MaryAnn Wright, Vice President of Engineering & Product Development at Johnson Controls



MaryAnn Wright, Vice President of Engineering & Product Development at Johnson Controls
#WiMHearHerStory | @WomeninMFG

At Women in Manufacturing, we are committed to supporting women in the manufacturing sector. We firmly believe that mentorship and community-building will help attract and retain women in manufacturing. As part of our mission, we feature on our blog the stories of women we admire who are currently working in manufacturing. The following is the latest installment of our "Hear Her Story" series.

Please tell our readers a little bit about your job and what your work looks like every day.

I have the best job at Johnson Controls! I lead the Power Solutions global engineering and product development organization.  We design, manufacture and sell batteries to power today’s vehicles, as well as advanced vehicles that are starting to hit the market.  Johnson Controls is the world’s largest battery manufacturer with more than 50 plants worldwide and technical centers located in the U.S., Germany, China, Brazil, Mexico, India and Korea. Our team, made up of some of the brightest and most passionate engineers, scientists and technicians, comes to work every day committed to making the best batteries for our global customers.

I don’t have a “typical day”!  As the group vice president of engineering and product development, I now “make work” rather than “do” the work.  By that, I mean my role is to develop the technology strategy aligned with our business priorities, set the technical direction of our products and then ensure our engineers have the resources they need to go execute on our strategies.  The team is then set free to develop the specific product development plans to ensure we meet or exceed our customers’ expectations.

The other part of my job is equally, if not more important than what I described earlier.  Building the next generation of technical leaders to accelerate the growth of Johnson Controls and maintain our position as the global technology leader in energy storage solutions is a major focus.  We want to be the company of choice for graduating engineers and scientists, and have a career track to meet their aspirations that is aligned with their values.  While every company has a management track, Johnson Controls also offers a well-defined and meaningful technical leader career path.  Our Technical Leader Career program gives people with critical technical skills the opportunity to progress in level, compensation and status as an individual contributor -- similar to their management track colleagues.  This allows us to recruit and retain people who want to “perfect their craft”, while ensuring they have the same recognition as a traditional career trajectory.  We are having great early success and excitement around this program!

How did you arrive at your current position? What attracted you to a career in manufacturing?

I have been in the automotive industry since 1988—a long time! I have had the opportunity to work for excellent companies and enjoyed experiences which took me around the world, and across many disciplines and functions.

I started my career at Ford Motor Company in finance, and from there had assignments in product planning, quality, product design and launch, and as plant engineering manager. I eventually became the chief engineer of the Ford Escape Hybrid, the first U.S. HEV and 2005 “Truck of the Year”.  I then became director of sustainable mobility technologies, where I was responsible for our Hybrid, EV and Fuel Cell Vehicle programs.  After leaving Ford, I helped a bankrupt automotive supplier through their Chapter 11 process and then had the very fortunate outcome of joining Johnson Controls as the vice president and general manager of the advanced battery business.  I have been with Johnson Controls for eight years in several roles, with my present assignment being the best! I love technology, being around smart engineers and scientists, building the next generation of technical talent and of course, delivering products which are the best in the world.  

At WiM, much of our work is dedicated to refuting outdated stereotypes about the manufacturing sector: stereotypes like the workplaces are dirty and dangerous and that the field and skills required are a better fit for men. Have you encountered stereotypes like these in your education or career and how did you overcome them?

After being awarded the STEP Ahead award (what an honor!), I wrote an OpEd on the GE Idea Laboratory entitled“Lessons from Moondog – How Women can Succeed on the Shop Floor”.   The point of this article was to dispel the myth that working in a plant isn’t for women.  To be perfectly honest, the time I spent working in our plants were the richest.  My teams and I learned how important good design is to ensure our products can be manufactured repeatedly and with high quality. We also built relationships with the people who assemble the vehicles on the line.  Believe me; they have as much passion as the engineers and management to make high-quality products. 

The environment is so different from when I started my career.  Today, the diversity of gender, cultural background and thought is so much greater in the plants, and in the offices where products are designed. The key to being successful ANYWHERE you choose to work, is to have the technical, leadership and cultural acumen required to do the job.  If you have the capabilities, the opportunities are abundant across almost any industry and discipline. If I had a daughter, I would absolutely encourage her to pursue a STEM-based degree and career path.  Engineers are what make the world work and bring innovation to life! 

Research shows that women, especially women in STEM fields, do better if they have a mentor. Has mentorship played any role in your career?

I believe that everyone, regardless of gender, needs champions and advocates throughout their career. I am not wed to a formal mentoring program, but would say you should seek out people you respect and who have the leadership and interpersonal skills you would like to build or enhance.  The type of support you need will change as you mature throughout your career. You may also have specific situations, where you need support now to help position you for success.  The key is to have a clear understanding of what skills you need to enhance, rather than looking for someone to help you achieve the next promotion or job experience.

One of the key findings in WiM’s survey is that there is significant overlap between what young women want in careers and the attributes of careers in manufacturing today. But the survey also found that, too often, young women are not aware of the opportunities available in manufacturing. What do you think can be done to spread the word to women about career options in modern manufacturing?

I have a lot of passion around this topic! We must engage girls and sustain their interest at a much earlier age, and then ensure they are encouraged and inspired as they go through their middle and high school experiences. We are losing girls early and it is very difficult to recapture them in college as they haven’t maintained a passion for STEM-based academics.  I love the STEM camps, robotics and other programs that are proliferating across the country.  These are the types of activities that introduce girls to the limitless opportunities in engineering and manufacturing. Get them early, sustain their interest, nurture with experiences and role models and they will find their way to these jobs.

Our survey also found that the majority of women in manufacturing today would recommend the sector to young women considering career options. Would you recommend a career in manufacturing? And, if so, why?

Absolutely! When I encounter a good engineer, I know that I am working with an excellent problem solver. STEM-based education leads to great critical thinkers and idea-to-market leaders.  Some of the best leaders I know are engineers because they use their disciplined thought process to organize and execute on their projects. For women, the world continues to open up with opportunities to be the next generation of technical AND business leaders.