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Female Corporate Leaders Share Powerful Experiences and Advice at Next Generation Manufacturing Event

Next Generation Manufacturing’s fourth annual “Success in Manufacturing; a Woman’s Perspective” was held at Nelson Mullins in Atlanta on August 9.

Kim Wallace, Executive Vice President at sponsor Hire Dynamics, moderated a powerful group of panelists who shared their experiences about growing their career in a big company. While their manufacturing verticals ranged from consumer packaged goods to automotive, common themes emerged.

Be open to opportunity.

It’s important to seize career opportunities that come along. “Sometimes opportunity comes knocking and you have to be open to it,” said Leana Less, VP of Global Connections and Media at The Coca-Cola Company. “Don’t let your dreams blind you to the opportunities that come your way.”

Regina Maddox of Next Generation Manufacturing with Sara Irvani of Okabashi Brands

Regina Maddox of Next Generation Manufacturing with Sara Irvani of Okabashi Brands

Sara Irvani, CEO of Okabashi Brands, has had a non-linear career. Her consulting, operations and management roles helped prepare her for the responsibilities that she accepted when she joined her family’s shoe manufacturing company as CEO. “Attitude and work ethic are more important than technical knowledge,” she emphasized. “Lean into fear. Lean into what scares you. When you push yourself to the limits, you know how far you can go and how much you can achieve. It’s really empowering.”

Carrie Shapiro, VP of Dixie Operations at Georgia-Pacific, noted how interesting manufacturing is and encouraged attendees to look at all possibilities in their career.  “Keep saying yes to the opportunities that come your way, and keep saying yes to learning from your mistakes,” she said.

Find a mentor and become one for others.

Ayako Wilson, Senior General Manager of AW North Carolina, said that her father was instrumental in shaping her future as a leader.  Wilson’s father strongly believed that boys and girls should have the same opportunities, something that was uncommon in Japan at that time. Ayako is also a fan of Toyota’s inclusion program and said that she benefitted from it.  “Everywhere I worked, I found someone to mentor me, to challenge me to perform at a different level.”  While at GE, Wilson found a female executive who encouraged her to earn an advanced degree. Later, Wilson considered herself lucky to have a man to mentor her to be stronger.  “In large organizations, always find someone who you can trust, who understands that you are talented and have potential that they can develop,” said Wilson.

Shapiro, who grew up with boys, has a houseful of boys and now manages a team of men at Georgia-Pacific, agreed. “When I look back on my career, there was always someone there to pull me up.  Now, I have the obligation to offer that to others, particularly women. We need more women in manufacturing,” she said.

Pay attention to company culture.

A company’s culture plays a key role in its success. Women are particularly good at driving a culture, including communicating vision and strategy and ensuring different points of view are considered.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Irvani said. “You have to model what you want in your company. You need positivity and a can-do attitude. Look at how your teams communicate. The best teams communicate the means to an end, not just what the end is.”

Less agreed. “Passion, dedication, desire and fitting in with the team are more important than skills. Diversity of thinking is really, really important. I want people with great passion and a good fit with my team. We need some doers and some people who ask questions. Collaboration is important.  Pulling in people and encouraging them is a critical leadership skill.”

Hire good leaders.

When hiring leaders, look for people who are problem solvers, have a high level of energy, show the organization’s vision and bring teams together. “The people with whom you work are much more important than the process,” said Shapiro. “I look for influencers and problem-solvers. Your attitude outweighs your skills.”

Wilson hires people who have the leadership mentality required to complete a project and who can influence others.  “I expect leaders to be able to show their vision of the big picture to their teams, know what you want them to do – a reachable milestone – and explain the plan to get there.”

Irvani agreed. “The best experience I’ve had is asking the question of how to take the idealistic, make it practical and then everyday.  How do you eat an elephant?  Bite by bite!  Break it down.  Prioritize bites to not overburden the organization.  Ask, ‘How will we get there?’ instead of ‘Are we going to get there?’”

Don’t undersell yourself.

Women should explain their accomplishments and strengths instead of what they need to improve. “Women often say: ‘I can’t do it’ because they are not in the position already…  Men don’t do that,” Wilson said.

“I do lots of interviews, and women overshare,” advised Less. “They say ‘here’s what I can’t do. I want to be upfront.’ Men say ‘I’m overqualified.’ Don’t undersell yourself. In an interview, tell them what makes you brilliant. Your brilliance is what makes you amazing, not your faults. Focus on what you can achieve and where you can improve—not on what you lack.”

Define what success means.

Several panelists shared what success means to them. “Fulfillment is a guiding principle at Georgia Pacific,” said Shapiro.  “If I’m making a contribution, I feel successful.”

Wilson noted that, “Happy with my work, valued, needed and knowing that I am making a difference – that’s my definition of success. There is always room for improvement, however, if I can do it, that’s success!”

Less shared that she is also always learning.  “The Coca-Cola Company is three times my age, so I feel a responsibility to honor the past while being present today and visionary about the future.”

Some Facts About Women in the Workforce

After the panel discussion, Alice Childs, Business Development Executive at Nelson Mullins, shared insightful data about women in the workforce:

  • Women earn half of all science, law and engineering degrees.
  • Since 1997, the number of women-owned businesses has increased by 59 percent, and the revenues of women-owned companies have increased 63 percent.
  • Currently, women make up approximately 46.8 percent of the American workforce. However, women are in only 30 percent of leadership roles, and less than 5 percent are in the CEO or Chairman role.

She also shared that organizations with three or more women in top leadership roles score highly in all aspects of organization effectiveness and cited several key reports that demonstrate that:

  • The “Women on Boards” study performed by MSCI found that “companies in the MSCI World Index with strong female leadership generated a Return on Equity of 10.1% per year versus 7.4% for those without female leadership.”
  • A Nordea Study analyzed 11,000 publically traded companies around the globe, every company in the study had at least 2 million in trades a day, and the study was over an eight-year period. That study concluded companies run by women perform far better in the market.
  • A Credit Suisse study concluded that among Fortune 500 companies, those with the highest proportion of women in top leadership positions have seen much higher financial returns than those with the lowest proportion. More specifically, those companies with a high number of female leaders see a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders.

Read more about how Hire Dynamics invests in its people and supports women in business.

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