Cheryl English, VP, Government & Industry Relations, has been in the lighting industry for 40 years. Remarkably, she has spent 38 of those years at Acuity Brands. We sat down with Cheryl to discuss the greatest challenges she has faced in the industry and characteristics she believes every leader should possess.
How did you decide to work in Engineering and/or the Lighting Industry?
In my undergraduate studies, I majored in Applied Math and took an elective course called Illuminating Engineering. I was immediately hooked, because it was a technical field that was an amazing blend of science and art. At the University of Colorado, they have an Architectural Engineering degree in Illuminating Engineering, so I immediately switched my major and applied for internships with design firms and manufacturers. Still today, I think lighting is one of the few industries that demands a balance of science and art.
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve conquered?
There are several accomplishments that I’m proud of. I became the first woman vice president of Lithonia Lighting in 2000. Since then, it’s been great to see many women achieving key leadership roles at Acuity Brands.
I’ve been honored with various leadership opportunities in our industry including: President of the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), Lighting Division Chair for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), and Board member of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). I also help lead Acuity Brands’ not-for-profit programs for lighting education scholarships through the Fund and scientific research funding through the McClung Lighting Research Foundation.
Being recognized by peers within our organization is also a great accomplishment. Some of my most prized awards are the University of Colorado Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award, the Women in Manufacturing STEP Ahead Award, the NEMA Kite and Key Award, and two IES awards for Distinguished Service and Technical Contributions with the Fellow Award.
On the personal side, I’m an advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association and have chaired the top 10 Georgia fundraising campaigns for multiple years. I’m also a recent breast cancer survivor and advocate for breast cancer awareness.
What is your advice for other women?
My mantra is “whatever you do...do it with passion.” I believe personal success is the responsibility of to develop and manage. If you aren’t passionate about what the future holds for your career, find where your energy resides and realign your plan.
Except for my first job at Acuity Brands, each of my positions has been a new company role that resulted from identifying opportunities, communicating the benefits, and being willing to take the responsibility to move it forward.
For women, I think it is important to have a good resource of data and facts to support your business strategies. You win the game with solid data—leave your emotions at home. Women generally are balancing a lot of personal and professional priorities and the tradeoffs can be challenging. Above all, take care of yourself first.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?
My mother encouraged learning and reinforced to her children that we were capable of anything. Our only limitations were those we imposed upon ourselves. I think that mindset established a standard for a high level of performance and accomplishments. In my early management career, I had a manager who was very creative and very demanding. He challenged me to be better in everything I did. And while that can be frustrating at times, it created a level of accomplishment across his team that drives excellence every day. Success isn’t about achieving one great thing—it's about achieving something great every day.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Listen to your employees and customers and help them to be great. There is a proverb that says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing female leaders today?
Perhaps the biggest challenge for females is choosing your priorities and managing them well. We often want to do too many things and end up performing mediocre at all of them. This includes your professional as well as your personal life. There will always be sacrifices and tradeoffs, so follow your passion and you won’t go wrong.
The good news is that in today’s business environment, the flexibility of the work environment provides much more support for all leaders to manage work/life priorities. I’m so proud of the work Acuity Brands has done in this area compared to other companies in our industry.
What is one mistake you witness female leaders making more frequently than others?
Listen intently and be inquisitive. Back up your positions and professional opinions with data and facts. Too often, discussions end up with far too much emotion to be effective in influencing positive decision making.
You are your own best advocate, so make sure you effectively promote the things you do that have a positive impact for the company. Don’t expect to be recognized for your successes if you don’t recognize them yourself. Having a diverse network within and outside the company also ensures that others are aware of the influence you possess.
What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Understand the challenges your employees and customers face. Once your employees are aligned with how to improve the customer experience, break down the barriers to ensure your employees are engaged and successful. Spend a day in their life because what they tell you are issues may only be symptoms that help uncover real opportunities.
Why is it important to have male allies on your leadership journey?
Diversity is critical to consider issues from various aspects. It’s important to have a broad balance of allies based on gender, age, and lifestyles. Diversity keeps your mind open to new opportunities and new experiences.