Growing up in southern Louisiana, Paula Northern was a girl who liked math and science. When her parents registered her for a summer high school engineering program, she was hooked. “I loved mechanical engineering,” Northern remembers. “I liked that it was tangible.”
Northern, now 42, still loves engineering, but she’s found her perfect fit in “operations” in the oil and gas industry, working behind the scenes with engineers and workers at Baker Hughes, a GE Company, to ensure that the people she supports have the tools they need when and where they need them. “I still love going out on the shop floor and seeing parts being made,” she says.
Northern started at GE in 1994, when as a college student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana she won a scholarship from the company to intern at the company’s Evendale, Ohio, plant, which makes jet engines. After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree in 1997, she returned to GE in Ohio full-time to participate in their rotational learning program, which allowed her to study manufacturing, quality control, design engineering and sourcing.
Her first Midwestern winter was a shock. When Northern attempted to clear the windshield of her Honda Civic with her employee badge, her bemused coworkers introduced her to the ice scraper. “They eased my transition, not just from Louisiana to Ohio, but also from college to work,” Northern says. “They gave me the tools I needed to succeed.”
After completing the rotation program, Northern decided to focus on sourcing and operations. At her first position in Evendale, she says she initially felt overwhelmed by the fact that she was a young woman in a male-dominated field.
She found help in a senior female vice president who not only treated Northern with kindness and respect, but coached her to see herself as future management material.
“It showed me how important it is for young people to have someone they can connect with, someone who shows them the path forward,” Northern says.
After stints working in various GE sourcing jobs in Atlanta and Shreveport, Louisiana, Northern moved to Texas a decade ago. She focused her work in global supply chain, at first in GE Power and then moving to GE Oil & Gas four years ago. That unit merged with Baker Hughes in July, forming Baker Hughes, a GE Company.
Today, Northern herself is a vice president responsible for the global sourcing strategy, quality, delivery and logistics of components, working with oil and field equipment in Houston. That means that she oversees a team of people who partner with suppliers to provide equipment and services that help with oil extraction all over the world. The factories need material input that includes large fabrications, castings and forgings for GE products, and people in the field need items such as flashlights, hand tools to digital tablets. Northern’s team sources those items to find the best parts at the best prices and quality and establishes good relationships with vendors.
But she still considers it one of her main duties to mentor each new crop of female grads starting at GE so they will have the confidence and the vision to see themselves as people capable of rising up through the executive ranks.
Her first mentor at GE put her on a path to finding other inspiring leaders to work with, through GE groups such as the Women’s Network and the African American Forum. Looking back on her career, Northern says there are several instances she can point to and say, “If someone wasn’t willing to take a chance on me right then,” things would have been different.
For example, in her first executive job after she moved to Houston, Northern says her supervisor set high expectations for her and gave her the space to live up to them. “He taught me to think of myself as a business person, not just someone with one (limited) role,” she says.
Now that she’s managing others, Northern says she emulates her previous bosses’ examples by working as a “situational leader.” She looks at each employee’s strengths and motivations to craft individual solutions or plans. “I tell people all the time, once you have your brand established, and people know you’ll actually do what you say you’ll do, they’re more willing to take a risk on you.”
Northern is particularly focused on encouraging, coaching and cheerleading young women — whether they work for her or not. “As a leader, when you see someone who has potential, who has the eagerness and curiosity, it’s really your responsibility to encourage that,” she says.