HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. When Rosalind Fox took over as manager of John Deere’s largest factory in Des Moines, Iowa, the plant employed 1,600 workers and oversaw four consequential product lines. It was far bigger and more complex than the factory she’d been managing in North Carolina before her promotion. She had to shift from being a more operational, tactical manager and take on a more strategic role. But Fox was also the first Black female manager at the Iowa factory, and her employees there were mostly white men. So, she also had to figure out how to engage with her staff and build credibility with them. And that meant Fox had to decide how much of herself to bring to work. Harvard Business School senior lecturer Tony Mayo interviewed Fox for his case study on her remarkable leadership at the agricultural equipment company In this episode, he discusses how Fox balanced the pressure to assimilate into the factory’s dominant cultures with her own sense of authenticity. This episode originally aired on Cold Call in February 2021. Here it is.
BRIAN KENNY: Farmers in Northern Illinois in the 1830s had a problem. Sticky dirt. The tough prairie soil that was so good for growing tended to stick to the plow blades, making it nearly impossible to till. And that is where one enterprising young blacksmith from Vermont saw an opportunity. John Deere remembered polishing needles in sand in his father’s tailor shop and concluded that a plow made from highly polished cast iron steel could solve the problem. He debuted the first ever self-scouring steel plow in 1837 and the rest is history. 183 years later, John Deere is among the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world and an enduring American brand. And like most heritage brands, it faces the challenge of demonstrating that it is evolving, not just in its products, but in its values as a company. Today’s case takes us to the manufacturing floor of a John Deere plant in Des Moines, Iowa, where diversity and inclusion have taken center stage. Professor Tony Mayo joins us to discuss his case entitled, “Rosalind Fox at John Deere.” I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Presents network. Tony Mayo is an expert on leadership, a topic he teaches to executives and MBA students. Thanks for joining us today.
TONY MAYO: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BRIAN KENNY: So I thought this case was excellent. And we’re featuring this as part of our series of cases featuring Black protagonists during Black History month on the podcast. And Rosalind is just such a compelling example in so many ways. So thank you for taking the time to come share it with us. And I just want to ask you to start by the way we usually start the show, which is tell us what your cold call would be to start this case in the classroom.
TONY MAYO: So my cold call for the Rosalind Fox case is on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being extremely challenging, how difficult of a challenge was it for Rosalind Fox to step into the Des Moines Works factory? So the reason I use that question to open is to really lay out what are the challenges across a number of different areas. Personal challenges, being the first woman, being the first Black person to run this factory in Iowa, the organizational challenges of stepping into a plant that has four gigantic product lines, three different bosses, 62% of the workforce is union. So there’s organizational challenges, there’s personal challenges. And then there’s sort of the macro-economic challenges where we see the trade wars going on and we see issues with farmers, not necessarily replacing their equipment as quickly. And so John Deere is also struggling in terms of the industry sector. And how do you maintain revenues during a downmarket?
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, so there’s no shortage of challenges for Rosalind here. It’s really everything packed into one case. So it makes it really compelling. Tell me what prompted you to write this case? How does it relate to the things that you think about as a scholar?
TONY MAYO: So the reason that I wrote this case and I have to actually acknowledge Ceena Beale, who was a student of mine in my authentic leader development class. She was also an officer in the student association at Harvard Business School. And she knew of the research I was doing on race as part of the 50th anniversary of the African-American Student Union at HBS that ultimately culminated in a number of different things at the School, a documentary and a big celebration, and also an edited volume called, Race Work & Leadership. And as I was talking about the work that I was doing, Ceena reached out to me and said, “Look, if you ever want to write a case about an impressive Black woman in the manufacturing sector, I know who. Rosalind Fox.” They had worked at Deere and she agreed to introduce us.
BRIAN KENNY: I should point out too, that this case comes at a time when most every organization, including Harvard Business School is taking a hard look at themselves on this dimension. How are we doing in terms of diversity and inclusion and being anti-racist? Let’s just dive in. Can you talk about her background, the influences in her life?
TONY MAYO: Rosalind grew up outside of St. Louis, Missouri and she was one of six children and she ended up being the first person to go to college. Her mother was a school bus driver. Her father worked at an aerospace engineering manufacturer. The key influence for her was her father’s role at this aerospace engineering firm because she actually wanted to be a nurse. And her father said, “Look, if I’m going to support you for your education, I want you to be an engineer,” because he had seen these engineers at his aerospace manufacturing operation and he saw the respect that they had garnered. And he said, “I want that for you.” And so she fundamentally changed. She pursued this degree in engineering, but she wasn’t ready. So she ended up having to take a lot of different STEM type classes, get caught up, really worked hard to be able to graduate and to get to the background that she needed and ultimately pursued her bachelor’s and her master’s in engineering. And in her senior year was able to do an internship with 3M Corporation. And that led to a subsequent post-graduation job with 3M in one of their rotational leadership development programs. So she spent a number of years at 3M working at different places around the globe, including in the Midwest.
BRIAN KENNY: Let me just pause you there for a second because I thought one of the things that was really interesting to me was that it was pretty early on in her life that she decided she wanted to work in a factory. That just seems to me like not the logical place that a young girl would go and says, “I want to work in a factory.” So how do you think about that sort of focus for her?
TONY MAYO: I think that when she was doing one of her internships, she had the opportunity to work for a factory manager at 3M or to see him. She said, “That’s what I actually want for me.” I want to be a factory manager someday,” because she was fascinated by operations. She was fascinated by both the personnel issues that are associated with that, as well as the operational issues. This is the life that I want. And so you can see the way that she navigates her career. It’s a series of steps to get to this ultimate goal of being a factory manager.
BRIAN KENNY: We’ve had a couple of other cases that we focused on where the protagonist is that directed and deliberate about the decisions they make going back to when they were in middle school or high school and they’ve sort of picked a thing they wanted to do. And then they got there and that’s, to me that’s remarkable in and of itself.
TONY MAYO: You know it’s interesting because I wonder if she had pursued being a nurse, whether that would have been as fulfilling because you can see her in her role as a factory manager. She just comes to life. You can see it’s in her blood, it’s what she loves to do. And she’s great at it.
BRIAN KENNY: Okay. So bring us back to 3M. She had that internship at 3M.
TONY MAYO: She had the experience at 3M. And it was a good experience, but it was the experience like a lot of large organizations where she didn’t see a lot of diversity in senior management. And so trying to sort of see her path forward. Do I have a career here? Will I have opportunities to be successful here? Probably she could have, but the concern was that she didn’t see other people like her in the organization. And that’s often a challenge for underrepresented minorities in organizations is do they see a clear path forward? And so from that point, she decided to look around and found an opportunity at Ford Motor Company, where there was lots of diversity, even in the interview process. And she was able to pursue her career goals as well, to work in operations, to work in factory management as part of their leadership rotational program. And she made the switch to Ford. And that was actually a terrific experience. In fact, she never really wanted to leave Ford. It’s not in the case, but it was a Black woman at Ford who was her mentor, who was a source of support for her. She saw herself having a career there. And she also felt at home in the Detroit area. One of the challenges she had working at 3M when she was assigned to the Midwest, she was often in towns and communities where she was one of few Black people in the town and the experience with a lot of Black individuals in these small towns face where she gets stopped at stoplights and she gets questioned. And because she’s driving a nice car, can that possibly be her car? That sort of thing. So a lot of these, I guess we can call them micro-aggressions, they seem a little bit more than a micro-aggression, but you see a lot of these different situations that she’s faced and in Detroit, she’s having a very different experience. The reason that she ended up going to Deere was not because she was looking for a new opportunity at all. It’s because she got a call from a recruiter that was intrigued by her experience and her work at Ford and thought that she could be a good fit for John Deere. And she took the call and she took the interview like a lot of us do, like you’re interested in me, I’ll do this interview with no intention of taking it. In fact, when they offered her the position she turned it down. She said, “No, this isn’t for me.” And it was really because of this one individual, Tony Worthington, who basically put himself on the line and said, “Look, if you come to John Deere, I will guarantee that I will be your mentor. I will support you. I will help you navigate your career path.” And she basically bet on him because a lot of her objections were that look, John Deere is not as diverse as Ford. I don’t see a lot of senior people in management that look like me.
BRIAN KENNY: That’s pretty remarkable what Tony did though. I mean, what does that say about Tony? Their relationship evolves in an interesting way over time.
TONY MAYO: Yeah. And she talks about it because he’s an older white man and she says, “Look, it’s often difficult for Black executives, particularly Black women to trust older white men and believe that, yes, you’re going to have my back. You’re going to support me.” And we do know from the research and a lot of the research that I did as part of AASU50 looking at successful African-American women, is that the role of the mentor as a champion and as a sponsor and as somebody who’s going to have your back is critical to success. It’s critical for everybody. It’s especially critical for underrepresented individuals in the organization because there are less people like them to provide that level of support. And he stepped up in a way that a lot of executives don’t and he didn’t know her that well. He knew her from the interviews. He knew her background and he said, “Look, I’ll have your back.” And she talks about in the case how she was a little wary, but she grew to literally love him during the course of their relationship because he did everything he said he would do. And she said that he probably got some flack in the background and he probably had to put himself on the line a couple of times and he did it. And so he fulfilled that role.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And John Deere is a huge company. I teased it a little bit in the intro, but they are much larger than I realized. Can you just talk a little bit about sort of where they fit in the industry?
TONY MAYO: They are close to a $40 billion manufacturer with close to 75,000 employees and they are the top player in the agricultural sector. And so they’re in four different sectors of business. Their two largest ones are in agriculture and the second is in construction and forestry. In the agricultural sector, they’ve got a 32% market share of a $39 billion market. And the Des Moines Works operation that we’re talking about here in the Rosalind Fox case is their fourth largest plant.
BRIAN KENNY: And do you have a sense for what percentage of their workforce of 75,000 or so people is Black?
TONY MAYO: No. That’s one of the things that they did not release to us in the process of writing this case, but it’s pretty small. In fact, for a while, she was one of only two Black women in a management position in the entire organization. So that will give you in terms of in the entire operational organization. There were Black executives in staff positions, but not in operational management.
BRIAN KENNY: What was the situation she was walking into in Des Moines?
TONY MAYO: So by the time she gets to Des Moines, she’s been at John Deere for 10 years. She starts off at John Deere as a master process pro working construction and forestry, helps shut down some organizations, some plants that are struggling. She goes into supply chain management. She becomes a business unit leader. And then after she’s been at John Deere for about five years, she’s asked to be the director of global diversity and inclusion. So she’s scratching her head and she’s thinking, “Why do they want me for this role?” And this is one of the things that we talk about in the case is look, I’m an operations person and the head of diversity inclusion prior to Rosalind taking that role was a Black woman. And she knew that the organization wanted another Black woman to replace her, but she’s like, “Of all people, why me? And is it just because I’m Black? Because I’m not an expert in diversity and inclusion. This is not my area of expertise.” And she did something pretty strategic. So she said, “Look, I’m committed to diversity and inclusion, but I’m also committed to my career. I want to be a factory manager. That’s my goal. I’ve been doing this all” … And so she negotiated with senior leadership saying, “I will do for a short period of time, but at the end of that period of time, we’ll talk about my path to factory management.” And I think that was quite astute of her because one of the things that can happen to a lot of Black executives in firms is they can be channeled into these staff roles of diversity and inclusion, which gets you off of the fast track a little bit. Particularly if it’s not an area that you are passionate about and committed about that you want to do as your career.
BRIAN KENNY: But Rosalind, she used that position to her advantage, not just from a negotiating standpoint, but she learned a lot from being in that role.
TONY MAYO: When we talk about the dual themes of the case, the dual themes are about employee engagement and authenticity. So one of the things that we see is how do you sort of foster employee engagement? And then the second is how do you actually bring your full self to work? And I think taking that role of a global head of diversity and inclusion was an opportunity for her to sort of step into herself as an individual and as a Black woman. And she talks about that. She says, “Prior to that role, I felt like I had to assimilate into the John Deere culture in a particular way. I had to wear a particular clothes. I had to straighten my hair. I had to go to certain functions and to try to fit in in a way that wasn’t necessarily who I am as an individual, but it was who I thought I needed to be for the organization. And I was always struggling with that.” And then she becomes this head of diversity and inclusion, which actually was beneficial because it did give her a global view of the operations. And it gave her an insight into some of the key issues of the organization in terms of attracting more executives of color into the organization. But one of the things that she had to do or that was part of the role is to encourage individuals to bring their full selves to work. And she realized, “I’m not doing that.” I’m not operating in a way that is authentic to who I am.” And so it was at that time that she decided to stop straightening her hair. For her, that was a big deal. In fact, she went to Tony Worthington again and said, “Look, I need to see you. She tried to set up her coworkers and said, “When you see me on Monday,” I think this was a Friday, said, “When you see me on Monday, I’m going to look different. I just want to prepare you.” And she saw Tony Worthington on that Sunday before going into work on Monday and her hair was natural. And she said, “What do you think?” And he said, “Oh, I love it. You should lean into that. That’s who you are.”
BRIAN KENNY: Which is just a great reaction by him, too.
TONY MAYO: It is. It’s sad that she felt like she had to do that. So if you sort of think about the weight that that had on her and the thought that, oh, I might be rejected or viewed differently because I wear my hair natural. It’s sort of a sad testament to how we think about inclusion and authenticity at work. But for her, as a mentor, he was very supportive. Her coworkers were supportive and it was a way for her to sort of lean into who she was. And that was consistent with a lot of the research that I’ve been doing in terms of senior Black executives sort of, when they lean into a sense of authenticity about who they are, they can feel a greater sense of engagement, a greater sense of relief, a greater sense of wellbeing. Of course, they have to often navigate the landscape to say, “Okay, can I be authentic? Will I be accepted?” For her, this was a big defining moment in terms of her ability to be her full self.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And a really important lesson for the managers out there who are listening and the people who are leading organizations out there that this works both ways. You have to allow people to be their authentic selves in the workplace.
TONY MAYO: Absolutely. At the end of two years, and what she ended up bringing to the diversity inclusion role is really her operational focus. She really focus on metrics, she focused on statistics, she built partnerships. And so she brought an operational perspective to the role, but then after two years, she got what she wanted, which was a factory management position. And her first position was in North Carolina and this was still in the construction division. And so she went there. It was a non-union plant, mostly producing lawn mowers and golf carts and things of that nature and was quite successful, had some of the highest engagement scores in the company. She ran that operation. And in that role, she was the first Black woman to be a factory manager in the history of John Deere. And as you said, in the introduction, John Deere was launched in 1837. So it wasn’t until she became the head of the turf care facility in 2012 that John Deere had a Black woman run a factory. And so her success running that turf care factory got her noticed. And when the opportunity came up for the Des Moines Works, which was one of the largest and the most complex John Deere factory, they tapped her and said, “Look, we’d love you to take this opportunity to move to the Midwest and to run this operation.” And she did so, but with a sense of reluctance, again, relying on Tony saying, “Look, is this the right move for me? I’ve been successful in North Carolina. I’ve enjoyed this factory experience. I’m now sort of going up at a significant level in terms of complexity. Is this the right move for me? And will I be happy there?”
BRIAN KENNY: I love the fact that she’s so introspective with each step that she takes along the way and she just gives a lot of thought to upside, downside. Those kinds of things I think are great. And I’d love, if you can just describe her first opportunity to meet the crew at her new plant, because I think here, she really shows such vulnerability that I think that was a hugely important part of her personality.
TONY MAYO: Yeah. And I think this is the great thing about this case, not to toot my own horn. I think that it’s unique in that you get this inside look and I think this speaks to Rosalind Fox’s vulnerability and openness and willingness to do this case because it talks about the role of race and gender in a way that a lot of cases don’t and what that means for the individual. And so I give her a lot of credit. I give John Deere credit for signing off on the case, but when she stepped into this role, so she’s the first woman, the first Black woman to run the Des Moines Works operation. And so this is a very complex factory. So it has four major product lines. She has three different bosses that she’s reporting to in this matrix type relationship. And you’ve got 1600 workers of which 62% are union. She does what a lot of leaders do when you step into a new role. You go in and you do a series of listening tours and you do open houses. And so she did a series of open houses across the three shifts of the factory to introduce herself and to answer any questions that they may have. And she got grilled at these meetings in a way that I think people with a different background, so if you were probably a white male executive, I’m not sure you would have been grilled in the same way, but grilled on the specifics of the plant operations. And what about this line? And what about these particular issues? And she couldn’t answer all of the questions. She was new and she didn’t have all the answers. And she felt terrible about the way that she had performed in this session and had to really take a step back and think about, “Is this the right role for me?” And I think her confidence was shaken, but again, she got the support of not just Tony, but also her bosses at John Deere who said, “Look, your role as the factory manager is to know who can answer those questions. You’re not going to be able to answer every detail.” And this is sort of the interesting shift that a lot of individuals have to make as they navigate their career is the shift from being an operational, tactical manager to a strategic manager. And she was making this leap because when she was running the factory in North Carolina, she ran operations and she had to know the details. Now in Ankeny at Des Moines Works, she had an operations manager. She had people who were responsible for different tactical aspects of the plant. And her job was to ensure that they know the answers to these particular specific questions. And she’s meant to create the conditions that enable them to be successful. And so the case is interesting in that it talks about this shift that she has to make from tactician to strategist and what that role is like. And particularly if you are a Black woman and she talks about, “As a Black woman, you’re already going to be under the microscope because there’s so few of you. And in many ways you represent every Black woman. And so if you ask for help, if you don’t know the answers, this sort of feeds into some of the destructive ways in which underrepresented individuals are experienced in organizations.” Ultimately she comes to this realization like, “Look, I can’t do all of this. I need to ask for help. I need to sort of rely on the individuals who said that they are going to have my back.” And she did. And they did have her back and they supported her.
BRIAN KENNY: I’m wondering, what would her team say about her? Because you do call out one comment in the case where she felt so terrible after that series of introductory meetings, but other people didn’t hear her the way she thought they did.
TONY MAYO: Yeah, that’s interesting. And because we’re sometimes way harder on ourselves than other people are. And so no, they experienced her as being confident, that she knew the material, that she had a sense of authority. And so there was a different perspective on that whole situation, but for her, she had to come to own it for herself. And over time, she ended up building this very diverse team. In fact, it’s one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse senior leadership team at John Deere. And I think that diversity in terms of gender and racial representation in her senior team allows her to focus on more innovative solutions, more collaborative approaches, think about some of the challenges associated with employee engagement and things of that nature.
BRIAN KENNY: How would her team describe her management style?
TONY MAYO: They would all probably describe it as servant leadership where she’s there to support them. She sets firm goals. She holds people accountable, but she really focuses on collaboration and creating an environment where she can help support them. She always tells them, “Look, ask me. The only thing that I can do is say no or the only thing that senior leadership can do is say no. So leverage me, leverage the senior leadership of this organization.” They meet on a monthly basis as a team to sort of look at the operational issues of Des Moines Works to share best practices. It’s a very collaborative, open environment. She often decides not to be the first to speak in these meetings to allow the team to speak, to present and then she’ll weigh in. And so it’s a lot of autonomy, but within bounds in terms of the operational metrics that the plant has to achieve.
BRIAN KENNY: Do you think that with her background being a Black woman, sort of breaking through barriers here, does that make her a more empathic leader?
TONY MAYO: I think so. And I think people experience her that way. I think a couple of the senior executives that I talked to that are part of her team said, “When I see her, she’s a role model for me.” This is a woman speaking and saying, “I have been able to lean into more of myself by seeing how she has leaned into herself and how she brought herself to work.” And so I think from that perspective, definitely they see that.
BRIAN KENNY: And the other question I would ask, just based, not just on this case, but on all your years of studying leadership and meeting with leaders of all kinds, does vulnerability equal weakness I guess is the question?
TONY MAYO: Yeah, absolutely not. I mean, in fact, vulnerability requires a tremendous amount of courage. To sort of put yourself out there, to step into the limelight, to share your perspectives, to be open. That is hard. That is super hard. That is not weakness. That’s actually strength. And I think that vulnerability creates the connections that enable people to have meaningful relationships. It’s super hard to put yourself out there because you don’t know how you’re going to be evaluated, and particularly as a Black woman, there’s lots of precedent to suggest that you may be rejected on a number of different fronts that have nothing to do with your capabilities, and to still put yourself out there in that way takes a tremendous amount of courage. And I think people can see that in her. It’s funny. We’ve taught this case a couple of times and I have to actually push people to say, “What are the things that she’s done wrong? Or what are your criticisms?” Because I think what most people see is a lot of strength and she has had some missteps, but what they definitely see is a woman who is strong and courageous and vulnerable.
BRIAN KENNY: So one more question before we let you go, Tony, what’s one thing you would want people to remember about this case when they’ve read it?
TONY MAYO: I think what I want people to remember is really there’s a strong connection between engagement and authenticity. And that the more authentic that you are, the greater sense of wellbeing you have, the greater sense of satisfaction you have, and that leads to greater engagement in the organization. And the key thing to know is that not everybody has the license to be authentic. It’s very easy for a white middle-aged man to not even think about authenticity. That he can walk into an organization and just be who he is and not think about it. People who are not in the majority often have to think about: will this organization accept me? Will my being myself lead to greater opportunities or will it lead to more challenges? And so as organizational leaders thinking about are you creating a climate and a context where people can bring their full selves to work, that is critical. And that actually leads to organizational benefits, which are engagement and higher productivity and higher satisfaction. So there’s a direct link there.
BRIAN KENNY: That’s great. Tony, thank you so much for joining us to discuss this case. “Rosalind Fox at John Deere.” Really appreciate you taking the time.
TONY MAYO: Thank you.
HANNAH BATES: That was Harvard Business School senior lecturer Tony Mayo – in conversation with Brian Kenny on Cold Call. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at HBR.org. This episode was produced by Anne Saini and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.