How Leaders Lead: Tana Utley on Values That Defined her Journey at Caterpillar

March 1, 2022
On the heels of her retirement, Tana Utley, former vice president of Caterpillar, reflects on her engineering career.

Each role that Tana Utley entered over the 37 years (and seven months) she worked at Caterpillar Inc. tested her ability to make critical decisions. Fortunately, she carried the lessons learned into future roles.

“My biggest takeaway is that engineers are really well-positioned to be business leaders if they’re willing to learn about business,” said the former vice president. “We can look at the world as a series of problems to be solved. And that’s exactly what business is; it is a series of problems to be solved.”

Utley tackled each new role—whether she was working hands-on with one of those emissions programs, or whether she was taking on a new officer role for a division of Caterpillar—with a plan to get through the first 90 days. That plan included figuring out what the problems were that needed to be solved, determining how to solve it and then working toward a vision with the end in mind.

What follows from this, she said, is to ask: “How are we going to write that book?”

At Caterpillar, that usually meant a book of continuous improvement and solving the problems one chapter at a time. “The idea was never to try and push the organization through some kind of dramatic change it’s not ready for,” Utley said.

Another imperative is to bring the people in your division along with you. “The people in the business make the business, so you need to make sure that you’re taking care of them,” advised Utley. “And abiding by the ‘leaders eat last’ mantra is particularly important. And always, always say ‘thank you.’”

Editor’s Note: Machine Design's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hub compiles our coverage of gender representation issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines. Click here for more.

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