John Deere – 2023 Catalysts Honoree

Readying Deere Women for the Dance Floor

John Deere is not only an agricultural company, but one deeply embedded in technology and innovation and with a strong team of engineers. 

At the 2023 Catalysts Live event on July 18th, Crystal Wells took the stage to discuss John Deere’s commitment to fostering a more diverse set of leaders and why this is part of her personal mission as well.

From the Technology Association of Iowa’s viewpoint, two things are evident about John Deere: the company cares about its employees and is passionate about building a technology community here in Iowa. 

At the 2023 Catalysts Live event, Crystal Wells, Manager of Tech Stack Architecture at John Deere, shared more about how these two elements shine within the company, as well as her and John Deere’s personal commitment to helping women move up the ladder.

To kick off her presentation, Wells shared a bit about herself. She’s the mother of two young girls, ages 4 and 7, whom she and her husband love to travel around the world with. She hopes that one day, her daughters may choose to become engineers themselves. 

What’s concerning, though, is a recent McKinsey study found that 86 women for every 100 men are promoted into their first supervisor role or leadership position. Even more alarming, the study showed that the number drops to 52 women for every 100 men in the technology sector.

So, if her daughters choose to become engineers like her, will they have just half the chance to become a leader? Not on Wells’s watch.

She shared that one of her favorite phrases states,

Diversity is being asked to the dance. Inclusion is being asked TO dance.

Will her daughters be asked to dance? 

She wanted to find out more. Specifically, Wells wanted to uncover why the gap in securing a leadership position exists. This led her to a YouTube video by Susan Colantuono about the career advice you probably didn’t get. 

In it, Colantuono shared that men and women receive different types of mentoring. For example, what happens in mid-level management positions is that women may be coached to be more assertive and competent, while men may get to engage in business discussions. And to go from mid-level to senior-level roles, you need to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes. To do that, you need to have strategic, financial and business acumen. In sum, women aren’t being mentored enough in these areas, whereas men are.

Wells set out to make sure that gap doesn’t occur at John Deere, resulting in the Women in Product Engineering Mentoring Group. 

Each year, every engineering director within the company is asked to identify a woman they want to be part of the cohort – an employee who already has great technical skills but is interested in a leadership position. Wells said they’re selective about who joins the group because they want it to be small enough so women have the room to forge relationships and ask all the questions they desire.   

The program has two goals. Number one, for women to build a strong network they can rely on. Number two, for women to enhance their business acumen, such as what the AFE allocation process is all about or how product structure lines are determined. Ultimately, the group wants to prepare women so that when a senior-level leadership position opens, they’re ready for it. 

The mentorship group meets monthly in a virtual format, since employees from across the nation are part of it. During the first meeting, the women play a game Wells calls “What’s Your Superpower?”

“We already know these women are technically very strong – what we don’t know is what makes them unique. We use this conversation as a way to start connecting each person with one another so that they really know each other outside of their job titles.”

Once that happens, they watch Susan Colantuono’s YouTube video and then spend an hour brainstorming questions they have about business acumen. The list gets long – up to 100 ideas. That’s when what Wells refers to as the “bait and switch” happens. She says, “OK, you asked questions about business acumen, now you’re the key to getting it figured out.”

The group narrows it down to 12 topics they want to dive deeper into, which they then have to research how to solve, including by talking to other leaders. 

At the beginning of each session, the participants break out into rooms for 15 minutes, during which they connect one-on-one with another employee and can just talk. This is where “building a strong network you can rely on” comes in. 

Then, all the women rejoin the main Zoom session and get into discussions surrounding the business acumen topics they voted on. Wells said that these discussions get real deep, real fast. 

Feedback on the Women in Product Engineering Mentoring Group has been overwhelmingly positive. 

Some comments from participants include:

“This has been extremely helpful in my career for the last year. I am not sure I could thank you enough with putting me in contact with this particular person – we regularly have one-on-ones now. It has been a good network for both personal and business support.”

“I appreciated growing my knowledge of various business topics. I don’t get enough of that in my role/other mentor relationships.”

I didn't even realize I needed this until I got here.

Ultimately, the group helps John Deere foster a more engaged, more diverse set of leaders ready to take the business to new heights.

Said Wells, “We’re giving these women a chance to be a part of a conversation they might have otherwise missed. And they are absolutely loving that opportunity and being included and having the opportunity to grow their business acumen in a safe space. To me, this is an absolute win-win situation. If we want to have a diverse tech community in Iowa, it’s a program like this that can help us build it.”

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