Female CEOs and senior executives are more common in manufacturing than in the past, but still enough of a rarity for Serena Ross to have to reach out overseas for someone to mentor her when she became CEO of her family business. Here she writes about what it is like being a woman leader in manufacturing.
This year I was appointed as CEO of Circuitwise Electronics Manufacturing.
I have been reluctant to celebrate this achievement publicly. However, as the only female CEO in the electronics manufacturing industry in Australia, I have come to realise I have a responsibility to speak out, to encourage other women to enter the world of manufacturing.
As I have settled into my role, I have also been reflecting on what it takes to be successful and as part of my involvement with the Medical Technology Association of Australia (MTAA), I was recently asked about the leadership qualities of women.
The first thought that comes to mind is the value of knowing your own limitations. This is in tension with the value of self-belief and assertiveness that women leaders are often told they should adopt to combat the rampant self-promotion of men.
However, the single best thing I have done recently is to find a mentor.
A year or so ago, I came across the name of a person from a similar company in Canada which I admired for their spectacular growth from a small manufacturing firm to a global player competing with the biggest and the best.
I reached out on social media, not expecting much. I was stunned to find that not only was this person willing to talk, they just happened to be sitting on Bondi Beach at that very moment – their first-ever visit to Australia!
A few hours later we met up and now have formal mentorship discussions weekly – helping with everything from reshaping my team, to the strategic development of the business.
I think a personal strength of mine is a willingness to learn from others and not assume I know best. It is a very helpful characteristic that enables you to recognise areas you can improve and find a way of doing something about it.
Another feminine aspect of leadership is the characteristic of putting others before yourself.
During the Covid19 lockdowns, the knowledge that so many employees rely us on brought home my growing sense of responsibility to people other than myself.
The option of laying off people or shutting down was just something I couldn’t bear thinking about. I pulled out every stop to avoid that, including chasing critical medical contracts like the electronics for Grey Innovation’s emergency ventilator. These new contracts helped offset the clients who had to wind back their production.
I’m very empathetic to the needs and feelings of my staff.
At Circuitwise we have about 40 workers on the factory floor, many of whom are Buddhist. They have an ethical objection to manufacturing products that can inflict harm. As a result, I have chosen not to take on any contracts associated with weaponry.
While this policy limits our market in the defence sector, the payback in terms of staff loyalty is worth it. The average employment of the factory floor staff is over 10 years, which translates to higher performance and quality of the products we produce.
Another way empathy has helped me is with my communication.
Like most people, I have had to work on my public speaking but as a leader, I have come to realise that the most important communication is the ability to handle difficult conversations well. In any organisation, you are always going to have to deal with difficult situations – such as a staff member who is not performing or even a customer who is behaving unreasonably.
You need to be able to deal with staff in the same way you would with your partner. You have to trust that, if they know you are coming from a caring place, they will take your feedback well.
The notion that women are too caring to be good leaders annoys me.
The business I run could be thought of as one big machine for manufacturing PCB assemblies. However, as social creatures, all people crave appreciation and validation of their self-worth. Yet, the manufacturing industry is still in the grip of an efficiency-driven, command and control culture and I am personally counting the cost of this.
I have inherited an organisational culture where every single decision in the organisation was made by the CEO. There was virtually no delegation of authority or empowerment of teams. In taking on this role, I was besieged every minute of the day with people asking me questions and not dealing with the issue themselves.
This issue came to a head when I found out I was pregnant earlier in the year. I knew if I didn’t change something, I would have people ringing me in the maternity ward with decisions only I could make.
So, my biggest focus over the past few months has been to empower teams within the organisation to drive their own agendas. I started with the traditional restructure and appointment of new roles with greater authority. However, my mentor has helped me go further to drive culture change.
His advice was that people were not going to change while they felt like cogs in a machine. So as part of our strategic reorientation of the business, the leadership team has been focusing on understanding our purpose. People perform much better and can make decisions more easily when their work is aligned with personal meaning and purpose – when they are inspired.
We have found we are most passionate about manufacturing products that help people and the world. We are also inspired by customers that are passionate about their own product – we thrive on their energy.
At the same time, I implemented a more collaborative management approach, sharing financial details of the business with the leadership team – showing them how much money we are making and making them feel it’s their business as well.
Everyone on the leadership team is also involved in making major decisions. Even if a person on the leadership team doesn’t agree with the decision, we make sure everyone walks away committing to the team’s decision.
To be honest it’s a slow process and most CEOs will relate when I say I am still working every minute of the day, including weekends.
Quite possibly, the greatest challenge for a new leader is learning to let go, just at the time you have finally been given the reins.
I am learning that delegating means trusting your team leaders to come up with their own ideas and implement them without consulting me. I don’t need to know every detail of what is going on if I have good team leaders.
Educated at the University of Western Sydney Serena Ross moved from procurement and sales roles to lead her family-owned manufacturing business. She is CEO of Circuitwise Electronics Manufacturing (formerly known as Tresmine).
Picture: Serena Ross
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