Open Communication, Being Challenged, and Finding Support: How This Manager & Engineer Grows

Sponsored by Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America

Katy Stark. Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA).

Katy Stark. Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA).

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Fairygodboss
April 24, 2024 at 7:12PM UTC

Katy Stark wanted to be an engineer in the automotive industry since high school. “Working toward an engineering degree was very challenging, as was starting in the automotive industry just prior to the 2008 recession,” she recalls. However, “every challenge helped to build my career as an engineer.”

Now, for the past two years, Stark has been a Manager for the Emission Calibration Team in the Powertrain Calibration Department at the world-renowned Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America (MBRDNA).

Starks’ tenure as a manager at the company was a unique one, which started with her being out of the office for a four-month parental leave several months into starting her manager position. “It’s hard to say what was the bigger difference — coming back to work as a new parent, or coming back to work as a new manager,” Stark muses. “The one thing that is certain is that there has been significant change. I have to balance my workload and enable the team to do their best work, and I’ve had to focus on delegation because up until recently I was doing much of the technical work myself.”

Luckily for Stark, she’s been supported throughout this transition thanks to MBRDNA’s collaborative and uplifting culture. “I very much enjoy working with my team on this level,” she notes. With the only downside being that “I spend significantly less time in the vehicles!”

Here, Stark tells us more about what she’s learned about leadership along the way, her advice for women who are moving into leadership roles, and how to support a team.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend toward a democratic leadership style. I have great team members, and they make this easy on me. Since they are the experts in their individual areas, I value their input and ideas for making decisions for the team. We all communicate openly and often.

What is your No.1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership?

You can do this! Don’t be afraid to lean on your network, manager, mentor, colleagues, and others for help or advice early and often when moving into a leadership role. Give yourself grace: it will be bumpy, but being challenged means being given an opportunity to grow.

One more thing: get a coach in addition to a mentor. A coach will help provide the feedback and structure needed for learning and growth in your role. I only wish I had done this sooner.

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual or team that you think has been particularly effective?

We work in a scrum type of setup, which involves meeting frequently as a team to resolve daily roadblocks. This has really brought the team together as a whole. Having regular one-on-one meetings with my team members has helped me understand the challenges they face as individuals. 

If there is a particular issue or problem, we discuss ways to approach and solve it. The team has been expanding, so I make sure we have regular face-to-face meeting days, as part of our hybrid work model. I plan occasional team outings to make sure the team has opportunities for having fun together as well.

What’s the No.1 thing you hope your direct reports are getting out of working with you?

Support, guidance, and a desire to push the team forward. I try to empower my team members to tackle challenges, and to provide the resources and opportunities they need to do their best work. I also help my team members to look at a problem from a different angle, or utilize different resources to find a solution.

How do you make sure that your team feels well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office?

Richard Branson has a famous quote about taking care of your employees and they will take care of the work. This is so true. The number one thing for me is to actively listen to my team members, take their concerns seriously, and celebrate their successes. I also make sure that my team can follow a hybrid work model, with some days in the office and some days working from home to balance the workload.

What do you believe is the most important thing that managers must do when onboarding new employees? How did your own manager support you during this process?

A 100-Day Plan — it’s not just for leadership positions! It’s helpful for everyone in setting up goals, roles, and expectations with new team members. My manager did this for me when I was promoted, and I am making sure to expand on this strategy with my new team members. Having an onboarding mentor within the team is also critical, someone who can answer all the questions that come up every day while getting up to speed.

While building your team, what did you learn that surprised you most?

What surprised me the most is to really see how building a team is a continual process. Building a team doesn’t just mean recruiting and onboarding, but also finding new opportunities for current team members to grow and develop. This includes new assignments, new skills, new ways to electrify the future of powertrain, and more.



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