The Courage to Voice Convictions: Q&A With JoAnna Sohovich


Manufacturing executive JoAnna Sohovich will be joining us at MAPI’s Women's Leadership in Manufacturing Forum on May 30 in Chicago. She will describe the transition from the military to manufacturing and the benefits of risk-taking for career advancement.

Sohovich served in the U.S. Navy and was deployed to the Persian Gulf aboard the USS ESSEX (LHD-2). Before her current position at Stanley Black & Decker, she was president of Honeywell Security & Communications. She is a Master Black Belt in Six Sigma.

She was recently kind enough to share some of the wisdom she’s learned during her years in the military and manufacturing.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?

I once had a mentor who opposed my business recommendations because he viewed them as potentially unpopular with our CEO. He advised me to not make those recommendations, punctuating his advice with the admonition that “I would get fired.” I didn’t follow his counsel because I had done the diligence and believed that my recommendations were right for our business, but I did use his warnings to put more thought into how I was going to approach, inform, and gain support for potentially unpopular or controversial positions.

As the sole earner in my household, the prospect of losing my job was a serious concern; however, I concluded that I’m paid to apply my diverse experiences and knowledge to my recommendations—not to parrot what I think others want me to say. I gathered the courage to voice my convictions (with the appropriate data and supporting material) and was congratulated for my work, rather than fired.

Looking back on your career thus far, what do you wish you had known when you started working in the industry?

I wish I had better and earlier awareness of the value of building relationships laterally. Because of my leadership training at Annapolis and in the U.S. Navy, I understood the benefits of winning the hearts and minds of my team, as well as the benefits of ensuring that the next level up was aware and supportive of my team’s work, but initially underestimated the importance of working with peers to strengthen interdependencies across the organization. I admire leaders who are adept at this and to whom it comes naturally, but it is possible to learn the behavior—and well worth the investment because the best leaders are adept at all three dimensions.

How did you first end up with a career in manufacturing?

When I was in the 2nd grade, our teacher, Mrs. Smith, polled our class on what we wanted to be when we grew up. The responses covered the usual smattering of doctors, lawyers, teachers, pilots, astronauts, and sports heroes. Then Mrs. Smith asked why nobody wants to be the guy who drives the Frito-Lay truck. I was immediately flabbergasted by all the potential careers that I hadn’t considered. As if to reinforce the point, a Frito-Lay truck pulled up behind our school bus at an intersection later that week. Inspired by Mrs. Smith’s comment, I smiled out the back window and waved. In turn, the driver smiled, beeped his horn, and held up a bag of Fritos. From that day forward, I’ve really tried to keep an open mind regarding what sorts of jobs and industries I might find attractive.

Accordingly, my first job upon entering the business world was in a factory manufacturing radars for commercial aircraft. The process of making something captured my interest and fueled my career path through plant manager and beyond to general manager of manufactured goods businesses. I find it incredibly fulfilling to design, produce, and build something tangible that creates value and serves an unmet need for our customers, and the instant gratification element of running a plant can be very addictive. Every day you know how you did—in terms of safety, quality, delivery, productivity, and working capital—and the opportunity to lead some of the most diverse teams I’ve ever encountered to maximize those results was extremely rewarding and valuable for my career development.

What are some of the lesser-known benefits of a military background when it comes to working in the private sector?

Some of the more obvious benefits are tested leadership ability, a bias for action—coupled with maturity and accountability for mission accomplishment—and highly polished judgment and reasoning abilities.

In addition, veterans typically have been confronted with greater responsibility at an earlier age than their civilian counterparts. For example, I was fortunate enough to get formal, informal, and on-the-job leadership training at Annapolis starting at 18, which isn’t always available in the civilian world. This training facilitated the Navy’s trust in me to lead a team of 150+ sailors and employees in my first job, manage a multimillion-dollar operating budget, and maintain both U.S. Treasury signing authority and $6 million of cash in my safe. Not many fresh college graduates have the opportunity to gain this level of experience at the start of their careers, and it is very relevant to most expectations for managerial capabilities in the private sector.

What can manufacturing executives learn from how the military nurtures (or dissuades) potential female leaders?

I truly believe in selecting the best-qualified person for any job, but I also believe that a specific gravity exists that women need to overcome today to be considered qualified or ready for some of the more challenging positions. While not every job in the military is open to women, my experience was that for the jobs that women held, the training, expectations, and rigor were incredible and without hesitation.

By contrast, I have observed certain areas in business (and manufacturing as a subset) that view and measure successes for women differently and therefore doubt ability and readiness when the tough jobs surface. The best support we can give to both diverse and promising talent is to give them challenging stretch assignments and to hold them to the highest standards in our feedback and coaching.

When did you know that you were prepared to move into a leadership position?

I’ve always liked being a leader, starting with my earliest memories of childhood games. The moment I reconciled this proclivity with my career aspirations was during my first individual contributor role in a manufacturing plant after having been a leader of people in the military for years. While I enjoyed the focus and ability to further develop influencing skills as an individual contributor, I quickly realized that my appetite was to teach, coach, and develop others—as well as to bring together the various and diverse talents on a team to reach a better outcome.

In what ways has Six Sigma training influenced your management style?

Six Sigma is simply a collection of time-honored engineering and continuous improvement tools that have been utilized, embraced, and sometimes abused for decades. The training and application work helped refine my critical thinking skills beyond the classroom. Having this background is helpful in bringing clarity to and leading teams through crises and gradual decay situations that confront every industry. Most importantly, it’s a common framework that focuses on the data in solving problems—not opinion and emotion.

How does the executive team at Stanley Black & Decker support future female leaders? Do you have specific goals or programs for talent development?

I’ve observed numerous talent development programs over my career and have spoken to frustrated participants who felt that the programs did nothing for their careers. Some programs seem to do little more than bring similar people together and create the expectation that the program will manage their careers.

By contrast, our executive leadership team at Stanley Black & Decker supports female and diverse leaders by surfacing challenging assignments and by enforcing high standards—exactly what they do for all promising leaders. A key process that identifies high-potential, diverse, and female leaders is our Organization & People Review. This process includes in-depth discussions about our entire talent base, particularly:

  • individual performance with respect to our corporate behaviors and results;
  • promotion potential;
  • retention risk;
  • potential next roles;
  • development needed for progression; and
  • our bench strength across the company.

This helps us identify potential talent well in advance of an organizational emergency and ensures that candidates are as prepared as possible when the opportunity arises. We link our key talent to challenging roles that will develop them further while allowing them to demonstrate their capabilities.

As a result, we definitely don’t pull back when stretching female leaders; rather, we present challenges for talent to hone their skills and create opportunities to stand out. The goal: “Give Women Challenging Assignments.”


More Insight and Inspiration

For a day devoted to building up women as individuals and implementing corporate initiatives, please join JoAnna and other top industry executives at MAPI’s Women’s Leadership in Manufacturing Forum, to be held May 30 in Chicago. Come a day early for our forum on diversity to save $250 on registration; most attendees are coming for both events.