Kathryn Blackwell’s passion for communications led her to be one of the first female sports editors of the Michigan Daily, a paper at her alma mater, the University of Michigan. However, she never would have thought that she would find more excitement — and flexibility — in the automotive industry than in sports. But after her first few jobs in auto, she found the pace of technological innovation even more adrenaline pumping than watching her favorite team make a game-winning field goal. Kathryn’s passion for fast-paced work that makes an impact led her to Continental, one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world, where she currently serves as Vice President of Communications and Marketing for Continental North America.
Kathryn’s team manages all forms of communication and marketing, both external and internal, for the North American region of the global giant. She says that one of her favorite parts of her job is the diverse breadth of work; she’s worked on everything from executive communication to government affairs and is in constant communication with the global headquarters in Germany. However, Continental’s dedication to change — paired with its dedication to career development and work-life balance — has made Kathryn’s experience one-of-a-kind.
“There are any number of opportunities for women to grow, and it can be done without sacrificing balance. With different generations coming forward, the company is always changing,” she said, laughing that even the dress code has changed over time. “I can remember when I used to have to dry clean my suits every week. Now, I’m here today in jeans, boots and a sweater.”
One of Continental’s most valuable programs.
Even though the dress code is informal, Continental offers its employees a formal mentorship program, which Kathryn has participated in for several years. She says being a mentor to budding talent in the company and being honest about her own experiences has helped her become a better leader.
“I’ve had multiple mentees who were executives, and others who are leading themselves. No matter what the relationship, having someone to have discussions about professional development with really helps with self-reflection for both the mentee and the mentor,” she said. “It’s a very, very, open and confidential relationship – not that it isn’t with my team, but mentees may come to me with a concern about their manager and it’s my role to help them navigate it and try to have better relationship with their manager. [Being a mentor] puts you into a situation and makes you think about how you would handle it. It really makes you take a long hard look at your own behavior as a team member, manager and employee.”
Although she is now a VP, Kathryn is still learning from her own mentors.
“Listening is one of the more difficult leadership skills to master, and it’s something I try to consciously be aware of.”
The best advice she has ever received from a mentor?
“To accept and take charge of your own work-life balance,” she said. “This comes by having a trusting relationship with your manager and your team. At Continental, one of our core values is trust. Trust is given, but it’s earned through performance. You can’t wait around for your boss to tell you that you should leave at 4 p.m. to go to your kid’s soccer game — you need to own your work-life experience.”
As an avid traveler and a mother of two teenagers, she’s happy she found flexibility at Continental.
“Whether dealing with an elderly parent or having a toddler, every stage of your life requires flexibility,” she said. “Continental recognizes that and is thinking of its employees as people with lives outside of work that require attention. It may not sound as sexy as working for a Silicon Valley tech company, but we can offer innovative projects, excellent benefits and the stability of a 150-year-old company.”
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