HKS’ Heidi Dial was one of the few women in her information systems classes at the University of Texas at Arlington. Then she was one of two women working in IT at an architecture and engineering firm in Fort Worth.
Surrounded by men, Dial was determined to fit in, to be “one of the guys,” even as she rose up the ranks. She learned to play golf. She followed sports so she could make small talk. She went to group happy hours at whatever bars her male colleagues chose.
And she resisted sharing stories of her family or kids.
“I felt that maybe I wouldn’t be given a big project because they thought I wouldn’t be committed to it because I had family at home,” she said. “Well, they have families too!”
But it took Dial more than 15 years to reconcile that fact with her work life. For most of her career, she tried to be in lockstep with male peers, watching how they acted, what they said and what they valued. All that time she worried that being herself would hold her back.
Not anymore. Now Dial sets the tone for her team of 50 people as the chief information officer at HKS, which she joined three years ago.
“I lead by example in my team now,” said Dial, a mother of two. “I’ll get to work a little bit late to drop kids at school first [or] I’ll leave in the middle of the workday to go have lunch with my kids at school. And I make it very clear to everyone on the team that they can do that, too, that we have the ability now to balance work, especially in technology because a lot of what we do can be done remotely, after hours, on weekends.”
As CIO, Dial leads a team that ensures that HKS employees have all the tools they need to do their jobs, from computers to design software to team collaboration solutions. She oversees data integration efforts between systems and the service desk that gets her colleagues quick support when issues arise. But the most exciting part of the job to her is the innovative side: She helps find ways that data analytics and other technology can improve the processes and decisions of design teams.
Dial’s leadership has made her a finalist for a 2020 Dallas CIO of the Year ORBIE Award, presented by the Dallas CIO Leadership Association. She’s among the female executives slowly changing the face of tech as more women become chief information officers or chief technology officers. Last year, about 18% of the top 1,000 U.S. companies by revenue had a female CIO or CTO — a jump from 16% in 2017, according to The Wall Street Journal.
This year, 15 of the 33 ORBIE finalists are women.
Dial’s leadership has made her a finalist for a 2020 Dallas CIO of the Year ORBIE Award, presented by the Dallas CIO Leadership Association. She’s among the female executives slowly changing the face of tech as more women become chief information officers or chief technology officers.
From the Basement to the Boardroom
From the start of her career in the 1990s, Dial had an ease not only with computers but with people. She talked to architects and engineers about what they needed and translated that to her colleagues in IT.
But that talent with people didn’t come naturally. Dial describes herself as an introvert in high school.
“I was the one with the fluffy cat sweatshirt, the big glasses and super nerdy,” said Dial, who grew up in North Richland Hills near Fort Worth.
She enrolled at UT Arlington with the intention of eventually going to medical school. One of her mandatory courses was a computer class, which she loved. Dial changed her major to information systems but kept her eye on a future career in medicine.
At UTA, Dial spent many days under fluorescent lights programming or working on assignments. But she wanted to have fun outside the computer lab as well, so she took classes in ballroom dancing and country-western dancing. The classes prompted her to socialize with her dance classmates outside of school. Dial credits these lessons and her waitressing jobs in college with helping her overcome her shyness.
After graduation in 1996, Dial turned an internship into a full-time job at an AEC firm in Fort Worth. While most of her IT teammates focused on hardware — building computers, making sure that keyboards and mice were working — Dial saw an opportunity in software.
“I was like, ‘Hey, we need to get at the data that we have in these systems,’” she said.
At age 25, Dial became director of application development. An international AEC company eventually acquired the Fort Worth firm where she had launched her career, but Dial remained and continued to earn promotions.
Michael Smith, vice president of information technology at HKS, met Dial at the Fort Worth firm, where they worked on different teams. Even though they had no reporting relationship, Dial took interest in Smith’s career and offered him feedback that helped him in his job. She did the same for other colleagues, he said.
“I left a job after 16 years to come over to HKS to work for her,” Smith said. “That speaks highly of her character.”
Even though Dial had distinguished herself for her smarts, communication skills and data analytics acumen, she said she sometimes felt as if she was on a different playing field than her male counterparts, especially earlier in her career.
She said that during meetings she was sometimes overlooked or talked over. She was often called on last. And when projects were assigned, she got supporting roles while the men got to lead.
Even seemingly innocuous emails often telegraphed to Dial how her male colleagues perceived her. She said she was repeatedly the last person added in the recipient line or last to be listed as a contact on out-of-office emails.
“You notice this, especially when it’s happening all the time,” Dial said.
So she turned a hobby to her advantage in the conference room and later, in the boardroom.
Dial developed an interest in body language, reading books and watching videos to quench her curiosity. She began paying attention to her colleagues’ nonverbal cues during meetings.
“People cross their arms, and naturally, it means they’re a bit closed off to what you’re saying. …Body language changes how you feel, even on the inside,” she said.
Dial learned to read not just faces and torsos. She knows that a person’s friendly smile and polite chatter may belie his or her desire to leave a conversation, signaled by legs and feet angled toward the door.
These lessons led Dial to adjust her own posture and study that of others so she could make her audience more receptive to her words. For example, she’ll use handouts to make people uncross their arms during meetings, and if she needs to give herself a boost for a phone call, she’ll place her arms akimbo to project confidence and dominance.
‘Seek the Butterflies’
HKS hired Dial as vice president of business systems in 2017. When the CIO job opened up the following year, Dial applied.
“The more people I told, the more they would get behind me and support me and push me,” she said. “And then it held me accountable.”
Dial leads a team that looks much different from that of her early career. About 35% of her team is female.
Smith, the vice president of IT, said Dial has elevated her team’s standing at HKS and “gained us a seat at the table” when the firm’s leaders make budgeting and operational decisions. He also credited her with modernizing HKS’ back-end systems and improving its information security.
As a manager, Dial is firm on the high expectations she sets for her team, but she promotes work-life balance and discourages the “superhero syndrome,” Smith said.
“I’m still learning how to do that [after] 16 years of feeling like if I’m not at this desk, I’m not being productive,” Smith said. “…Maybe it’s 12 hours one day, and then maybe the next day at noon you have to go do something with your family, and later that night, you come back and you complete something from your home. She really is a champion of positive mental health as it relates to work-life balance.”
Dial encourages other women to go for those jobs that scare them — the jobs they think they’re unqualified for despite checking most of the boxes. She said she still gets nervous when she’s presenting to large groups or tackling something outside her comfort zone.
“Have the butterflies,” she said. “If you don’t have butterflies, you’re not challenging yourself. Seek the butterflies.”