Leading Excellence in Automation Technologies

Suzanne Nichols, Leader of Global Applications & Business Process Automation

  • Suzanne Nichols leads a Process Automation Centre of Excellence for a Global Manufacturer of Consumer Goods. For those of you who don’t know what this means exactly, she sets the standards of how her organisation should use automation technology to ensure best practice and reap ROI on their projects.

I first met Suzanne when I worked with her on a presentation for a tech conference, I was instantly impressed by her attention to detail, positive attitude and technical expertise. So, I was delighted when she agreed to take part in the Strong Female Lead blog.

Suzanne is located in Racine, Wisconsin, USA, which is on the shores of Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago. But she manages a global team, which means trying to schedule meetings across multiple continents. “Is there ever a good time for a single meeting that includes Europe, Asia and the Americas?!” she says.

Her job certainly keeps her on her toes. She describes her day as less of a routine and more like “a wonderful dance between clients (who help me understand business needs), architects (who help me define solutions) and delivery management (where I monitor performance and identify ways to get better). This is an extremely fulfilling way to spend my workday.”

Specifically, her current role revolves around Digital Process Automation where she is helping her organization gain efficiencies by leveraging Workflow and Robotic Process Automation tools. “I love the fact that no two days are alike, because it means I’m always learning, growing, and discovering new ways to help my employer thrive.”

Her IT journey started with an Operations & Service Desk role at Computer Center, before she moved on to Applications Programming, then on to Desktop and Network support. “Those roles helped me to see that I had an aptitude and passion for delivering solutions that helped meet business needs. From there, I journeyed toward EDI (Electronic Data Exchange), and Integration Services, and then moved on to Website Delivery.

For anyone who wants to get into the tech field, she advises getting exposure to multiple jobs/roles early in your career. “Internships are a great way to start!  Having good breadth of experience will not only help you find your passion and talent, but it will also help you to better understand end-to-end impact that your work can have, which will definitely increase your overall value.”

Suzanne speaking on a panel at Bizagi Catalyst tech conference

Global success

One thing that is clear from Suzanne is that she is modest about her success. Even when asked what the highlight of her career has been so far, it’s all about team effort and the result for the company, rather than personal gain.

“I think the achievement I take the most pride in is the fact that I was able to step into a situation with a struggling team, immature processes, new technology and overrunning costs and turned that situation into a success. The end result was a high performing team; clear, continuously improving processes; proven technology; and 70% reduction in costs. Beyond that, the team involved became a loyal, close-knit group that thrived.” And just to prove it wasn’t luck or an ideal situation, she’s achieved this more than once with the same results. 

She clearly takes pride in her team. And she admits that global team management has its challenges, including language barriers and building relationships remotely. “These challenges require a lot of extra management time to help global team members to thrive as valued, engaged, motivated team members who clearly understand what is expected of them.”

But it also has a number of rewards. Suzanne says that her global team brings diversity of thought, which can help drive innovation, follow-the-sun support, which can improve everyone’s work-life balance, and the enjoyment that can come from learning about cultures and traditions around the world.

Suzanne and her colleagues

She also recalls a sense of achievement from a project early in her career when she had an opportunity to do some pretty innovative work for the local county jail. “I may be revealing a bit too much about my age here, but I was involved in digitizing two aspects of the Inmate Booking process.

“Firstly, building a digital ‘mug-book” so witnesses didn’t have to flip through pictures of suspects manually, but could search on characteristics such as height, hair color and tattoos. And secondly, digitizing the inmate’s fingerprints and doing an immediate check with the NCIC to see if they’re wanted elsewhere. While that is a given nowadays, it was REALLY cutting edge at the time, and when I later talked to my kids about it, they thought I had really worked for one of those popular TV crime shows. Gee, maybe I did?!”

While that may not seem innovative now, it was for the time. And that’s what Suzanne continues to do now: find innovative ways to deliver solutions for her organization through technology.

Female mentors and sisterhood in the tech world

Like many women in the tech space, Sue has sometimes found herself lacking in female colleagues, and struggled to get her voice heard, literally. “Once, when I was the only female on a leadership team, I had a recurring experience where anything I said in a meeting seemed to be ignored until a male counterpart would repeat the exact same words.  It was rather surreal – I felt like I was being punked or living in a sitcom! 

“Thankfully, I am no longer in that situation.  And I’m really fortunate to have spent much my career surrounded with talented peers and leaders who value results over gender, or other characteristics.” Perhaps a female voice being ignored in a room full of men is a common occurrence in business. Sue appreciates that there are more barriers for women to overcome, but we need to have the confidence to speak out.

“So many studies have shown that there are some basic differences in how men and women are wired, and some of the characteristically ‘male’ traits can make women feel overpowered or bullied.  But as smart women who are aware of these differences, we can more than overcome them – we can embrace them and use those differences to our advantage! How? By being aware and prepared! Our differences can be leveraged as strengths. But that can take effort on our part: to define how we want to be known, find a coach/mentor to help if needed, and take charge of our own destiny!” 

Suzanne comments that she’s been fortunate to have a couple of great mentors throughout her career, and that has helped her to recognise her own strengths and address areas in need of growth.  “To me, it’s especially helpful to have had female role models who could demonstrate how a woman can be a strong, no-nonsense professional while maintaining the parts of her personality that make her unique.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Quick-fire questions

  • Are you a morning lark or a night owl?     A morning lark
  • Cats or dogs?     Dogs
  • Favourite book?     Eragon, by Christopher Paolini
  • Go-to karaoke song?     That Old Time Rock and Roll
  • What are you watching on Netflix right now?     I don’t watch much television! 
  • Favourite holiday location?     A cottage on a lake in the “Northwoods” of Wisconsin
  • Where do you do your best thinking?     During my evening walk
  • You’re favourite food/meal?    Mexican food!
  • Favourite gadget?       My apple slicer/corer
  • Your favourite female icon?      Eleanor Roosevelt

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