Evolving Leadership Trends for Women within the Automotive Industry

The automotive industry continues to make strides in its comeback, as evidenced by recent announcements regarding plant investments across North America.  The industry itself has been known for traditional manufacturing  production processes under traditional leadership.

With enhanced technology, the industry continues to expand and leverage advanced manufacturing and mobile capabilities while understanding its impact on the development of the next generation of transportation–autonomous vehicles.

In the “traditional” model, most managerial and leadership roles have been held predominantly by men–however, with the continued technological evolution in a competitive, global marketplace, the challenge is to retain and attract top, diverse talent.

For example, while women continue to expand into leadership positions within this business sector, there’s still more which needs to be done.

I recently talked to Sherry Muir Irwin, Co-Founder and Partner, of The Hunter Group, for her thoughts on identifying evolving leadership trends for women within automotive companies, training/mentoring opportunities and why it’s important in a competitive industry.

Lee:   First, how and why you co-founded The Hunter Group with Jim Lionas 21 years ago?

Irwin:  Jim Lionas and I had worked together at another search firm and believed that we could offer a unique value proposition in our market for those companies that wanted top leadership from experienced executive search recruiters and not be handed off to junior recruiting associates which happens with other national firms.

Lee:   I understand you work with some of Michigan’s longstanding automotive companies, both privately-owned and publicly-owned as their trusted talent advisor.

Irwin:  At the Hunter Group, we have recruited top automotive leaders for more than 20 years and we are keeping a close eye on emerging trends as we recruit leaders across Michigan and the U.S.

Lee:   What are the key shifts that may significantly impact the automotive sector of OEMs, Tiers I and II and related services in 2017?

Irwin:   Let’s focus on some of the key ones today starting with gender diversity in the auto industry. According to EY’s 2016 Study on Gender Diversity in the Auto Industry, disruption in the auto industry is accelerating at an historic pace and talent to support this disruption is critical.  Advancing gender diversity in your company can be a major differentiator in winning in your market.  Auto leaders overwhelmingly recognize that diversity of thought and experience are crucial for success, but face challenges in attracting women to the industry and lack any real appetite to change it.

Lee:   What are the key actions for companies to take to make change around gender disparities and limited talent pools?

Irwin:   First, companies can include more women in the leadership pipeline.  Second, they can encourage senior leaders to become sponsors of high potential women team members, and third, create a culture of diversity and inclusion in their strategic initiatives and operations.

For women, they need to seek out mentors and sponsors, expand their network and take charge of their career by setting their own priorities for growth and articulating this vision to their management for future opportunities.

For men, they need to become a mentor or sponsor, make networking opportunities more inclusive and check their own bias in decision-making.

Lee:   How do automotive women build their networks?

Irwin:   We recommend to our clients and candidates that they get actively involved in professional organizations such as the Automotive Women’s Alliance Foundation, Women in Manufacturing or Inforum’s AutoNEXT.  There are opportunities for all levels of membership in these automotive women-focused organizations including mentorship programs for women in the midst of building their careers as well as scholarship programs for high potential college students interested in automotive-related careers to help fill the talent pipeline for the industry.

Unfortunately, our experience at The Hunter Group has shown that there is still a dearth of qualified women candidates to fill the leadership positions our clients retain us to fill – particularly in the technical and manufacturing operations arenas.  The focus on STEM is helping – but filling the pipeline will take more time and energy.  We sometimes see that women are not confident enough to take on the more challenging roles as they believe they need to have 100% of the requisite skills, abilities and experience versus male candidates that believe they can learn in the role if they are not 100% qualified.  Risk-taking becomes a very important factor – and having the confidence in your own abilities and skills is critical.

Lee:   How do other women leaders inspire the less experienced female talent?

Irwin:   Of course, when we see leaders such as Mary Barra break through the concrete ceiling to become CEO of GM, that was a real breakthrough – to see it is possible to reach the top with the right combination of experience, sponsorship, tenacity and resiliency.  Role models are crucial – and seeing someone like ourselves make it to the top is an inspiration and a major motivator in pursuing a career in any industry – automotive or otherwise!

Lee:  I understand you have held leadership positions in automotive organizations over the years.  What have you seen in your membership?

Irwin:  I serve on the Board of AWAF – having just finished two terms as president.  AWAF is a 501(c)3 organization that provides opportunities to interface with fellow auto professionals (and build that invaluable network of support & contacts), participate in professional development offerings and attend events where we hear lessons learned from influential industry leaders.  In addition, our scholarship program for young women pursuing educations to prepare for careers in the auto industry has awarded nearly $335k to 135 deserving recipients since 2001.  In fact, one of our scholarship recipients – a recent engineering graduate of Kettering University, starting her career with GM – is now serving on the AWAF Board!  This outstanding young woman actually was awarded an AWAF scholarship 3 times – and I’ve no doubt she is one of the industry’s future leaders!

That is the type of talent we want to attract, develop and retain to create the most innovative and competitive industry in the world!