For Fujitsu's Christine Podraza, learning about the optical vendor over the course of her diverse career there was comparable to going from thinking the Earth is flat to learning it's round -- and ultimately learning it's not the center of the universe either.
Podraza, who is now the vice president and head of the Optical Business Unit at Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. , has held roles ranging from a manufacturing supervisor to a optical product manager to a director of operations, each with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities for personal enlightenment and growth.
At the same time, she has also transformed how entire departments at Fujitsu were run, including the company culture that supported them -- a process that can be enlightening in itself.
Here, Podraza catches up with Women in Comms about the lessons she's learned over her diverse career at Fujitsu and how she went from "learning" to "earning" to "returning" (although never stopped learning in the process). Read on for more.
Women in Comms: Tell us a little about your personal story and how you got to where you are today.
Christine Podraza: I began my career at Fujitsu in manufacturing, first as a supervisor and then as a manager, and really enjoyed the satisfaction of physically seeing the completed product while also helping to improve processes. Managing the Customer Return Goods department was a natural progression as it was very much like a small factory; this was a great experience that broadened my perspective. From there, I became an optical product manager, the only individual contributor position that I have held at Fujitsu. Again, the new experience provided totally new perspectives. Through this point in my career, my understanding of how Fujitsu works was greatly expanded. I equate the transformation to starting out thinking the world is flat: Customer Return Goods showed me that the world was round; and product management showed me that the Earth was not the center of the universe. What an enlightenment!
I returned to manufacturing in the director of operations role, which enhanced my understanding of the supply chain and the corporate implications of decisions around on-time delivery and inventory. I really enjoyed operations and spent the longest time (seven years) in that position. Next I moved to a developmental role as director of product technical marketing in the newly formed Optical Business Unit. This role really helped me appreciate the impact of marketing internally and externally while reconnecting me with optical product management. Most recently, I have taken over the role of VP and head of the Optical Business Unit, where I am responsible for the financial performance, planning and full product lifecycle of all optical products sold in North America and neighboring regions.
WiC: It’s interesting to read in your bio how you transformed the way the Customer Return Goods business was run. In terms of transforming the culture to support that, what were the biggest challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?
CP: Initially, there was resistance to change, which can be difficult and scary. To address this resistance, I first worked to define and then communicate the objectives of the team. Once the objectives were understood, we moved to develop processes, plans and actions to achieve these objectives. Wherever possible, the folks doing the work were included in the definition of the processes, plans and actions. This had a two-fold benefit: (1) It ensured the plans and actions were well-founded because they were vetted by the folks performing the work, and (2) involving the folks resulted in their ownership of the plans, which helped ensure the success of the initiatives. Finally, these common objectives were a compass to ensure that everyone was working and moving in the same direction with a common purpose.
WiC: You have had a diverse and impressive career within Fujitsu. What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
CP: Nothing can replace good, clear communication. Communication is critical in all areas, including:
- Decision making (the meeting before the meeting): Communicating with key stakeholders before the meeting is beneficial to ensure everyone is on the same page and eliminates conflict at the time of decision. This is a great tool for "managing up." The last thing you want is to attend a decision making meeting and find that you and your direct management have differing opinions. The meeting before the meeting can ensure you never have to experience this situation.
- Leadership (communication of why): It is important that folks understand why something is done, why a decision is made, why a policy or process is the way it is… especially when it involves change. If someone does not know the underlying why, they will fill in the blank themselves. When this happens, the assumed reason can be very far from the truth. I have found that if people understand the situation and why a decision was made, then they can support it.
- Direction (strategy and objectives): It does not matter if you have the best strategy in the world; if you do not communicate it, it does not exist. In addition, you cannot expect an employee to work toward your strategy or objectives if they don’t know what they are, why they are important and how they can contribute. Communication is KEY.
WiC: What is your leadership philosophy, and how do you practice inclusive leadership?
CP: As a leader at Fujitsu, I like to start with a good foundation. This includes clear roles and responsibilities, providing tools and support to be successful and providing clear communication of strategy and objectives. Building on this foundation are individuals; it is important to identify and draw out the unique strengths and talents of employees. Environment is the next level. In addition to providing a good, open and positive work environment -- an environment of continuous improvement and the autonomy to make changes is important. Finally, it is important to lead by example.
At a recent Richardson Chamber of Commerce event, I had an interesting conversation that really resonated with me: The first part of your life you "learn," then you move to the "earn" stage and finally you "return." I thought this was a great way to view the stages of life. While I would say that you can't really ever stop learning, the majority of your focus does move to the other stages. As a leader, I think it is important to include "return." I had the opportunity to do a little "returning" when the idea of a Women’s Network was discussed at Fujitsu. Contributing to the development of the Women's Network at my own company has been a great experience. Not only do I benefit from the new relationships built in this group, but I also have the opportunity to share my experiences to the benefit of others.
WiC: What is your personal advice to women looking to carve out careers in the next-gen comms industry?
CP: Be open to learning and trying something new. This includes seeking and taking lateral position changes. These lateral moves give you great visibility to a new group of management, provide you a valuable new learning opportunity and broaden your perspective on the company and the interactions/dependencies between departments. This exposure and breadth of knowledge is great for building your resume. It also shows your ability to adapt, learn new things, apply what you learned in previous positions and shows the applicability of your leadership across multiple disciplines. Lateral moves may not appear to have a direct path to your goal, but you may be surprised -- you may really enjoy a new area of the company that you previously had not considered. This was the case for me. I did not originally apply for the Director of Operations position. As a developmental opportunity, I was offered this position instead of the one I applied. It turns out I really enjoyed the role! I learned a lot and received great exposure within Fujitsu and in areas of the company that I had not previously worked.
I would also encourage women to reach out and support each other. I found the development of the Women’s Network at Fujitsu to be a great opportunity to meet others with whom I had not previously worked. We are building relationships to better ourselves and improve our network of problem solvers within the company. This is a network of women that can be relied on to support an idea or initiative. However, networks do not necessarily need to be gender-bound. I have another great network of friends from early in my career. We have kept in touch and continue to support each other even as we have dispersed throughout the company. As they have moved into other areas, we have all learned and expanded our knowledge of a new part of the company. We have the ability to have frank discussions to make improvements.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that your career is your responsibility. Do not expect someone to offer you a dream position out of the blue. You need to make your intentions known and be prepared for opportunities in advance. If you wait for an opportunity before you get prepared, you will be too late. Look for opportunities to work on teams or projects with the group you are targeting as your next position. The exposure can be a pre-interview for a position that is not yet available. Keep learning, keep improving and be open and ready for a new challenge!
— Sarah Thomas, Director, Women in Comms