By Mercy Harper
The biggest career wins often come with risk. On our series, The Big Bet, Chief speaks with some of the most powerful members in our network about that single moment when they bet on themselves — and won.
Prom is a big night for every American teen. It marks the conclusion of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. Usually, it’s a time of togetherness. But not for Chief Member Sondra Sutton Phung, General Manager of Global Trucks at Ford Motor Company. Her prom was racially segregated: one white, one black, with separate homecoming queens for each.
Phung wasn’t given a roadmap for corporate success. She drew her own. Now, she’s helping others follow her path.
In Chief’s new series The Big Bet, Phung shares how a bold move in her early career evolved into a 26-year leadership journey with Ford, the importance of mentorship and advocacy, and why she’s betting on women to lead the future of business.
On Her Big Bet
“I began my career at Ford in 1997 as a Ford College Graduate. This program consisted of rotations between teams — IT, product development, and marketing — allowing me to build multiple skills and experiences. When I completed the program, I was offered an international service assignment in Japan.
“I knew the position would be challenging, and I knew I was going to a joint venture company with no significant female presence in its leadership ranks. But I also knew I would learn so much from the Japanese people and their work culture. So, I said yes, and that opened many doors for me. Many of the people I met became mentors, and I gained professional skills from watching the Japanese teams systematically solve problems. On a personal level, I gained friendships that I have treasured for over 24 years.
“Saying yes to an international assignment doesn’t seem like much now, given the globally connected world we live in, but for a 25-year-old girl from a small farming community in Georgia, moving across the globe with no family and no significant work relationships was indeed a big bet.”
On Her Journey With Ford
“I will celebrate 26 years at Ford this year, which is very different from the five-year plan I had in my mind when I first joined. The reason I stay is the same reason I joined: It’s a global, iconic 120-year-old company with locations worldwide, providing invaluable experiences across skill teams and culture.
“While I’ve been at one company on paper, I have lived for 11 years in three countries outside the U.S. — Japan, China, and Thailand — and I’ve served in 12 different roles. Every assignment gave me the opportunity to gain new skills, learn how to navigate new cultures, and helped me become a global citizen equipped with a network of colleagues, mentors, and friends that span the globe.
“My current role as General Manager of Global Trucks was on my five-year career plan. When the role opened in December 2022, I was selected to interview. My skill set, leadership skills, and experience in the region all contributed to my selection. Located in Bangkok, Thailand, the Global Trucks GM role allows me to be the “CEO of my business” with the lead role for developing the now, near, and far plans for the Ford Ranger and Everest vehicle lines.”
On the Value of Mentorship and Advocacy
“It took a while for me to understand the importance of a mentor. If I could go back, I would tell my younger self to get a mentor on day one of her professional career. Everyone needs that trusted advisor to help influence their personal and professional growth. And no one makes it to the senior levels in a company without some form of mentorship or advocacy.
“I’ve been fortunate to have an amazing group of mentors, and it’s hard to choose just one to highlight, but if pressed I would say that Larry H. Collins was my first and greatest advocate. He believed in me, advocated for me to have equitable pay, exposed me to different cultures, and when I wanted to transition to a core marketing role, he made the introductions needed to get me an interview.”
On Paying It Forward
“I like to pay it forward by helping those who didn’t have the advantage of a ‘roadmap to success.’ For me, that means supporting first-generation college students. I did not have the benefit of college-educated parents who worked in corporate America. Every step of the way, I made the best choice I could, which sometimes meant I was not making the best choice.
“Now, I mentor through our Ford First Gen program, an innovative program aimed at improving graduation rates among first-generation college students. My goal is to help them stay motivated and prepared to enter the workforce confidently. Once they reach Ford or another employer, I help them navigate the corporate environment. As I can attest to personally, this program can have generational impacts on a family, and I want to pay it forward to as many first-generation students as possible.”
On Navigating Bias as a Woman of Color
“Race and gender have always been factors in how I’ve navigated life. Early in my career, I worked overtime to ‘fit in.’ With age and experience comes wisdom, and now, I’m at a point in my life where I bring my full self to work. I share my culture, I wear my hair naturally when the Bangkok humidity demands it, and I mentor women and people of color to encourage them to step into their power early in their careers.”
On Surviving Cancer and Building Courage
“I used to fear a lot of things before being diagnosed with and surviving cancer. However, after my successful treatment in 2021, I now take a very different approach to fear.
“Sure, I want to do a great job and deliver outstanding results. Sure, I know that me being an African American woman in this role is a first and, as such, means a great deal to many women of color. And sure, I still have bouts of imposter syndrome that I work very hard to manage.
“But now, the only thing I really fear in life is not being present for my family.”
On What Fuels Her
“Teamwork! I absolutely love collaborating with a diverse group of thinkers to find optimal results. When working to deliver a product like the Ford Ranger, which is sold in over 186 markets globally, the worst thing I could do is think that I have all the answers. Listening to and learning from my team members across the globe is what makes the Ranger the outstanding, award-winning product it is today.”
On Betting Big on Women in Leadership
“Women in senior leadership roles grew to 32% in 2022, the highest number ever recorded. While this represents significant progress, it is still well below the percentage of women in the global workforce. However, I remain encouraged about the next 10 years.
“Every year, research studies are coming to the same conclusion: Organizations with greater gender diversity in senior leadership are more profitable, more innovative, and more productive. Women are good for business, and companies are recognizing it.”
*Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gain the knowledge and community you need to reach new heights as an executive.
Chief connects and supports women executives to strengthen their leadership, magnify their influence, and pave the way to bring others with them.