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Top of Her Game

Jan 13, 2023   |   by Karen Endicott   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Since joining Thayer's Board of Advisors in 2012 to her 2018 alumni election to Dartmouth's Board of Trustees, Liz Cahill Lempres '83 Th'84 has applied her leadership acumen in service to the College. Now in the second year of her three-year term as chair of the trustees, Lempres is senior partner emerita at global management consultant firm McKinsey & Company, where she spent 28 years guiding strategy, organization, and performance improvement across industries in more than 20 countries. From Boston, Mass—where she lives with husband Marty '84 and raised three children—she shared her perspective on leadership, Dartmouth's priorities, and the role engineering should play in the liberal arts.

Photos by Rob Strong '04

"I'd love to see engineering and computer science be at the core of a redefinition of liberal arts."

Liz Cahill Lempres '83 Th'84

What drew you to engineering?

No one I knew was an engineer. I was good at math and science in high school but didn't want to be a doctor, so the logical thing was to think about being an engineer. When I got into the coursework in engineering to actually understand what an engineer did, I liked the problem-solving aspect, thinking about different ways to come at a problem to get to the same solution. And problem-solving in a team was really exciting.

What were Dartmouth and Thayer like when you were a student?

My class was probably about a third women. My engineering classes had fewer women—maybe 10 or 15 percent—but I never felt any gender issues. We had lecture classes, and then we had small group classes in which everyone participated equally. I've always worked in very male-oriented environments, and that early experience of collaborating on an equal footing with really smart, equally ambitious men became natural to me. That was a good experience from a personal leadership and confidence perspective.

Tell us more about your career path.

I saw engineering as a path to leadership in technology-oriented companies. I began my career at GE in research but found that it was a more solitary role than I wanted. I moved to IBM and started doing marketing to technology or technology-oriented businesses. I've always had an interest in consumer products—what makes people buy certain brands and what makes certain kinds of innovation successful—so I went to business school with the idea of migrating from my more technical roots into something more consumer-oriented. After business school, I went into consulting, where problem-solving is the core skill that one needs to be successful. That training, along with the liberal arts education I received at Dartmouth—the ability to communicate, write, synthesize, and apply critical thinking—gave me an advantage in consulting. I stayed in consulting for 28 years. I ran McKinsey's Boston office and two billion-dollar practices globally, one in retail and consumer goods and the second in private equity and principal investing. The background I have from Dartmouth, where you look at problems from different angles and take courses outside your major, makes it easier to move into new areas and feel comfortable that you have a framework for what's most important to understand, what's the most important data, how you solve the problem. Those core elements transcend any industry or particular company.

What is crucial for engineers to know about leadership?

We think about problem-solving from a quantitative perspective, but it also has some softer sides: How do you want to motivate people? How do you understand what an individual's concerns are? How do you think through what a person is feeling and what they mean versus what they’re saying? I've found that assuming that people are well-intentioned but maybe have a different perspective or a different fact base than you do and approaching it like an engineering problem—"we're trying to solve an issue here," as opposed to "we're trying to dictate a particular path forward"—tends to be more effective, particularly to really intelligent, motivated people.

How have you worked to bring more women into leadership roles?

I have been a champion for women in the areas I have worked in. Within consulting and on corporate boards, the more voices you have at the table, the more robust the conversation is and the better the outcomes. I have always believed that it's important for women to have choices, to make sure they understand the tradeoffs they’re making over the long term and feel supported in those choices. It's equally important to have role models to give them confidence they can succeed at higher levels in their organizations. That's been a big part of the work I’ve done at McKinsey and in other organizations I've been part of.

What about in your role on Thayer's Board of Advisors and now as chair of Dartmouth's Board of Trustees?

I think we've made enormous progress in having more diverse voices at Thayer. When I joined the board, I think I was the only woman. Now nearly a third are women, including Chair Samantha Scollard Truex '92 Th'93 Tu'95. There's also diversity in terms of different applications of engineering capabilities and geographic diversification, which Sam and former Chair Terry McGuire Th'82 have worked on a lot, particularly as we expand our ambitions for Thayer and work to collaborate more closely with computer science. Having a board that brings that breadth of experience is quite important. At the trustee level, I'm the second consecutive female chair and the third female chair, and the board is now 50-50 on a gender basis. Dartmouth also has several female members of the senior leadership team, including two deans, Alexis Abramson for Thayer and Elizabeth Smith for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. And Sian Beilock will join Dartmouth as president in July. It may surprise folks, but from a gender perspective, we've made enormous progress.

What about other kinds of diversity?

About a third of our trustees are people of color. That's a big priority we're continuing to work on, as well as two other forms of diversity: international diversity and diversity outside of Dartmouth undergrads. One of the things that characterizes the board—and it’s a real strength—is that, with the exception of one board member, everyone was a Dartmouth undergrad. That brings a shared experience, but it can also be a barrier to taking a university-wide view.

What do you mean by "university-wide"?

That's university with a lowercase "u." We have a significant graduate population across Thayer, Geisel, Tuck, and Guarini. That doesn't mean a diminished focus on the undergraduate experience. One of the things I've learned since being on the board is that the research opportunities afforded by being part of a university are a central component for a significant number of our undergrads. That's a reason they come to Dartmouth. The ability to work with professors on university-quality research is a big part of the value proposition for today's students.

Liz Lempres

"The ability to work with professors on university-quality research is a big part of the value proposition for today's students."

Liz Cahill Lempres '83 Th'84

What did the trustees seek in a new president for Dartmouth?

We looked for somebody who came from a strong liberal arts background and understood what a world-class research university looks like. You often get people who are steeped in one and have limited experience in the other, and we’ve worked hard to make sure that we have a leader who understands the importance of both.

You were on Thayer's Board of Advisors during the envisioning, funding, and building of the Class of 1982 Engineering and Computer Science Center. What does it feel like to see it up and running?

I think it exceeded everyone's expectations. What I love about it is it's going to bring more of the campus to the West End. Everybody who is an engineering major spends time up campus. Now students from various majors are spending time in the West End. When I've been in the new [Arthur L.] Irving Institute for Energy and Society and the new Class of 1982 Center, they’re filled with students working by themselves or working in groups. Some are clearly doing engineering project work, but an awful lot of them are not. Simple things such as having cafés make those spaces more welcoming. I’d love to see engineering and computer science be at the core of a redefinition of liberal arts. I think every student needs to leave Dartmouth with problem-solving skills. We contribute to that by making courses available to non-engineering students. There's so much positive energy and positive buzz around those programs, which like Irving, are cross-disciplinary. I think over time they'll draw many more students to the West End.

How can Dartmouth retain its commitment to teaching and its sense of community while pursuing research and innovation on a national and global scale?

This is a conversation we've had a lot over the last year, when we asked the community for its input on what characteristics we were looking for in the next president. During that process we had candidates meet with just the faculty members of the search committee, because we felt that being dazzled by our faculty was the most effective way to understand and appreciate Dartmouth. To a person, candidates observed to us that they were blown away that these phenomenal researchers and well-recognized scholars talked enthusiastically about working with undergrads. Several candidates challenged us on how we can have great faculty in areas where we don't have graduate students. Our faculty members were so articulate in explaining that Dartmouth undergrads have the kind of research opportunities that in many places graduate students do. What makes Dartmouth different from other universities is that it's not enough to be a great researcher. You have to be good in the classroom as well. When I talk to faculty, the best, the most successful, are those that see undergraduate teaching as contributing to their research because it challenges their thinking.

Why did you get involved in leadership roles at Thayer and Dartmouth?

I went to Dartmouth as a beneficiary of need-blind admission. It changed the trajectory of my ambitions and the kinds of opportunities and the kinds of people I had exposure to. It was always clear to me that anytime Dartmouth needed support in return, it was an obligation I was very happy to repay.

What advice would you give young people who want to pursue leadership roles?

I would say first of all to be resolute in recognizing that there will be setbacks along the way and understanding that feedback is a gift and a learning opportunity. I often find that really talented people are less resilient than it's in their best interest to be. I tell them that they will have bad meetings, they will have bad studies, and they will have performance reviews that won’t meet their expectations or will just be bad. That's the way the world works. The people who are successful look at those things as learning opportunities, which is really hard to do in the moment. But over time you build skills and are more able to deal with setbacks. That to me is the most critical thing when you're going into any high-level, demanding career.

At the end of your term as trustee chair in 2024, what would success look like to you?

We will have a successful leadership transition. We will have real progress on our near-term priorities, including around mental health and around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a plan in place around housing, energy, and sustainability. We will be better positioned to start acting as "one Dartmouth"—with Arts and Sciences, Thayer, Geisel, Tuck, and Guarini working together more fully. And under the next president's leadership, we'll have clarity around what we really want to be known as distinctive for in the next 10 years.

Final thoughts?

It's important for all of us to recognize and celebrate what a jewel Thayer is, how unique it is in the engineering landscape: at an undergraduate level the opportunity to combine liberal arts with engineering, and then at the graduate level the opportunity to work across disciplines and be part of innovative programs such as the PhD in entrepreneurship. I suspect that our kind of broad-based graduate and undergraduate programs will become even more valuable over time because the problems people will be asked to solve in the future are very complicated, whether they are around climate change or geopolitical issues or migration issues, technology- or non-technology-oriented problems. They require an ability to integrate information and look at problems from lots of different points of view, and that's consistent with Dartmouth's approach to engineering and problem-solving.

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