Breaking the Manufacturing Ceiling

September 11, 2020 | Breaking the manufacturing ceiling Gigi Wood, Business Record,

Many proud Iowans are aware of agriculture manufacturing giant John Deere’s history, with its start across the Mississippi River in Illinois in 1837. The company’s slogan, “Nothing Runs Like a Deere,” is common knowledge, as is its trademark green tractors. What might not be as well known is that most of the company’s major factories in the U.S. are run by women.

Deere, with its 74,400 employees globally and $39.26 billion in net sales, operates a dozen equipment division locations in the U.S., and six of them are led by women engineers. Many of the Deere factories in Iowa — Davenport Works, Des Moines Works, Ottumwa Works and Waterloo Works — are women-led. Those leaders recently shared their experiences and a few ways they reached their success.

Rosalind Fox, factory manager, John Deere Des Moines Works; Mary Pat Tubb, factory manager, John Deere Davenport Works; Lesley Conning, factory manager, John Deere Ottumwa Works and Rebecca Guinn, factory manager, John Deere Waterloo Works have each earned their way into a top spot at the world’s largest agricultural company.

“I’m proud to work alongside the other female factory managers,” Fox said. “We have become good friends as a result of this experience. Even though we work at different facilities, we pick up the phone and call each other or send emails when we’ve got a question. We’re really supportive and help empower one another.”

Successful start in education

All four women earned engineering degrees in college and say math and science played an important role during their K-12 years, even though STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives didn’t yet exist.

“I took every math and science class available to me in high school,” said Tubb, who grew up in Plain, Wis. “I was going to take the automotive/shop class, but it didn’t work with my schedule. I think there are certainly more technology classes available to kids today, but that is probably because high school was 30 years ago.”

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Minnesota and an MBA from Duke University.

“More valuable is my 15 years in factories,” she said.

Guinn also took as many math and science classes as she could during her K-12 years in Coffeyville, Kan. Later, she received a mechanical engineering degree from Kansas State University and an MBA from Drake University.

“It was my calculus teacher that made all the difference and encouraged me to be an engineer based upon aptitude, but my physics teacher probably prepared me the best to be successful,” she said. “I also went to a junior college for my freshman year, as my father was an instructor at Coffeyville Junior College. The math classes were smaller and provided more in-depth reviews and testing Calc I and II. These were a great foundation for further math classes at K State, where we had large classes.”

Conning, who grew up in Canada, was able to take shop class early on.

“In middle school, we had a shop class where we used basic drills, lathes and other machines to complete small projects, but otherwise there really were not STEM activities offered at my schools,” she said.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Western Ontario and an honors business administration degree from the Richard Ivey School of Business.

“Through university, most engineering classes did have lab work, which gave the chance for practical application of the principles being learned,” Conning said. “I really enjoyed my manufacturing automation class, where the practical lab work involved building a physical and visual model of a process, then writing the code needed to execute the process.”

She also participated in multiple leadership development programs through Deere and partner organizations.

Fox, who grew up in St. Louis, earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, followed by a master’s in industrial engineering, both from the University of Missouri in Columbia. She went on to receive an MBA from Northwestern University. Her father, who worked on the production floor at a Boeing plant, told her she had to become an engineer, even though she wanted to be a nurse.

“There was nothing like STEM when I was a kid,” she said. “And when my father told me he wanted me to be an engineer, I literally had to go look it up.”

During college, she worked part time at a 3M factory in Columbia and was inspired by the factory manager.

“He knew so much about the business and I was really impressed with his leadership and the fact that he had that level of responsibility,” Fox said. “It was there that I knew I wanted to be a factory manager someday.”

Fox has taken on quite a bit of responsibility herself. She is a member of the Iowa Commission on the Status of African Americans and leads a local junior chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. She has worked on Deere’s diversity and inclusion organization, a global role ensuring diversity exists throughout the company.

“Why I’m so passionate about supporting STEM for young girls and people of color nowadays is because I didn’t have that opportunity back then,” she said.

She said she hopes to inspire students to think about their future careers and learn about science, agriculture, engineering and other, similar fields.

Their path to success

The women can list off several reasons and personality traits responsible for their success. All four agree on one specific trait: hard work.

“I think most people would say that I am hardworking, engaging, have high integrity and am good to work with,” Tubb said. “Those last two are especially important at Deere; doing the right thing, relationships and teamwork are a big deal here.”

Young people interested in reaching such success should practice grit, she said.

“Certainly grit, a willingness to try hard things and stay after it until you achieve what you set out to do,” she said. “Resourcefulness, knowing when to ask for help and not being afraid to ask. Treating people with kindness and respect. A bit of competitiveness is helpful, always looking for a better way and challenging yourself to be and do better.”

Guinn said it’s important to try difficult tasks to set yourself apart.

“I am a big advocate of doing the hardest thing you can do to differentiate yourself both in college and at work,” she said. “Engineering is all about establishing a foundation of hard work and problem-solving abilities that many companies value for all types of positions.”

Conning added that trying new things has been helpful to her career.

“Starting out in my career, I never dreamed I would get to this position, but a few good mentors and leaders helped push me to challenge myself and try new roles,” she said. “I started my career in purchasing, and had a leader encourage me to move to manufacturing engineering supporting a weld department. Being willing to try something new and uncomfortable helped me find my passion and develop and demonstrate new capabilities. From that point forward, I always leaned into new opportunities. Sometimes they were promotions, but many times it was a lateral job change to develop a new capability or joining a special project team to challenge my thinking and learn.”

Fox tells students she mentors to work hard in school, be a leader and be able to work in teams.

“You can start working on these habits and behaviors now,” she said. “Don't wait until you get a job to build your leadership skills. You can be a leader in the classroom.”

Leading an industry into the future

The four Deere leaders have high optimism for manufacturing in Iowa and said the industry is a great place for women to work.

“We’ve started to leverage the registered apprenticeship program to attract and develop kids for manufacturing careers; it’s really taking off,” Tubb said.

Women who enjoy sports may enjoy a career in manufacturing, she added.

“We tend to be team players, and manufacturing is definitely a team sport,” Tubb said. “It’s fast-paced, always challenging and we keep score. I know every hour of every day whether I am winning or losing. It’s challenging when we’re losing, but that’s the job; figure out why, make a play change and get after it.”

Some companies seem to be more open than others to promoting women as leaders.

“From my perspective John Deere, like most other companies, looks to develop and promote the best talent to leadership roles,” Tubb said. “I credit some female trailblazers who over the years have been the first — the first production supervisor, first business unit manager and first factory manager. Through their courage, tenacity and hard work they demonstrated not only that women were very capable to lead in critical factory roles, but they also became role models to the next generation of female leaders in John Deere. They helped inspire me and others to take on the challenging jobs, and championed Employee Resource Groups like Women in Operations and WomenREACH to provide ongoing support and build a talent pipeline.”

Iowa’s manufacturing industry continues to be very competitive, Conning said, and Deere approaches each day working harder, together.

“Layer on top of a very competitive environment leading a team through a global pandemic, and one thing becomes crystal clear: Alone, we won’t have best answers,” she said. “Working together, sharing best practices and providing support to each other we can overcome many challenges.”

Iowa’s employees give Deere an edge over the competition and it’s important to sustain that, Guinn said.

“The employees we have in Iowa continue to be a competitive advantage for us as a company,” she said. “It is important that we continue to retain and attract the best talent to Iowa and build on that foundation for the future. Engagement with local community leadership around economic development, talent development, educational networks and volunteerism are important to enable sustainable community growth. We want Iowa to be a talent destination and enable competitive advantage for the state and the local businesses.”