Fast Company

Ford's Nancy Lee Gioia On Leading Where The Rubber Meets The Road

In her 30 years with Ford Motor Company, Nancy Lee Gioia’s learned a thing or two about teamwork, sparking innovation, and being a driving force in what was once considered a man's industry.

Nancy Lee Gioia’s been with Ford Motor Company since 1982, when she was hired as a graduate trainee in the electronics division. In the 30 years that followed, she’s held a variety of positions in electronics architecture, manufacturing, and engineering in different divisions.

Now, as the company’s director of Global Electrification, Gioia drives strategy and planning for the next generation of Ford’s global electric vehicle portfolio, touching all aspects of electrified transportation, including product planning, supplier partnerships, and collaboration with the energy industry and the government. 

Though planning for the future keeps Gioia busy, she recently sat down with Fast Company to share tactics of a different kind. Here are her leadership strategies to apply at the helm of any industry.

nancy gioia ford

Pay It Forward

You never forget your first job. For Gioia, that meant delivering newspapers in fifth grade. Just like the mail carrier, Gioia was out there every day, in all kinds of weather, lugging a sackful of papers on her bike. But she earned more than mad money (and tips) for her toil. Gioia says she learned some valuable lessons that she still uses in her career today. 

"You have a responsibility and a set number of things to accomplish every time, in the most efficient and best manner that you can," Gioia told Fast Company. "I took extra care to deliver papers to the door, not just throw them on the driveway. I was a chubby kid and I wanted to get fit. So I would run to the door because it really didn’t take any more time and that customer focus helped earn me bigger tips. It also reflected pride in my neighborhood. I carry that forward because everything we do can touch our broader goals. To be successful, you can’t depend on others. You have to bring your own energy and expectations.

Get a Mentor--and an Advocate

There’s a big difference between the two, says Gioia. But both are necessary for anyone who wants to achieve senior role. A mentor will guide you and provide an experienced point of view, and advocates will go to bat for you when decisions are made about new positions, roles, or assessments.

"There tends to be an over-emphasis on mentors, but advocates--especially for women--are even more important. Advocates see you are growing your capability and talent and adding to the organization as well as your own skill set," she says. 

"I have mentors at all levels of the organization, outside the company, and the industry. I have actively pursued meeting and learning from them. The best mentors are the best students. You can’t lead unless you have knowledge and understanding. When I mentor I always start with 'Don’t tell me what you want to be, tell me what really inspires you,' so that the whole day goes by and you don’t even notice. The more time you spend in that zone the greater your contribution to the group and the results.

Let Your Leadership Style Evolve

A 30-year career in the same company while holding in a variety of different roles, including a stint as a manufacturing and quality engineer at the Engine Control Electronics facility in Lansdale, Pa., management for the launch of Ford’s facility in Cadiz, Spain, and chief program engineer for the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, has taught Gioia how important it is for leaders to evolve as they take on new responsibilities.

Your style--how much you contribute individually vs. shaping a strategy for the larger organization--changes depending on your role, she says. Early on in her career, this meant she was very hands on so she could develop the expertise necessary to deliver results. 

"Now [my role is to] set strategy for the next five to 10 years, all the way up to 2050, for where are we going and how we will evolve our customer focus, talent, attributes, resources, spending and commitment," Gioia said. "The more you need to deliver strategy, the more collaborative your style needs to be. This is not just for large corporations, but also for startups. Getting big things done requires you to bring everyone along. The style I have now is clarifying the questions, using a process of logic to take disparate information for a group and drive for consensus--without everyone getting paralysis of analysis. 

"A big part of leadership is recognizing what level of detail you need to be engaged in versus becoming an expert. My job is to enable to right discussion, support the team, and push them beyond where they think we can go."

Make It a Woman’s World

Gioia’s thoughts on being a woman in the male-centric world of auto manufacturing and engineering has evolved over time as well. From avoiding the issue early on to embracing it as a role model to recruit more girl power to the rank and file of auto manufacturers, Gioia says one thing remains constant. “You don’t have to be a car geek to love the auto industry. I am not a gear head; however, I love working on products that make a difference in people's lives.”

As she rose through the ranks, she saw her role as doing a good job, being accepted by peers, and contributing and learning. But she avoided taking on what she though of as "women's issues," because she didn't want to be perceived as self-serving or represent unwanted stereotypes. 

"Now [I realize] I have an important role. I have an opportunity to talk to people inside and outside the company and see how many people look at me as a role model. As a senior leader you are a role model. In a male-dominated industry you are even more so seen as someone who stands out. Recognizing that [I thought] how do I want to contribute to excitement and interest for women in automotive?" she said.  

"I’ve done so much in my career--how many industries give you those opportunities? It is global in nature--what a cool opportunity. If we can change the car, we can change the world." 

Encourage Innovation Without Killing Ideas

It is possible, says Gioia, to support the development of innovative products among teams of scientists and engineers who are, by necessity, focused on minutia. It all starts with questions--namely, what problems is a product trying to solve, and what are the issues that need to be understood? 

"You keep thinking about that and somewhere in there is a kernel that may result in the next big idea," she says. "You have to be able to explain where we have to take a decision in the next five years. In the meantime, show when you can implement an idea and bring it forward in a bigger way. Nothing is ever cast in concrete, though. I have a little trick. I keep a journal and when I have 'aha' moment, I make a little picture of a light bulb. I keep them all and I think [later], 'You know, this one is not ready. But I keep putting things back on the plate."

The ideas that are ready come forward, she says, and the others--while unused for the time being--are not dead, they're just waiting for their time.

Everyday Wisdom

Gioia is an avid equestrian, and for the past 14 years has been riding dressage regularly with her daughter. Though she admits that her colleagues will probably be eye-rolling at the prospect of “another manure story,” Gioia maintains that some profound learning all comes back to horses. 

"It’s been a revelation that no matter how long you work at something, you can always do it better and have more fun. The peak is higher, the challenge is further out, and the journey can be enjoyable or it can be work. So make it enjoyable while you work."

[Image: Flickr user Adcuz]

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