Kara Demirjian Huss Interviewed in Quality Digest

Much has been written about the different styles of management between the genders. Although there are still few women in top leadership, particularly in manufacturing, learning from them, even anecdotally, can provide insight into the current state of leadership and a future where more women are seated as C-level executives.

Kara Demirjian Huss started her career in fashion marketing, then moved to manufacturing, leading marketing efforts for family companies such as Tillotson (a manufacturer of carburetors for power tools) and T/CCI (air conditioning compressors for heavy-duty trucks and military vehicles). Huss is currently vice president of global marketing at T/CCI. In 2000, along with business partner Katherine Smith, Huss launched DCC Marketing Group. Her leadership and expertise meld practical business strategies with strong marketing plans that move the needle for businesses.

Recently Demirjian shared some of the most obvious changes in opportunities for women since the start of her career.

Thomas Cutler: What is the most significant change you’ve seen in manufacturing over the years?

Kara Demirjian Huss: Particularly in manufacturing, I think the thing that strikes me as the most significant change in thought is that men are starting to recognize women’s strength in STEM careers. Although manufacturing is still very male-dominated, it’s not uncommon for us to consider female engineers or machining techs. And it’s not just that men are accepting women in the field; it’s also that women are accepting the field in general.

The manufacturing environment of 30 years ago is a stereotype we have to break through. Manufacturing is modern, high-tech, and fast-paced. The factory floor is not the same environment it was just a generation ago. I think as more women are introduced to the field, they will start to see themselves and manufacturing in a new and innovative way. Ultimately, they will realize it’s a great place to be. It’s definitely not the same dingy, dark factory environment they might have pictured.

TC: Why haven’t more women reached the vice president or c-level status in manufacturing?

KDH: Manufacturing is still predominately a male industry, and again, it’s about breaking the stereotype of women’s perception of modern manufacturing. As we get better as an industry at bringing women into the fold and spreading awareness and education, I think more women in senior positions will be a product of that. We see a lot of women moving into the global purchasing division and senior engineering positions.

TC: What is being done or remains to be done to encourage more women leaders?

KDH: The emphasis I see on STEM education now for girls has really grown, and it’s a trend that I hope we continue to champion. As an industry, we are getting much better at opening our doors to these opportunities and showing manufacturing to the younger generation. Internally, I think that once we have female hires, we will become more adept at making sure they have the right training, mentors, and opportunities presented to them so they know that the sky is truly the limit. We also need to create a corporate culture and rounded benefits program that fosters hard work, collaboration, and accountability by managing our human resource policies and work schedule flexibility differently.

TC: What makes a great manager?

KDH: I think great managers set high expectations not only for themselves, but also for those around them. Mediocrity isn’t an option, and you inspire your people to push the envelope while always reaching for that next stretch goal.

I think another key motivator for myself as a leader is to truly understand my own strengths and weaknesses, while also having that same understanding of each of my employees. I like being able to connect with my employees in a way that allows me to know their unique talents. I like to know what topics they are really passionate about and also the areas in which they need to grow. I devote a lot of time to people development.

Lastly, I would say my other key strength is being a visionary leader. I’ve learned this by example, for sure, but those leaders who have the ability to set direction and encourage their organization to think of the big picture are always successful drivers of any business. As we hire more women in senior positions and see this trend with our customers, we anticipate even further advancement in a partner-approach model in business.

TC: What are some of the characteristics in the way women lead vs. the way men lead?

KDH: Speaking from most leadership settings I’ve been in, whether at work or on various boards I serve on in the community, I see that women tend be more relationship- rather than task-driven when it comes to leading people. Relationship-oriented leaders look at the dynamics of the team—who’s engaged, how do we motivate, and how do we work together. Task-oriented leaders tend to focus on the outputs, the metrics, knowing what we must deliver and what our our goal is. The people aspect tends to become a secondary priority. Not that one way is better than the other; I’ve just observed that women and men go about achieving the same goals differently.

I see many women take a Stephen Covey approach, i.e., begin with the end in mind. By starting with the end goal in mind, women can then use their ability to read situations, listen to their surroundings, and engage their team with a clear plan.

TC: What obstacles remain for women in senior management?

KDH: It’s still a very small pool when it comes to women in manufacturing leadership. At times you feel like you’re lacking the commonality and support structure that men have in the industry.

TC: What kind of impact have programs like Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, and theory of constraints, had on manufacturing?

KDH: In so many ways, manufacturing is a model of success for lean methodologies. Lean has made us more efficient in our processes and has changed the way we look at driving improvements in all aspects of our business.

From a visual standpoint, you can see lean at work on the shop floor with efforts like 5S and value stream mapping. In my career, I can see where lean methodologies have driven the way I look at efficiencies and change.

As T/CCI’s global footprint expands our excellence in quality, standards remain the same globally. We have a continuous improvement process, and the organization at large is committed to providing the highest standard of excellence at all times. Customers continue to recognize us for our trusted quality partnership. Our awards are evidence: we’re one of only a few Bronze-Certified SQEP CAT suppliers and for five years running have won the Supplier Excellence of the Year award for Red Dot. We also won the supplier of the year award from PACCAR at our Ningbo facility.

TC: How does your company provide a level playing field to encourage and invite more women into senior leadership roles?

KDH: At T/CCI, everyone receives the same opportunities for training and advancement in their chosen fields. And that training, whether you are male or female, is what helps open the door to a leadership position. Our mentality is that all employees are worth our investment in time and training, and since it’s not a hand-selected opportunity, I think that more women realize they are on the same playing field as anyone else in their position when thinking about career advancement. With the level playing field, it’s drive and ability that help determine who will advance into a leadership position.

TC: Final words?

KDH: It’s an honor to work in such an incredible industry. I’m inspired by the leaders I work with every day, and as a legacy I hope I instill that same passion for manufacturing leadership in our female employees who want to attain the ranks of upper management in our organization. I currently see in the industry the right steps we’re collectively taking to open doors for women in manufacturing leadership positions.