Denise Pothier—Connecting the dots between diversity and productivity
Denise Pothier: Master of Business Administration, 2018
Based in: Halifax
Denise Pothier (Master of Business Administration ’18) began her career in chemical engineering before shifting to a management track, working as a consultant for clients in the oil and gas sector.
In 2007, her company was bought by the global consulting firm Stantec. Suddenly, she went from an organization with a few hundred employees to one with several thousand.
Pothier rose to the challenge, and now holds the title of vice-president of practice services. A Nova Scotia native with French Acadian and Mi’kmaq heritage, Pothier is also Stantec’s first-ever vice-president of Indigenous relations.
In 2018, the Dutch organization, Inspiring Fifty, named her one of Canada’s 50 Most Inspiring Women in Technology. That same year, she was named one of Canada’s most powerful women by the Women’s Executive Network.
Pothier explains how her Athabasca University (AU) MBA helped her get to the next level.
You grew up in small town Nova Scotia. What did you envision yourself doing when you were in school there?
I come from a long line of schoolteachers so that seemed like a logical extension for me. But I was really interested in the sciences. And I was always very interested in helping people. My dad’s a carpenter, and he was like, “We need land surveyors—you like being outside, you’d use math.” Then my Grade 11 teacher threw out engineering.
We often refer to engineering as the invisible profession. Everything you touch, every day, an engineer at some point in time had something to do with it. I knew electrical and mechanical weren’t my thing. Industrial and civil, weren’t resonating with me. But certainly, process flow and how things are interconnected, that really appealed to me, so I went into chemical engineering.
What did you do after you got your degree?
I worked at a refinery, which is a chemical engineer’s dream. I got to climb through every piece of equipment you can imagine and did all kinds of very interesting environmental surveys and reports. Then I got to work in the offshore industry. That’s where I moved more into the management side of things. Then I went into consulting and developed quality health safety environment management systems for clients, particularly in the oil and gas sector.
You were employed at a small company that was acquired by a much larger one, Stantec, where you currently work. What was that transition like?
It was really scary going from a small company to a large company—the fear of just becoming a number. But really, I credit Stantec and my direct supervisor with this accelerated career trajectory in the last 11 years, when I went from doing quality management for a 200-person firm to all of a sudden doing it for a 7,000-person firm.
How did you approach that challenge?
The CEO at the time came and did a town hall meeting. I was feeling very vulnerable. Am I going to be a casualty of the acquisition? Am I redundant? I was a single mom at the time, so I was fighting for myself and my daughter and our livelihood.
The CEO indicated at that meeting that Stantec had a strategic objective to become certified to a quality management standard the following year.
People who know me now can’t believe this, but at that time this was very out of character for me: I went up to the front of the room, introduced myself, and said, “This is what I do here, I want to help.”
It really taught me a lesson about reaching out. If I had just sat back and said nothing, I might have ended up not having this amazing career.
You’ve been at Stantec ever since. Why did you decide to get your MBA?
I’d always thought that I would combine my engineering degree with something. The typical combinations are engineering and law or engineering and business.
Law you can’t do part-time, and it really wasn’t where my career was going. I was getting more and more responsibility, leading teams, and leading strategic initiatives for the organization.
With all of my travel, and with my crazy schedule, the online, asynchronous learning environment at AU really resonated with me. I was learning the theory about why things I’d tried had worked or failed. You know, you read a certain textbook, and you’re like, oh my god! That’s why that didn’t work. Or here’s all the theory behind why this went really well.
You’ve helped develop Stantec’s diversity and inclusion council. How did your experience at AU inform this work?
For my first module I was being paired up with people in the hotel industry and the government and I was like, this is going to be weird. But it really reinforced the value of diversity. It was a rich learning environment, and we learned so much from one another.
For every employee, I want for their work experience to be that they’re not compromising themselves when they cross the threshold of the Stantec office. I’m a firm believer that a diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture makes for a stronger organization. Why would we want to leave talent on the sidelines?
The AU learning environment, where everybody’s coming from diverse backgrounds, diverse geographic locations, and diverse perspectives—it just reinforced that.
Learn more about AU’s Master of Business Administration.