Sarah’s mission these days is clear: ensure every Continental employee in North America gets paid accurately and on time.
Our Head of Global People Services has led quite a variety of missions during her two decades at Continental, from Labor Relations Manager in a Tires facility to Head of Global Talent Management. But it was a particular mission in 2002 that cemented the foundation of her leadership skills – and affirmed that Continental is the place she belongs.
Why 2002 was an important time in my career.
I had these dual experiences in life. On one hand, I was working my young career at Continental in a tires manufacturing facility. It was the first time I’d officially managed people. But I was also working as an Army Reserve Officer in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and my company was called up at the end of 2002 and well into 2003.
I led a detachment assigned to NATO peacekeeping. We ran post offices. Being responsible for 18 people as part of that was leadership in a completely different way, but I think it fast-tracked my understanding of people management and helped me apply it to Continental.
How Continental supported my deployment.
I was one of the first reservists I knew at Continental called to active duty in what became a wave. Prior to this, overseas deployment rarely happened. I wasn’t sure what to expect. There was nothing but support from everyone, though.
It’s interesting culturally, because in the American mindset there’s a tradition that reserve deployment happens sometimes. And there’s a baseline cultural understanding and value of voluntary service. We’re an international company, though, so I had colleagues with a very different cultural context about the military in general.
But they were wonderful – they were supportive of me and wanted to know what was going on in my life. Continental actually held my job for me, which was and still is not required. And groups within the company sent me goofy care packages, which meant so much.
There is a certain thoughtfulness across Continental that really revealed itself then, and that remains today. People are not just trying to succeed in business here, we are trying to take care of each other here. It’s how we behave towards one another in the moments that matter that makes the biggest difference.
How being a military leader differs from being a leader in the business world.
I think the way people look at military hierarchy is often informed by how they see it in movies or on TV. But in most situations – military or not – people aren’t going to give their best effort to a task just because you said so. People follow leaders because they trust and understand their intention, because they know how they’ll behave in good times and difficult times, and because they constantly and openly communicate how everyone contributes to the plan.
I think that’s true whether you’re leading virtually, in a traditional office, or in a production environment. I think that’s the way we are as humans. So, within Continental, there’s a drive to make sure people own decision-making and have the ability to make change at the level that change needs to be made. It’s not easy in a large, complex company. We don’t always get it right the first time, but we keep at it.
The approach is not hierarchical. It allows people to get together, think about ideas and possibilities, and where they can best contribute to make a difference.
What I’ve learned about virtual work over the years.
I was part of a team that was based in Hanover, Germany, but I was the first real internationally-based member of that team. I learned that a team is only as ready for virtual work as the least ready person is on the team.
We also learned that one-on-one time was more important, even virtually, because those water cooler conversations weren’t happening. That meant people had to be more willing to jump into instant messenger conversations and ask questions, and to have common sources of truth in shared tools.
What I would say to someone considering a career at Continental about our company culture.
I would talk about values – as hokey as that seems. But it’s absolutely true. If our company’s values fall in line with your personal values, you’re likely to belong here. But I want to make an important distinction: people look at places where they might work and there’s this question of fitting in. And to a certain level that’s an important question, but there’s a difference between fitting in and belonging.
For example, fitting in implies to me that when you interview onsite you see people dressed like you and desks with flare from a sport you follow, etc. and you think… “Okay, I’ll blend right in.” Belonging is something else. For me, belonging is when you leave an interview feeling that a company values your skills, abilities and sense of purpose, and you think “Okay, I can be a part of building something here.” Success at Continental is far more about belonging than fitting in.