Interview with Alison Main

21 Apr 2011

What does your current job involve?
My current position is Associate Director of Research and Development for Duracell. I've worked for Procter & Gamble for 17 years. I'm responsible for Modelling and Simulation and Process Development for the Duracell brand. I work closely with marketing, finance, market research, engineering and operations colleagues to understand business and consumer needs, so we can touch and improve more consumers lives with great new products.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
From a very early age I was fascinated by how things worked and why materials behaved the way they did - the usual childhood fascination with blowing bubbles, Silly Putty and baking soda and vinegar rockets. I was fortunate to have several excellent science teachers through school who were committed to giving us hands on experience ranging from making glass animals to 'identifying the transition metal in a mystery solid'.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
I was inspired to pursue a career in science by a secondary school chemistry teacher who had worked in the chemical industry prior to retraining as a teacher. He was able to share with us how what we learnt in class applied to 'the real world' and the value of chemistry in improving consumers' lives through the creation of unique and valuable products. That spark has continued throughout my career at P&G, in an environment where innovative thinking is valued.

What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
I had two motivations for pursuing postgraduate studies. Firstly, it was apparent as I researched career opportunities that in many areas of the chemical industry there are career limitations without a PhD. Secondly, the 4th year research project of the chemistry course at the University of Oxford gave me a taste of the joys and challenges of independent research, and I was keen take that experience further.

What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
Throughout my career I have been interested in solving tough technical challenges and also coaching and developing other people. As I've ascended the career ladder I've had the opportunity to take on bigger and tougher challenges with increasing degrees of autonomy and to coach and mentor a wider range of people, which has been extremely rewarding and satisfying. P&G is a 'promote from within' company which means there is a strong focus on enabling people to build the skills they to succeed and I've certainly benefited from that. Along my career journey, I've received great mentoring and coaching, so giving back to help advance others has been important to me.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
The three most important things I've learned in my career are to 1) know myself and the things that motivate and inspire me; 2) to constantly stretch myself to seek new experiences to enable me to learn and grow, and 3) be quick to ask for help, since it's the result that's important, and in industry it's more valuable to gather the right team around you and get to solutions faster, than to work alone and be too slow to support the business.

What would you have done differently?
I started working for P&G at their Fabric and Home Care Technical Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, which is one of our smaller technical centres. In hindsight, I would have sought opportunities to move to another technical centre earlier in my career, to learn about a wider range of technologies and processes, and broaden my skills and network.

How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
I have set myself goals both in terms of business results and personal growth. I've met my business goals by ensuring we had clear consumer insights and a technical right to succeed, focusing on priorities, ensuring I engaged the right team with the right skills and getting the coaching and training I needed myself. I've met my career goals by consistently delivering business results, clearly communicating the kind of work I love and being open to new challenges.

What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
The key milestones in my career have been seeing products that I've developed on market shelves. It is a huge thrill to be able to point to something in the supermarket and say 'Our team developed that!' Even more exciting has been creating products for developing countries and knowing that I have made a meaningful difference to someone's daily struggle.

What key things would a young person need to do, if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved?
The key things a young person would need to do are: 1) be technically curious about everything; 2) seek to learn and grow through every experience (both the successes and failures) and 3) share what they learn by coaching others and helping them develop new skills.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
I've achieved work / life balance by knowing that ultimately I am in control. I need to be clear about my values and goals and then make choices that meet my priorities at work and at home, With communication technology advancing so fast, work and home life are becoming much more integrated. P&G supports me being flexible; it's not about 'hours in the office', but delivering the business result. Whilst I've not needed to use them, P&G offers a wide range of flexible and less than full time work options, which has been a great way to support many of my colleagues and help them stay at work through different life stages.

What is your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
I am a servant leader. My responsibility as a leader is to communicate clear objectives and then work tirelessly to support my team and give them the resources they need to get the job done. I keep my teams engaged and motivated by enabling them to connect with the value and purpose of the project and ensuring that each individual can see 'what's in it for them'.

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