By Jinnie Lee
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.
Joanna Cooper, General Manager at Daimler Truck North America, is hopeful about the future for women leaders — despite being one of the few women execs in the high-tech manufacturing industry. “We should all speak things into existence that we want to see,” she says of her bold belief that women will be equally represented and compensated in just a decade. “Through organizations like Chief, I’ve seen the force of change that is possible when you bring women together. There’s no reason not to believe it if we keep on this trajectory. It won’t be easy — at the least. But together, we can do it."
Her confidence is fueled in part by her own career, where she’s been able to climb to the top thanks to a combination of careful planning and a serendipitous second chance.
It all started in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, when a recruiter contacted Cooper about an associate buyer role in the purchasing department at Daimler. At the time, Cooper had just given up on her dream of becoming a real estate investor — and she was looking for a new opportunity. Separately, she also wanted to move back to her hometown. As it turned out, the subsidiary where Cooper would be stationed was five minutes from where she grew up in Detroit. She accepted the job and never looked back.
Cooper credits much of her success to a multidisciplinary approach accepting roles in various departments. Throughout her 15-year time at Daimler, she took a three-year assignment in Germany (a risk she calls her biggest bet), rose through the ranks with the support of a mentor, pivoted towards working in a manufacturing plant (leaving an office position behind), and relocated to North Carolina to lead the production team at Daimler Truck North America. Today, Cooper oversees the operations of 2,000 staffers to produce over 20,000 medium-duty Freightliner trucks annually.
Ahead in The Big Bet, Cooper shares how saying "yes" to opportunities, seeking out a mentor whose career she wanted to emulate, and being receptive to feedback (whether she agreed with it or not) have paid off for her in the long run.
“In January 2016, I sat down with my first real mentor, Jeff Allen, who was the plant manager in Detroit at the time. He asked me a question that changed my life: ‘Where do you want to be in 20 years?’ My answer: ‘Your job.’ So we put together my first career timeline. That timeline has been in a frame in my office ever since. Keeping it visible both directly and indirectly influenced my growth. Since that first mentorship session, I have worked on getting to where I wanted to be. We don't control the timing of our opportunities, but we do control our preparedness. That makes all the difference.”
“In any new mentoring relationship, I ask that [same] question: ‘Where do you want to be in 20 years?’ We often work so hard to just ‘do’ things we don’t understand ‘why.’ In most cases, the mentee can’t answer upfront, but I’m always excited when they voluntarily circle back after they have thought about it thoroughly, and then to see how it transforms how they show up.
I also think it is integral that as the mentoring relationships mature, those mentees become people you’re willing to sponsor. Sponsorship is very important to building a diverse pipeline of leaders for the next generation.”
“In high school, I played the cello in the symphony orchestra. In my junior year, I had the opportunity to tour the UK with our group. It was an amazing trip, and it planted a seed of wanting, at some point in my life, to live abroad. Fast forward to 2011. I had been with Detroit Diesel for over three years and had learned and grown from the guidance and support of leaders, colleagues, and friends. I was also lucky to be part of a global department and could be considered for opportunities abroad. I communicated that I would be interested, and I finally got the chance to say yes to moving to Germany for a three-year expatriate assignment. It has been one of the biggest bets I made on myself, as a young woman from Detroit, MI, to step out of my comfort zone, and it has been an experience I have never regretted.”
“I will be 40 next year, so as I end the last year of this decade, I find myself trying to figure out what it means to be successful in work and other areas of my life. I still aspire to be married and a parent, and I also fear giving up on the belief that I can have it all. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it. In an era when many women are stepping away, I am fearful that not enough change has been made to keep us strongly in the game.”
“I have been and continue to be very aware of how I show up, what I say, how I say it — especially in a new audience. I can’t say that I always get it right, but being open to feedback — whether I agree or not — has helped me evolve and build an ability to work with others more effectively. I have remained committed to self-development and understanding others in an effort to balance authenticity with effectiveness.”
“In 10 years, we won’t have to fuel initiatives to elevate women. We will be in all the important places, in a seat at the important tables, and compensated equitably based on our impact and influence.”
Women executives network differently — and it works.
Executives are nearly twice as likely to report being more confident and having success with networking than those at the manager level. Find out why to unlock the next level of your career.