Mining for Leaders: meet Thien Mai Quoc

February 11, 2019


We’re excited to continue Mining for Leaders, an interview series showcasing the diverse management team within Mining & Metallurgy’s operations, through examples of leadership, guidance and personal experiences in this interview with Thien Mai Quoc, Manager, Business Development – Brussels, Belgium.

Q: Tell us a little about your education and your work experience and how that has shaped where you are in your career today. 

A: I’ve been working at SNC-Lavalin’s Brussels office for the past 10 years. In fact, it’s the first place where I’ve worked. I started as a Process Engineer within a seasoned Process team. I’ve had the opportunity to accrue extensive experience on how various types of projects evolve in several fields, particularly phosphoric acid and biochemistry. 

I gradually gained more autonomy and was promoted to Project Manager, then to Project Engineer and, finally, to Manager, Business Development. As part of my current role, I realize now how much of my experience early on in my career plays such a huge role in my day-to-day activities, as I had to learn about all facets of project management. Today, I essentially have two key roles: BD and project engineering. Continuing to work on projects enables me to stay abreast of evolving work methods, as well as incorporate these in the BD part of my job.

As well, when it comes to business development, it really helps to know what we’re selling to be able to showcase our expertise in specialized sectors, such as fertilizer. 

I’ve always had a knack for communication and love working in a team. Since the Brussels office is relatively small, effective communication is particularly important. 

Q: What was a great/defining career moment for you? A mentorship, stretch assignment, accomplishment or opportunity, for instance?

A: The first “thank you” message I got from a client for a study we conducted! It’s always gratifying to receive such a message from a client for a job well done! We had developed a genuine, trusting relationship and way of working with the client. 

The first contract I won as BD Manager was also memorable, since it meant more work for the company and the whole team. 

Sometimes, we also lose contracts, so we need to learn from that experience: “Where did we go wrong? What could we have done better?” For example, we lost one last January because our prices were too high. At that point, we have to ask ourselves: “Did we make a mistake?” 

It turns out that same client had to adjust the scope with a new supplier... and came back to us to verify the work! It’s a bit of a knowledge issue when we deal with clients that consider themselves technical experts, which makes our job harder, since we need to focus our strategy on quality and always deliver above and beyond to justify our fees. But in the end, it’s all about teamwork. We need to juggle priorities and find solutions to not only meet our clients’ needs, but also ensure we deliver a project that is successful and high quality. It’s wonderful to launch a project that runs smoothly from beginning to end, but that isn’t always the case.

Q: As a successful woman in a male-dominated industry, how have you strived for balance at different times in your career?

A: Things were obviously easier early on in my career, but they always get a bit more complicated when kids enter the picture. In my case, my partner also works for SNC-Lavalin. However, there’s no conflict of interest. People are aware of our relationship and respect the fact that we can’t both be travelling at the same time, for example. 

We prefer not to work on projects together, but sometimes it happens and things go rather well. We’ve found the right balance between our professional and private lives, and we each fulfill our family obligations equally, all while holding down high-commitment jobs. 

However, people sometimes wonder: “How do you manage to take care of our kids with all that travelling?” While this sort of question is well-intentioned, dads seldom hear it! I think this reaction is normal, since the notion of a woman’s traditional role is still deeply ingrained in our society, while professional women are expected to be able to do everything. That said, our children like it more when their dad does the cooking, since that’s not my strong suit!

We need to remember to never judge a book by its cover, so if we really want to tear down these barriers and break through these glass ceilings, we need to keep our emotions in check and react professionally and positively at all times. In fact, some reactions can even defuse tense situations. I think humour works particularly well! Generally, if you can make people laugh while also teaching them something, things tend to turn out well.

Q: Who are your role models, male or female, and why?

A: I’m inspired by a few historical figures, such as female scientists like Marie Curie and, more recently, Simone Veil, who passed away last year. She was a lawyer and politician, and was appointed as France’s Minister of Health. Things must have been very challenging for them at the time. While I haven’t suffered as much as they did for their careers,

"what it taught me is that you need to work hard to succeed; there will always be obstacles in your way, but you should never give up.  Eventually, your efforts will bear fruit." 

I would also add gynecologist, Denis Mukwege, and former captive of the Islamic State, Nadia Murad, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for their fight to end sexual violence. To this end, I also donate regularly to the PLAN Foundation, whose mission is to foster and finance young girls’ education so they can take care of themselves. Education is really a key factor in changing attitudes and moving society forward.

And of course, I have family role models! We are Vietnamese and my grandparents had a very traditional mindset: my grandmother has never worked outside the home, but my grandfather always told us: “Go to school. Be independent, my dear girl!” He was kind of a forward thinker back then. 

My parents had a relatively balanced lifestyle: my father did the ironing and picked us up after school. Since my mom worked further away, household chores were divided between them and things were far from automatic. However, my father never cooked. I think I take after him in that regard!

Q: Who are your allies who have helped shape your development, leadership style, etc.?

A: Most of my allies are retired, but I still consider some as role models. For example, my first Project Manager was highly skilled both technically and at a human level. I remember a time when I thought I’d made a mistake that turned out not to be one. The client blamed us for it, but the Project Manager defended me in front of the client; he always stood up for his team when dealing with the client. That’s when I realized we’re never alone on a project. He always emphasized teamwork and that we’re all in the same boat, to ensure the project runs smoothly. That’s what matters most, in the end.

In addition to this, I received great guidance from many Senior Process Engineers during my first few years on the job, which you don’t always see these days. Things are more hectic now and knowledge transfer doesn’t happen as often, since time is short. Also, the circumstances and contexts are different. I’m lucky to have gotten such support early on in my career. I think mentoring is important and I try to provide it to others time permitting.

Q: What piece of advice would you give to young women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)?

A: First off, you need to be competent in your job. You can’t just assume that negative feedback you get from your peers or superiors is based solely on gender. You should accept it as constructive criticism in order to grow and improve. 

Always take a step back and ask yourself: “Are there any issues with my work? How can I improve?” You need to take a look at yourself and make sure your work is beyond reproach before pointing fingers. 

"It’s important to keep believing in yourself and be proud of the work you do. This will help keep you motivated."  

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