Win At Novelis

The Women in Novelis (WiN) initiative has become more than just a thought-provoking training exercise for Novelis leaders. Thanks to WiN advocates like Oswego Plant Manager Chris Smith, the program is gaining traction and becoming a reality across Novelis. Bea Landa, Director of Strategy & Business Development for Novelis North America, is a WiN sponsor and program champion on behalf of NNA. Recently, she sat down with Chris and discussed why and how he is making this initiative a priority at Oswego.

You have jumped in with both feet and become one of the lead supporters for the WiN initiative. What motivated you to do this?
Last December, I read Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In" and it helped me look at the business world through the eyes of a female, especially in a male-dominated environment like the Oswego plant. I started asking my management staff and female employees to evaluate how I facilitate discussions with a mixed audience versus a male-dominated audience. This involved giving female employees the opportunity to critique me by inquiring if I gave them adequate time to speak and have their opinions heard. I wanted to be open-minded and understand if I showed any gender bias. This was very personal for me because I have two daughters in the workplace and I wanted to better understand what they might be experiencing in their careers. I ended up buying both of my daughters the book and we had three months of conversation on topics we arguably would have never discussed without the book.

What was the biggest insight you took away from the book? Previously, I did not appreciate what an ambitious woman in manufacturing would need to accomplish and overcome in order to get an elevated position in the management structure. There is a great need to combat certain perceptions and shift paradigms. I've told this story many times, but I found myself guilty of not fighting these perceptions. On my way to work one morning, I received a text from one of my male direct reports. He was not going to make it to work because his child was home ill. My first thought was, where is his wife? I was stuck in this paradigm that staying home with a sick child was a woman's responsibility. I'm afraid this is very common for my generation.

Can you give examples of WiN initiatives in Oswego?
I gave "Lean In" to members of my management team and a number of female employees. With the book, I gave them four requests/questions: Read the book in one month. What did you take away from the book? What could Oswego do to better support women and be aware of their challenges? On a broader scale, what could Novelis do to support female professionals in the company? I had at least a two-hour follow-up meeting with everyone and they all found more than 70 percent of the topics relatable to their lives. An unexpected benefit is the women who read the book have connected and formed a circle of support. They now have monthly luncheons and even instant message each other. Since they all work in different areas of the plant, many didn't even know each other. I'm pleased the initiative served as a catalyst for this growing network.​

Why is WiN important for Novelis and Oswego?
Oswego's demographics are changing rapidly. Fifteen years ago, more than 50 percent of our employees had more than 15 years experience. In the last two years, our plant has grown by 250 people and 60 percent of our population has six years experience or less. Our female population is also growing – primarily through our EDP program. We have far more female engineers than we did 3-4 years ago. In the last 15 years, there has also been a change in the need and appreciation of work/life balance. WiN is important because we must adapt to these changing interests to attract and retain female talent. We should listen to current employees and find out what they want over the next 10-15 years and adapt to those needs. We have to channel this feedback into something beneficial in a short period of time.

What do you think are the benefits of WiN for Novelis?
It is important for both retention and recruiting. We need a program that can be pitched to an external female candidate. They need to see we have certain provisions and work practices that allow women to be successful at work and at home.

Given your experience, what advice would you give to other plant managers and leaders who are launching their own WiN initiatives?
Read "Lean In" first. It opened my eyes and started prompting me to ask questions. It was a catalyst to help me explore and appreciate the contributions of female professionals in our organization. You absolutely must go into this process with an open mind. You may be thinking, of course we treat women equally. However, I argue that we oftentimes do not fully understand our biases and there are always ways we can improve.

*The Women in Novelis (WiN) initiative was first introduced as a team business challenge project in the 2014 Accelerated Leadership Program (ALP). The initiative focuses on attracting, retaining and developing all employees; with a focus on building and celebrating a diverse culture that includes female employees.