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Women in Manufacturing: Leading the Way

Posted By Sue Pelletier, June 05, 2014 at 3:19 PM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce
Manufacturing has traditionally been a male-dominated field, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t—and haven’t—been able to work their way to leadership positions in some of  today’s top manufacturing organizations. At the 2014 Manufacturing Leadership Summit, Allison Grealis, Director, Women in Manufacturing, Precision Metalforming Association, led a panel of such women in a wide-ranging discussion of what has helped, and what has hindered, them in their career paths to date.

Tonya Jackson, Executive Vice President, Global Supply Chain Operations with Lexmark International, credits an informal mentor she had early in her career with helping her to make the decision to move out of a very vertical R&D position and into a more horizontal role in the environmental and sustainability group. "He pointed out that, while I was doing very well in the vertical space, Lexmark is a very broad company" and gaining a deeper knowledge of the full company operations would stand her in good stead. And it did.

Karla Aaron, President, Haileah Metal Spinning, Inc., and Susan Welsh, President and Chief Executive Officer of Rubadue Wire, both stepped into the family business. Aaron, who hesitated at first, says some of the best advice she got was from her father, who told her to "honor the guys on the floor." She did not emulate his management style, though, because "it wasn't authentic coming from me." Welsh said it was a bit of a struggle at first to balance the existing management style with all the ideas she wanted to implement—"I had to learn to be more diplomatic," she said.
Cindy Reese, Senior Vice President, Worldwide Operations, Oracle Corporation, cites among her mentors the women who worked on the line with her when she worked the 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift in high school: “They taught me so much about how to be a leader in this industry,” she said. As she moved up in her career during and post-college, she had only male managers, so that was who she emulated. “It took time for me to learn to lead in my own style.”
Management Style
Women often are more collaboration focused, the panellists said, which can make them good leaders. They also tend to spend more time asking questions and working to get sponsors to back them in their ideas than men do, the panelists said. The downside of this is that women also tend to be more risk-averse than men, and less able to shake it off when a risk doesn't pan out, said the panelists. Women leaders also tend to believe in empowering those who work for them by giving them the tools and resources they need to move forward. "Having the right people is key to getting to the next step" for them and for you, said Welsh.

Career Coaching
Closely related to mentoring and management style is career coaching, said Tammy Gilbert, Vice President of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, Trinity Industries, Inc., whose company holds regular gatherings of a group of women who provide career guidance and support to each other. Trinity also reaches out to find and train women welders, who are more likely to appreciate the regular hours and working conditions of working at the factory, as opposed to the oil rigs most male welders gravitate toward. "They also provide a fresh perspective that enable them to find things that can be improved on the floor." Trinity also provides Toastmaster sessions to help women gain confidence and ability in expressing themselves in a manufacturing environment.

Coaching and mentoring should come from both directions on the career ladder, they said—there are things to learn from both those more seasoned, and those who are new to the environment and bring a fresh perspective to the work. Also look to add people who don't share your personality type or mindset to add to your team so you get a balanced perspective.

Career Advice
One key, they agreed, was being willing to move out of their comfort zone. "Be bold," said Gilbert, who credits a bold comeback to a tough job interview for taking her career in a new direction. "If you haven't made a mistake, you haven't learned anything," added Reese. But, she said, always have a Plan B just in case. "Show leadership both that you're willing to take a risk, and that you have a plan to recover" if it doesn't work out.

Written by Sue Pelletier

I am a contributing editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Journal.

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