Article: Career lessons from manufacturing leaders you can apply to your own career

In the lead-up to the Women in Manufacturing Summit 2023, we asked some of the presenters to reflect on their careers and share some insights that may benefit emerging leaders in the field. Read on to learn from the following manufacturing leaders who will share lessons they’ve learned along the way that you can apply to your own career to get you where you want, and deserve, to be.

  • Stephanie El Akkaoui, Manufacturing & Processing Leader, Bega Cheese
  • Julie Jones, General Counsel and Joint Company Secretary, Gold Road Resources
  • Belinda Layson, Beverage Operations Manager ANZ, PepsiCo
  • Kariza Martin, Manufacturing and Process Engineer, Boeing
  • Kristi Riordan, Co-Founder, Harvest B
  • Rebecca Ransford, Head of Global Operations & Supply Chain, SunRice

Early on in your career, how did you approach figuring out where you wanted to go and how to get there?

Stephanie El Akkaoui began her career with a strategy focused on being open to new opportunities. “I did not have an end goal in mind and used the first couple of years to test and learn, understand the basics, find my professional self and build my ‘brand’.” 

Rebecca Ransford took a very practical approach at the start of her career by experimenting in different areas which allowed her to discover the type of work she “didn’t want to do” and find the roles she could enjoy and thrive in.

Kariza Martin focused on finding areas of work that interested her and then devised a plan to work in that area. She began her career in aircraft where she read many original developmental test reports. “I remember thinking how much I wish I could have been involved in that initial developmental phase. When I looked at the people who authored the documents I was reading, I noticed a lot of them had PhDs so I saw the best way to get there was to do a PhD with Boeing.”

Belinda Layson started working in water recycling, the area she thought she  wanted to work for her whole career. That eventually changed though. “It took me a few years to have the confidence to move into something different. Critical to figuring this out, was finding good mentors who encouraged and challenged me. Building a network of mentors is an excellent tool in professional development.”

Similarly, Kristi Riordan said “My approach to figuring out where I wanted to go and how to get there was rooted in a combination of curiosity, a passion for learning, and a desire to add value. Like many people, I didn't always find myself in roles that I was head over heels in love with, but I firmly believed that there was always something to be learned from any experience.” Another driving force was an innate desire to add value wherever she went. “Whether it was identifying inefficiencies in processes, finding innovative solutions to problems, or simply lending a helping hand to colleagues, I believed in making a positive impact.”

The seeds of Julie Jones’ career in law were planted in famed television shows. “In the early stages of my career, I drew inspiration from television programmes like ‘LA Law’ in the 80s and ‘Ally McBeal’ in the 90s. These shows sparked my interest in the legal profession and my innate passion for social justice, inclusivity, and advocating for those in need. I wanted to be at the heart of the action, witnessing projects evolve from conception to success. This insight led me to explore alternative career paths where I could be more hands-on and directly contribute to positive change.”

Is there a particular challenge you faced during your career journey and how did you overcome that challenge?

As professional responsibilities added up, Stephanie found it increasingly challenging to maintain a good work life balance. “Seeing the impact on my personal life motivated me to get better and prioritise delegation and empowering others.”

Julie also highlighted the challenges of finding a work life balance and the necessity to prioritise. “One of the most significant challenges I encountered during my career journey was returning from maternity leave. This period was characterised by sleep deprivation and a workplace culture that wasn't fully supportive of part-time work, which compounded the difficulties of balancing work and motherhood. Additionally, I faced personal challenges in maintaining a pregnancy to full term. To surmount these challenges, I took a series of roles that helped me stay afloat professionally while navigating the demands of parenthood. It wasn't always a linear path, and I didn't see immediate career progression during this time, but I learned to prioritise what truly mattered to me: my family and my career.”

Kristi highlighted the challenges of transitioning to a leadership role. “One of the most significant challenges I encountered during my career journey was the transition from being an individual contributor to taking on managerial and leadership roles.” To navigate these challenges, Kristi sought out mentors and coaches who had navigated similar transitions, invested in leadership development programs, and remained open to feedback, continuously honing her communication skills and ability to delegate effectively to empower team members. Kristi added, “Most importantly, I learned the importance of adaptability and humility. I understood that each step in my career journey required me to let go of some habits and embrace new ones.”

Rebecca also faced the challenges of a continuously evolving career. Rebecca spent 18 years with PepsiCo “where they used to run game planning process where all career moves were planned for you.” Following that role, she “was highly ill equipped to deal with interviews, applications and headhunters!” Rebecca responded by developing her skills while making her way through the potential pitfalls, ultimately leading a full and varied career that “has made for an interesting CV.”

What’s something you did early in your career that ended up having an impact on achieving your goals later on?

Stephanie was fortunate to participate in a program at Bega that partnered her with a mentor in the business. “The mentorship allowed me to implement strategies that helped me overcome some of my own fears, build my confidence and gain tools to apply as a leader.” Kariza echoes the power of mentorship. “When I first started at Boeing a few people suggested I find a mentor. I'm so glad I listened as mentors have been so valuable throughout my career. My mentors have given me the confidence and at times the opportunity to steer my career.”

Belinda discussed the importance of always taking on new opportunities and trying new things. “I took every opportunity to travel for work to increase my exposure to sites all over the world, I worked on call and shift work, and I worked onsite with tradesmen and onsite engineers to build a hands-on experience in practical engineering. These experiences gave me a wide range of exposure and practical knowledge that has been an invaluable foundation in building my career.” Rebecca agreed, explaining that “Taking opportunities to try different things, including short secondments, has made me open to challenges and finding myself in interesting parts of the world and interesting jobs.”

Similarly, Julie said “Something that had a profound impact on my career was my unwavering willingness to say ‘yes’ to opportunities, even if they didn't seem directly relevant to my immediate goals. I understood that building relationships and expanding my network could have a significant impact in the long run, even if I couldn't see the immediate benefits. Many of the connections I made early in my career have proved invaluable years later.”

What’s a strategy you’ve used to develop specific skills or technical knowledge throughout your career?

Stephanie focused on people-centric skills. “A strategy that I live by is to continuously ask for feedback from peers, direct reports and leaders. More importantly, I learnt to accept the feedback with humility and curiosity.”

Rebecca and Julie both echoed the importance of nurturing your curiosity and always trying to learn more. Rebecca said “My true north passion is in developing people and teams. Living by the rule of ‘you have 2 ears to one mouth,’ I find that every day is a school day. As an avid reader I tend to have both a fiction and a business or people development book on the go at all times. Trying to share what I am learning helps me really live it and understand it.”

In the same vein, Julie explained “Throughout my career, my strategy for skill development has been driven by my natural curiosity and love for learning. I've taken the initiative to engage with colleagues, asking them about their work and seeking to understand areas outside of my legal expertise. This cross-disciplinary approach has allowed me to broaden my skill set and gain a more holistic perspective, which has been immensely beneficial in my professional journey.”

Kristi developed specific skills and technical knowledge by combining both an inquisitive approach to her career and maintaining connections. She explained, “First and foremost, I firmly believe that self-awareness is the foundation of any successful skill development journey. Understanding your own interests, passions, and areas of curiosity is paramount.” Kristi then connected how that curiosity needs to be nurtured by others. “Once you have a sense of your interests, the next step is to connect with individuals who are already immersed in those fields. Seek out mentors, experts, or professionals who have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Engaging in conversations with them, asking questions, and learning from their insights can be incredibly valuable.”

Belinda zeroed in on leadership skills, explaining “Throughout my career I have found the softer skills in leadership crucial to my professional development. I chose to grow my softer skills through extracurricular opportunities, separate from my workplaces. Over a period of a few years, I took on several executive roles in Engineers Without Borders and Scouts Australia which offered me a chance to participate in accredited training courses in softer skills development, and an opportunity to test and try these new soft skills in a casual but professional setting.”

Kariza shared a practical strategy for skills building. “I love having a variety of different types of work so I make a conscious effort to always be working on at least 3 different projects. My projects will all be materials and process related but different in terms of the product or application.”

Looking back, is there anything you wished you knew earlier or had done differently in your career?

Rebecca reflected on her career and said, “A piece of advice I wish I knew is that every gap in your skill set versus the required skills in a job advert is a learning opportunity. If you can do most of a job as advertised, it may not stretch or teach you very much. The advantage I had is being put in roles by others that really stretched me and taught me far more than I would have chosen for myself. The final piece of advice I would share with my younger self is trust your gut in the interview process. There were a couple of times in my career when my gut told me to walk away instead of taking a new role, but I was swept away in the process or the job title and took the jobs, but regretted it later.”

Stephanie and Kristi were on the same page, both identifying risk taking as key to a successful career. Stephanie explained, “One piece of advice I would give my younger self is not to let lack of knowledge prevent you from taking risks. Be curious, ask questions and you might sometimes need to ‘fake it till you make it’.” Kristi seconded the sentiment, saying “I wish I’d taken more calculated risks. Venturing beyond one’s comfort zone can lead to an incredible amount of achievement.”

Kariza noted the benefits of working with a startup. “I often think it would have been a great experience to work at a startup in the first few years of my career. Within a few years, engineers who work at startups have performed the function of various types of engineering, business management, and product development, just to name a few. It’s a rapid way to find out what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing.”

Finally, Julie returned to a focus on work life balance. “Reflecting on my career, I wish I had known earlier that it was perfectly acceptable to focus on parenting during the early years of my children's lives. It's okay to prioritise family and acknowledge that career progression might temporarily take a back seat during these crucial years. Time passes quickly, and I've learned that the balance between career and family can evolve over time. Embracing this perspective earlier would have relieved unnecessary stress and allowed me to savour those precious moments with my family.”

Stephanie, Julie, Belinda, Kariza, Kristi and Rebecca have each carved their paths with determination, passion, and resilience. Their stories highlight the significance of taking calculated risks, staying open to learning, and leveraging support networks to build successful and fulfilling careers in the manufacturing field.

Join us at the Women in Manufacturing Summit 2023 to hear more from Stephanie, Julie, Belinda, Kariza, Kristi and Rebecca and a host of other inspirational manufacturing leaders on 31 October - 2 November 2023. Learn more.

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.