Manja Greimeier is a rarity. A senior leader shepherding Continental’s global Autonomous Mobility business, she’s one of only 16.9% of women holding executive-level positions in vehicle manufacturing. She’s working diligently to change that statistic.
Known for her skills as an outstanding problem solver with the ability to grow business, lead global cross-functional teams and transform organizations, Manja not only leads by example, she advocates for other women to seek out new challenges and leave their comfort zones behind.
Women in Autonomy’s Jennifer Deitsch sat down with Manja to learn about her career, her advice to other women and why she stopped trying to fit in long ago.
WIA: You are the SVP and Head of ADAS Segment at Continental. Tell us about your role.
MG: As Senior Vice President and Head of the ADAS Segment at Continental, I'm in a general management role, responsible for growing the business in all markets, executing projects, taking care of manufacturing, purchasing and quality, while developing the organization and changing the culture. I’m responsible for a talented global team of around 7500 people.
We have, over the last several years, also extended the portfolio from ADAS to providing autonomous mobility solutions for cars and trucks, aiming for making those available anywhere, at any time.
We offer a comprehensive portfolio of sensors, including lidar, radar, camera and ultrasonics, but also high performance computers and entire systems and functions, in addition to the needed engineering platforms and the ecosystems for our global customers. We have talented teams in all markets, which is the backbone of our success.
All of this aligns with Continental Automotive’s mission to realize Vision Zero - zero fatalities, zero injuries, zero crashes - and to make safety available to everyone. I'm proud to be part of such a meaningful vision that positively impacts human lives.
WIA: You’ve spent five years at Continental, and - before that - 14 years at Valeo in progressively senior general management, sales, project management and engineering roles. How have you approached your career, and gone about advancing into different roles?
MG: I think it's really due to continuous learning and being curious. And then, when opportunities came my way, I said yes, even if I didn't feel 100% ready yet. I took the opportunity when there was an interesting job offered to me. I was also lucky to have really good people around me who trusted me enough to give me big challenges and big tasks and saw my strengths and sponsored me.
Over the years, I was also much clearer in what I wanted and expected. I became more confident in growing within the organization and saying, “here’s what I want to do and achieve in a certain period of time,” and to also make myself more visible with my ambitions. Today as a leader, I do the same. I love to encourage people to take on more responsibility and, with that, to also develop and grow the organization with very strong, intelligent people, which ultimately leads to better results.
WIA: How important do you think that is - having a clear definition of what you're aiming for - in growing your career and being successful?
MG: It depends. On the one hand, it shows your confidence - that you know what you want. On the other hand, it's important that you are still flexible because the world is changing so fast, opportunities come around, and knowledge becomes outdated very quickly. So it's a balance between being clear about what you want in terms of a leadership position, or in terms of progressing your career over time, but also being flexible when new opportunities emerge which you may not have thought of, or that offer an opportunity to build and grow yourself. It’s important to leave room to say “yes” to something that you maybe didn't expect.
WIA: You also mentioned stepping out of your comfort zone when you maybe didn't feel like you had 100% of the requirements, but you went for it anyway. I think that a lot of times women don't pursue certain opportunities because they don't check every box, so it’s interesting to hear that you too, as a very senior executive, have had those moments where you said, I might not check every box, but I'm going to go for it anyway.
MG: Yes. And I have also experienced that during sharing and networking with other women that we tend to say, “I need to do this training,” or “I need to do this experience first, before I can dare step up.” I also see that men tend to say, “Yes, I can do it,” much faster than women do. When you have the ability to envision yourself in the role, and you surround yourself with talented people - and are curious and ready to learn - you will grow into it.
WIA: Along those lines, there are few women in leadership roles in automotive. Have you experienced roadblocks along the way, and how have you handled them?
MG: There were many roadblocks and I would say I perhaps almost saw them all: “You are too young, you are not patient enough, you are not loud enough, you are not strong enough. You are not enough.” At the beginning of my career, I tried to fit in to overcome these roadblocks, to adapt - even wearing black suits, like my male colleagues sitting at the table did. Over the years, I changed a lot. I'm not trying to fit in anymore. And I try to be really authentic. I also try to be more colorful and try to change and influence the environment I'm in. I am also putting more focus on networking and encouraging other women to speak up. I learn from other female leaders who are also role models to me. And it's important that we have those role models. In the end, it's not to adapt and fit in - it's to use your own power to be different, to be authentic, to make your own brand and make an impact. This is the power of diversity in the end.
WIA: When I spoke with former CAR CEO Carla Bailo, she spoke about being a mentor (teaching) vs being a sponsor (directly advocating) for other women. Have you done this, and do you have recommendations for other men and women on best practices for either?
MG: I think they are both powerful. I have two mentees every year and I love that because we can exchange thoughts about what's going on in the organization, and I can give reflections or recommendations. It's helpful for me to mentor someone and to share my experience and support. On the other hand, I also experience the reverse.
Mentoring is a very powerful tool, which means that you're actually learning from a younger generation. We’ve learned from the digital transformation that experience and age does not mean you know everything. We also need to be strong as leaders to unlearn certain things and to open up and say, “Okay, I don't know. I want to learn from you.” Mentorship is a powerful tool in both directions, and it’s important to take the time to support young talent.
When we talk about sponsorship, I have experienced that, and I can also influence that by sitting at the table. I couldn't have progressed my career if I hadn't had sponsors who would vote for me or who would say, “Okay, she's still young but I have a lot of confidence and I trust her to take this role.” For me, it’s also important to make different types and approaches of leadership visible. Not everyone has to lead in the same way. When you sit in a talent management round with other leaders to look at the talent pool and see who is the best fit for a role, it's important to take a stand and use your influence, and to bring diversity to the team.
WIA: It feels like there just has to be a level of intentionality because oftentimes people recruit from their network and their network is who they're familiar with. And so it's really intentionally looking outside of that network sometimes.
MG: Absolutely. And I think unconscious bias trainings are important, because of what we call the Thomas Principle - the problem that you always promote men into leadership positions. It basically says that you tend to hire yourself, and that's a problem and that's why you need to know your biases. You need to know it and push yourself to have perhaps somebody else in the decision-making process say, “What is really the best fit and why don't you take the risk,” or “Why do you think the person cannot do it?” I think it's very powerful to learn your own biases and to overcome them.
WIA: Does Continental do unconscious bias training?
MG: Yes. We also talk a lot about it - to really reflect on our decision making and also to invite other people into interview processes and to push ourselves to have more gender equality and more diversity in general.
WIA: I understand that you are also involved in a women’s group in Germany called Mission Female. Can you tell us about the group, and what inspired you to get involved?
MG: In early 2022, I joined Mission Female which represents an exclusive network which is based on trust and a regular exchange between female leaders who support each other in their personal and professional development. There are about 100 networking events every year to increase career opportunities and also to support women to become more visible. We use LinkedIn, conventions, and different tools to support each other.
Mission Female takes a strong stance in business, politics and in society to support gender equality. I think there's this true belief that diversity really is the key factor for organizations to become more successful and to achieve their goals. That’s what drives Mission Female. I appreciate being part of this network because it's women from different industries and different backgrounds. They are company founders, members of executive committees, and of board of directors. It's very diverse and we meet on a regular basis to share experiences, learn together, support one another’s careers, and to have a lot of fun.
WIA: Do you have advice for women who want to advance their careers in automotive?
MG: I have a lot, actually. The first one, which we talked about, is confidence. Be confident. It’s also important to take time to network. I often hear women say that they cannot go to a convention or take time in the evening to go to a networking dinner or event because they need to work. Work is not only about execution and delivery. It's also about networking. And when you take time to do that, make yourself visible. Work on your own brand. Explain what you are standing for, what is important to you, and go out there and be loud so that you can be seen as well.
Another piece of advice I have is to take a role that is interesting. Even if you don't feel 100% ready for it, look for sponsors. And know when is the right time to make a change. When you feel there is not much in it for you anymore and you feel the environment doesn't support diversity, it's nothing you can change, and you feel stuck, don't be afraid of change. That's also what I have experienced over the years. Be willing to change the organization, the function, or the country. Train the change muscle because that’s where you’ll find the biggest opportunity.
WIA: These are really good pieces of advice and sometimes a little counterintuitive for women. I have one last question: What advice would you give to your younger self?
MG: I think we mentioned most of the advice I would give to grow a career. But I think when I reflect back, I worried far too much. So I would give the advice, worry less. The best is yet to come!
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