From the factory floor to the boardroom: leadership tips for women in manufacturing

By Bonnie Spencer Swayze

As a girl, I remember my father staying up late sketching out new ideas and spending long hours working in the factory he had built from the ground up. As a teenager, my first job was in the factory, sorting rubber bands. Manufacturing is in my blood, and I have my brother Richard to thank for teaching me a strong work ethic and for changing our culture to one of empowerment for our associates. As I worked my way up through sales and marketing to company president, I have seen and been a part of the natural progression of women in the manufacturing industry.

Women in manufacturing understand the importance of collaboration, hard work and investment in people. My advice for women in leadership roles is to capitalize on these attributes.

Choose a field you truly love

Above all, you must enjoy what you do to be any good at it. I was always interested in the family business. Throughout my life, I saw the ways local manufacturing benefited both the people who worked there and the community where the company was based. American manufacturing became my personal passion. This passion fuels business decisions, employee relations and my love of the job. My advice to any women in the industry is to enter a field you can enjoy and be passionate about.

Get as much valuable education as you can

Education does not, and should not, stop after you walk across the graduation stage. Learning is an ongoing process, especially in this age of technology. Actively take time to research what’s going on in your field. Are there new methods in development? What technology advancements are being made in machinery? Which companies are performing in the top of their class? As the industry grows, so should your knowledge.

Similarly, look for opportunities to learn. Look for classes, workshops, summits and conferences that could benefit you, your employees and your business. Whether it be on leadership, technical skill development or any interesting topic, always invest in valuable opportunities to learn. At Alliance we provide an EAP - Employees Tuition Assistance Program - to help with their further education. This not only widens the knowledge base of our employees, it also gets employees excited and even more invested in their work.

Surround yourself with people who know what they are doing

Work with people who push you. Their expertise and knowledge in their specific field should encourage, motivate and educate you, which strengthens you as a leader. Over 95 percent of our managers began on the factory floor. These individuals have worked their way up through the ranks and, as a result, know how intricately all jobs work together. They know what they’re doing and how it trickles down to every employee below them. Though I also began on the floor, there are many aspects of this company I am still learning. By surrounding myself with people who are experts in their field, I am constantly advised and inspired.

Focus on teamwork and collaboration

As a woman in a predominantly male-led field, there can be pressure to feel the need to overly assert myself as the primary leader and decision maker. I believe it is in everyone’s best interest to focus on and utilize the impact teamwork and collaboration have. As I stated earlier, surrounding yourself with key people is crucial. Use them. Bring in everyone’s specific skillsets and unique perspectives to create what it best for everyone. Not everything is meant to be the responsibility of one person. Good teamwork and collaboration are what sets great companies apart from good ones.

Prioritize helping others

My mom always said, "help somebody if you can". If you prioritize creating a positive and helpful work environment, that will reflect in your business. By establishing a precedent that employees are free to question, learn and assist their fellow peers or supervisors, they will feel much more comfortable and competent in their roles. A teaching atmosphere also allows an ease in the process of shifting roles within the company as associates rise through the ranks.

Reward your associates

As part of the positive, empowering environment you want to create, establish ways to reward your associates. Whether it be through providing educational opportunities, bonuses, a clear pathway to advancement and success or uplifting words from a supervisor, know that your people will be appreciative their hard work is recognized. We survey our associates what their favorite Alliance attribute is and the vast majority say "the people they work with." A positive culture is so vital to teamwork, and we benefit from the fact that we have less than a 5 percent annual turnover rate. When your workforce feels like family, your people will enjoy coming to work. Diversity is a strength for us and at Alliance we build leaders.

Be open to new technology and innovation — stay competitive

We are always looking for innovative, yet resourceful, ways to progress our methods and our products. Change can be scary. As a part of continuing your education, you should be aware of new technology entering your field. And while some new additions can be faulty, it’s your job to do the thorough research to determine whether these new advancements could be beneficial. Stay ahead of the curve in your industry. Don’t be afraid to fail! Not every new idea will be a success, but failing is an important part of learning and growing as a company.

Being a woman in an industry driven by men can be challenging. The great work ethic of our people, technology and innovation help us to overcome the challenge we have of having factory wages which are 13 times what our competition enjoy. I have tried to encourage women - in manufacturing and across all industries - to take on leadership roles and never settle. It takes patience, collaboration and lots of hard work.

Bonnie Spencer Swayze, president and CEO of Alliance Rubber Company, has led the company since 2008 and oversees the production of more than 2,200 skus of mailing, shipping, office and packaging products sold through dealers in 55 countries. Pioneering the women’s entrance into the boardroom, Swayze was the first female board member of the Wholesale Stationers Association and has served on the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council board and other HUB organizations.


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