The proverbial glass ceiling is largely an archaic professional obstacle.
Women from across the automotive sector gathered in the room and on the stage for the KPMG Women’s Executive Breakfast at the Detroit Auto Show. They shared compelling personal stories of success, were honest about their common challenges, and demonstrated their passion for their work and industry.
While mentoring is often lauded as necessary to advance women in the workplace, all of the participants said they drew more from their personal lives and the work relationships they cultivated on their own.
Kelly Bysouth, Chief Supply Chain Officer at IAC Group, found her career inspiration at home. “My dad really instilled a work ethic in me, and that’s something that is just invaluable,” she said. “He was the type of person that powered through everything, went to work every single day whether he was sick as a dog or not… basically made me understand the value of money.”
Angela Hoon, Executive Director of Strategic Risk Management at General Motors, had an unofficial mentor at the start of her career, which she recognized only in hindsight. When Hoon moved from her home country of South Africa to the U.S. to work for KPMG, a partner subtly took her under his wing. He placed her on all of his engagements and encouraged her involvement in a host of extra projects and initiatives that she believes put her on the partnership track.
“By him just giving me that opportunity, putting me in the right place and putting my name in the hat, made a huge difference,” she said. “The experience I gained, the network I made from that, is really what set me up.”
Meanwhile, Alicia Allen, Vice President and Corporate Controller at Dynatrace, said, “I have a couple of people—plus a village.” One friend and former manager supported her through difficult years at a challenging job, and demonstrated how to stay strong under fire. “She taught me, whether she knows it or not, diplomacy,” she said. “The way she could deal with people and bring everyone on board in those tough situations… helped me learn that skill.”
For Nicole Stevenson, Vice President of Business Strategy and Marketing at Flex Automotive, “it’s not so much one specific person or one specific event, it’s more a culmination of incidents and different circumstances,” she said. “Let’s face it, automotive is kind of this old boy’s network. I think dealing with a lot of that over the years helped me grow this thick skin…. That helped enable me to be a little bit more aggressive in conversations and in my career goals, in trying to get my voice heard, insisting and pushing my way in, and making sure I have a seat at the table.”
The panelists agreed that formal mentoring programs have fallen flat for them. “I've been in the situations where it’s sort of orchestrated, ‘you’re this person’s mentor.’ That never works,” Bysouth said. “I think I've done best when I've picked… from different people the strengths that they may have. And you lean on that person when you have a situation that you know they’re particularly good at dealing with.”
“Mentoring hasn't worked for me as specific and formal, it’s been as the situation arises,” Hoon agreed. “It’s more about who’s a friendly ear, who can I bounce ideas off of, who might’ve done it before. And again, a lot of them are friends.”
Added Stevenson, “It’s just wherever you can find help at the time, and the right person. Sometimes it’s not even work people. It's your friends or family.”
All of the panelists faced a significant challenge at one or more points in their work lives, forcing them to make career-defining choices while at the same time balancing work and family.
Shortly after Allen joined International Automotive Components Group, the company asked her to move to Germany, a request that also impacted her husband and two school-age kids.
“At first it sounds like a great adventure, and then you realize the task you’ve signed up for,” she said. “It was hard. There were days I’m like, ‘why did we do this? I’m getting a plane ticket, we’re all going back.’ But from a family perspective and work perspective, I learned more than I could ever really quantify.”
Bysouth also agreed to take an ex-pat assignment in Germany for Johnson Controls when her kids were just 2 and 4 years old. But the country had little infrastructure for families with two working parents.
“It was personally a challenge for all the reasons that Alicia mentioned. But it set me up to take on the top role in procurement and supply chain at JCI,” she said. “Both personally and professionally, it was a total game changer for me. And again, it took a leap of faith. It was not easy, but it was extremely rewarding.”
KPMG offered to make Hoon a partner if she would move from Houston, where she and her husband had settled with their 2-year-old into a balanced and happy life, to Philadelphia. As a couple, they determined that becoming a partner would set Hoon up for greater opportunities going forward. Then, once she agreed, she found out she was pregnant.
“It was a really tough year. But looking back, it was the best thing we did. You’ve just got to work through it,” she said.
Stevenson also took a chance to move to Germany for a promotion around the time she learned she was pregnant, a choice she doesn’t regret as difficult as it was. But a particular pivot point came early in her career when she was pulled from the lab where she worked as an engineer to join a multidisciplinary group on a difficult project. That opportunity “was totally mind blowing and really opened my eyes to all the other pieces of the business,” she said. While she loved engineering, “it was definitely time for me to make a move,” and she ultimately transitioned to roles in strategy and operations.
Several of the women said they found themselves playing role models, even if they were unaware of it.
Allen realized it as she was leaving for a new job. “I had a lot of women say, ‘You have really set the tone for women in leadership at the company, and whether or not you knew, I was paying attention, and you’ve been a mentor.’” She was surprised. “I certainly try to lead by example, but figuring out the extent to which people were watching and learning… made me think a little bit about it as I went into the next role. Okay, be aware.”
Bysouth had the same experience of becoming a role model for other women, particularly in Germany where women in leadership are scarce. “You have to play that role, whether you’ve really signed up for it or not,” she said. “And that’s why whenever I’m asked to do things like this, I absolutely say yes, because I enjoy doing that and playing that role if I can.”
Sometimes the role is helping colleagues better understand the dynamics of the working mother, several panelists said. A lot of male executives don’t have working wives, and there are a number of executive women who don’t have children.
Allen said that most of her bosses have been in tune with the need for balance, but when they missed the point, she did not hesitate to speak up. “I've never been afraid to go, ‘Hold on a minute. Let me describe what’s going to happen when I leave here today,’” she said. “I think all too often women don’t speak up, because they’re afraid to do it. But I’ve never had an issue, and I’m not shy.”
Finally, the panelists fielded a question from the audience about what all of us can do differently to encourage more women to pursue math- and science-based careers, and to strive for management roles.
A number of the women on stage had parents who drove them in that direction, and they are now emphasizing the importance of strong math skills for their girls as much as for their boys. Stevenson suggested that we can point to the great women leaders we have today as shining examples of what women can achieve.
“There are so many wonderful women role models out there. Look at GM right now having two top ladies on board, which is amazing,” she said. “Make sure that the kids are aware and see this is possible.”