that the industry in general needs to attract more talented people from a shrinking workforce. Many potential recruits simply don’t consider the HVACR industry. Focusing on the micro view, Powell says women are an untapped resource for the industry. A solid grass-roots effort from men is needed to encourage women around them, including their families and friends to view the industry objectively and realize it’s rich with opportunity, from hands-on jobs, to accounting, administration and even management positions.

Powell says that women should embrace the fact that they are “rare,” in the industry especially once you rise above mid-level. “You have the opportunity to make an impression and make changes because you’re different, and if that’s because you’re the only woman in the room or on the job, it’s OK.” She maintains that over time, more women will move into technical industries as the demand grows and the need for a broader array of talent, social and skill sets increases. She acknowledges that there are gender differences in the workplace. Powell says the men and women she observes often approach a new challenge differently, particularly if it is a new position or project.

“A man will say, ‘I want that challenge – I can make it successful,’” says Powell. “Women who might be equally qualified, will think, ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘What if I fail?’ The key is simply one of attitude and confidence. Women need to view an opportunity by how they can make it successful, what they can bring to the task, what they will learn – not from a perspective of how they could fail, or what they don’t know. If you wait until you have gained 120 percent of the experience needed for a new role – then you’re not challenging yourself and probably overqualified. Women need to think ahead and picture what they can do for a project and what they can be; then they are less likely to get caught up in self-doubt.”

Powell mentors women of all ages and backgrounds. To encourage young women to have confidence in their technical abilities and illuminate career paths, she shares her experiences – telling the story as young Air Force officer, how she pioneered new technology combined with flight tests to save lives by identifying a major design defect in Boeing airframes, and pushing for FAA resolution despite strong pushback and ridicule.

Powell points out that women who consider the HVACR industry have an advantage with mid and large companies similar to Emerson because they offer a career with sizeable challenges and immense opportunities. The range of skills these companies seek includes technical expertise, management acumen, sales experience, customer service talent, and the list continues. “We’ve had people work at Emerson who went on to own and manage HVACR contracting firms, service companies and distributorships,” Powell says. “The opportunity for hands-on training at Emerson is first class, and the variety of job opportunities is immense.”

Flying High

Powell says she often is asked why she entered the Air Force Academy. Writing a report about airplanes as an eighth-grader in Birmingham, Alabama, Powell said she wanted to fly and even landed a job at a small airport. “Then, when I found out how much it cost to learn how to fly, my dad said, ‘You need three more jobs or to win the lotto,’” Powell recalls.

“That’s why I joined the Air Force,” says Powell, who graduated the Academy with a B.S. in aeronautics and mathematics. She earned an MBA from Xavier University, as well as a master’s degree in both flight systems engineering and mechanical engineering.

Powell served in the Air Force for 11 years, emerging as a Captain. She has been at Emerson for over 20 years.