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10 learnings from the road to leadership

Marie-Fleur Revel
March 6, 2024

In the last few years, I’ve been invited to speak at several automotive and IT industry events, both publicly and internally within business organizations, about the journey to becoming a leader within the male-dominated automotive and IT industries.

I often get asked specific questions about how to progress as a woman in automotive and what lessons I’ve learned on the road to leadership. I’ve kept a note of them, reflected on the answers, and now sharing them with you in the hope that they might help you or somebody you know on your career journey.

But before you get started, please note that this shouldn’t be considered an exhaustive list, I’d love to hear back from you about your own learnings so we can make this content useful for more women. Feel free to reach out or share your own perspective and learnings in the comments section.

1. Be prepared to look left and right for the best way forward

I’ve heard from many women who have enjoyed listening to my story but feel like they don’t have sufficient opportunities for career advancement with their current employers. If you feel like you’ve hit the dreaded ‘glass ceiling’, my advice is to be prepared to look sideways within your organization for different opportunities.

A change in department, domain or team can often lead to a more satisfying role and also a clearer route to advancement within your organization. It also allows you to broaden your own perspective, skillset, and network, which can lead to more opportunities further up the road. It may not feel easy to accept anything other than a forward move, but it can be the best thing for you long term, especially if you feel unseen, unheard or undervalued in your current role.

2. Embrace a job – or the parts of your job – that give you energy

When I explain to people that I am both a Co-Managing Director of a growing company and a single mother to young twins, I’m often asked “What do you do to relax or escape from the pressures of your role?”. People expect me to answer with yoga, meditation or extreme sport.

In truth, the answer is … nothing. There simply isn’t the time.

However, the key point here is that I don’t feel I need this kind of ‘escape’ from either of my roles because I make a conscious effort to make sure I can devote enough of my time to those activities that give me energy, like coaching and team development.

I also take a lot of satisfaction in responsibly delegating (including to my kids), as this allows people to grow their skills and roles in a way that is both supportive and enjoyable. I find this process energizing and rewarding in itself, but – by investing time in delegating and supporting people as they grow – I’m also helping build up the skills of those around me, which makes our organization (or, in the case of my kids, our home) stronger and better able to deal with future challenges.

3. Get familiar with your company’s policy on diversity

Wherever you work, it’s useful to find out what your company has published about diversity

These days, most companies have published their own statement or policy on diversity or have signed up to a broader initiative or charter. Within such statements, you can often find commitments about the number or percentage of new hires or leadership positions that will be filled by women. If you want to advance your career, it’s worth finding out who is responsible for tracking quota implementation and seeing where there might be opportunities for advancement.

Your organization’s culture will play a part in how well such approaches will be received but it’s worth remembering that quotas and objectives are there to be fulfilled and you might well be helping somebody out by alerting them to your profile at a time when they might be struggling to achieve their objectives.

4. Find truly good mentors who really believe in your potential and support women in leadership

During my career, I’ve learned that there are two types of mentors. There are those who are happy to say all the right things in public settings but whose actions don’t always back up their strong words. And there are those who live their professed values and can be relied upon to act consistently and strongly in the name of what’s right.

Let’s face it, being pro-women or pro-diversity has become trendy in recent times. But being truly supportive is about more than ‘liking’ a LinkedIn post or being ready for a photo opp with the local ‘women’s network’ – it’s about integrating respect, empathy, and fairness into all aspects of the way you do business, even on difficult topics like pay. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s about recognizing that the goal of true gender equality in the workplace is not a short- or fixed-term project or initiative – it’s a mission that requires career-long commitment.

5. Find and embrace your unique leadership style

I’ve worked with companies in the past that had quite firm but limited ideas of what a leader should be, with everybody evaluated using the same dimensions. This feels constraining at the best of times, but more so when we consider the transformation taking place in most industries and workplaces today. We won’t achieve success in a changing world if we continue to do and think about things in the same way we always have. Now, more than ever, we need new perspectives and approaches, and we need diversity of thought and a willingness to continuously adapt and evolve.

Today, it’s more important than ever to know who you are – as a leader or expert – and understand what your values and attributes are. Self-reflection will help you see where you can fit and add value to your team or organization, and which opportunities to pursue or pass up. I’ve recently read True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George, which I found to be a great way of understanding who you are, the values that are important to you and how you can integrate these within your own leadership style. It does this by encouraging you to consider aspects such as your “lifeline” (what has shaped you) and “crucibles” (difficulties you’ve encountered and how they influence your behavior), and features many exercises you can complete yourself. I recommend it.

6. Be open about who you are and make it work to your advantage

I’m a single mother of two young children and spending time with them after school is a priority for me. This is something most people learn about me soon after we first meet. Being open about my role and the responsibilities that go with it tends to put others at ease and it also lets them know that

  1. I’m focused and determined when it comes to finding ways to achieve success and get things done
  2. I must be pretty good at managing lots of diverse tasks and responsibilities and
  3. There are certain limitations on my time that mean it’s unlikely I can ‘stay late’ or travel internationally at short notice.

Beyond this, I’ve learned in my career that being open and true to myself tends to result in me being trusted more easily by my peers and managers. This leads to honest conversations, which in most cases result in faster and better outcomes and more meaningful connections with colleagues.

Everyone knows that I am a single mom with twin toddlers and supports me, including my managers

It’s also worth remembering that your personal success story can be a great asset for employers. Amid tough competition for talent, having strong role models and real examples to support pro-diversity or gender-equality stances can strengthen an employer’s appeal to candidates and help them stand out. If you’re comfortable with it, your success can – and should be – your company’s success, too!

7. Pursue career progression in times of personal strength

It can often feel like opportunities for promotions or positive change in our professional lives are few and far between. This leads us to think that we must ‘seize the moment’ when it presents itself, even if it might not be the best time for us personally. I’d counter this by saying that your career is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s useful to know when to push the pace, when to drop back and conserve your energy, and when to give it everything in pursuit of your goals. I’ve been through a divorce and I’ve had two kids as a single mother. I know now that the periods surrounding such events – and we can also add events like moving house, the loss of a loved one, poor health, and menopause to this list – are times to focus on other things. It’s unlikely that you’ll be the best version of yourself, which means it probably won’t be a good time to take on even more responsibility.

Based on my experience, good positions find good people, so if you’re tempted by an opportunity but don’t feel the time is right, don’t be afraid to pass it up. Treat the offer or opportunity as a confirmation of your value, then focus on settling, recovering, or replenishing your energy reserves. Opportunities arise often – once you’re ready, you’ll be able to go after the right one confident, strong, and equipped to perform at your best.

8. Understand your motivation. What kind of leader do you want to be?

When contemplating our careers, we should ask ourselves a few questions, such as ‘Do I want to lead or be an expert individual contributor?’ And, if you want to lead, what is your motivation? I think it’s useful to think about what kind of leader you can be. Are you good at getting the best out of people, whatever their domain? Or are you more technically or domain-focused and feel that your knowledge and passion can help others – as well as your company – progress? Having occupied both people-manager and domain-lead roles, I know that both come with their pros and cons. I strongly encourage you to contemplate which type of leadership role will suit you best and then prioritize those when considering new roles.

9. Network as an investment in your future

Women (especially in automotive and IT) haven’t always been blessed with an abundance of female role models. Thankfully, that’s changing now but what we do have today is strong communities, such as the Women Automotive Network and PANDA | The Women Leadership Network. Many companies also have local or company-specific communities for women. Being part of these organized networks provides you with access to great sources of inspiration and opportunities to meet like-minded people. The ideas and inspiration you take from these events and exchanges can serve as a valuable source of strength and motivation for the journey ahead.

But for all the value of organized networks, for me, there’s nothing more supportive than the strong relationships I enjoy with people from my immediate network. In my case, these are friends, colleagues from current and previous organizations and teams, and people from clients and partners that I’ve had the chance to collaborate with for many years. With these people, I can share challenges as they occur and seek advice that is relevant to my specific situation. We help each other along our respective paths and provide the type of support you can’t necessarily get at networking events, Q&A sessions on webinars or LinkedIn comments. If you have the opportunity, I strongly encourage you to invest time in building and nurturing your own close network.

10. Pave the way for others to follow

When sharing my experiences at community or networking events, I’m often told that my story is an exception rather than the norm and that not everybody gets the same chances. My response to this is that, yes, this is true, we must work together to change things for the better. A personal ambition of mine is that my story ceases to be an exception and that we hear stories from female leaders of all different backgrounds.

To do that, we need strong female role models who will not only lead by example and change perceptions by thriving in their roles but also make the extra effort to hold the door open for the lady behind them and work to create a culture that empowers more women to thrive and progress in their careers. Regardless of our individual experiences, we’re all role models to somebody – whether it’s our kids at home, the intern at work, or even our peers and managers. Let’s remember that and make sure that we continue to, collectively, pave the way for more female success in our respective industries.

Marie-Fleur Revel

Co-Managing Director of @XL2 by Audi and Capgemini
Marie-Fleur is a perfect blend of specialized startup spirit with corporate capabilities to accelerate the digital transformation of manufacturing, production, and logistics for Audi and other VW brands. At XL2, she leverages her background in computer science, IT, project management, and business building to nurture a new generation of automotive talent and build a workplace that celebrates diversity, equality, and inclusion.