Chantel Lenard has a contagious smile. Whether she's on stage with a microphone, in a panel discussion, or sitting with a half-empty cup of coffee at her desk on the tenth floor of her office in Dearborn, Michigan, the director of US marketing for Ford beams with optimism — and you can't help but want to hear what she's excited about.
Lenard has been with Ford for more than 22 years in various sales, strategy, and finance positions, but her true passion always lied in marketing, she said. She was educated in industrial engineering at Purdue University and holds an MBA from Harvard. In her role as director of US marketing, Lenard's team at Ford is in charge of the consumer marketing, including the go-to-market strategy for Ford's product line as well as marketing input for future products.
"I love this job. It's a great position because you really have a chance to see things from beginning to launch, and work with a great team," she said.
Lenard credits keeping her passion strong to taking a six-month leave of absence in 2013 to help her children re-acclimate to the US after a three-year stint she spent guiding Ford marketing in Asia. Taking the sabbatical required some difficult conversations inside Ford and defying the traditional context of her position, but it ultimately helped her become much more focused, confident, enthusiastic about her career.
When her children were eight and ten years old, Lenard had the opportunity to move to China for a position as the vice president of marketing for the company's Asia Pacific and Africa regions. She covered 11 markets, spanning from New Zealand to South Africa.
"The scope and span was very broad. I loved it. We were hiring a lot of people, in total growth mode. But, it was tons of work," she said. "In terms of building a team, we didn't yet have some of the expertise we needed, so a lot of it, you needed to do yourself. A lot of time, hours, supporting [multiple] time zones, and travel."
After three years in that position, Lenard decided she wanted to reconnect with her family and help them adjust as they moved back to the US. Ford has a sabbatical policy, but no one ever takes advantage of it, Lenard said. She was one of the first employees to have those conversations — some of them very difficult.
"[There were] a lot of questions as I came forward raising I might want to do this. A concern I heard from many was 'this could sidetrack your career' or pretty much end it because people will question how serious you are about your career and your willingness to make a contribution to the organization," she said.
But she knew it was necessary. Her children needed their mother, and she wanted to ease their transition back to the states after three formative years abroad. She wanted to take a year off, and Ford initially offered her three months. So they met in the middle and she took six months leave. It ended up being the perfect solution for her. After six months, her children were settled in and she was ready to return to work.
Back at Ford full-time to lead the marketing department, Lenard has also taken on a key role in technology decision-making, as you can read in Why is the CMO running so much IT? Big data, says Ford exec.
At Ford's 2013 Trends conference in June, Lenard also sat on the "Female Frontier" panel to discuss women leadership. Understanding the role of women in the economy has become another passion of hers, and she can rattle off a string of key statistics on the topic. Even though some of the statistics are discouraging, they're improving, and Lenard is the first to highlight that optimism.
The time spent in China and the six-month leave afterwards — and in general, the time spent as a working, traveling professional and mother — has made Lenard very aware of the cultural differences and similarities of working women among regions around the world.
On a professional basis, she said not enough people have the opportunity to recharge and step back.
"How often do you really think, 'Am I doing what I want to do?' or 'Am I doing the right things?' To have the opportunity to ask those questions and come out saying 'I love what I do' [and] we can really make a difference in the world," she said.
Whether its through one-on-one interactions or on a mass scale like in her position leading marketing in Asia Pacific and Africa, Lenard wants to make a difference. Because Ford offers such size and scale, Lenard said she feels like they've positively impacted communities, job markets, and future generations.
At home in Michigan, she said she hopes her team — and everyone she works in contact with — feels like they're "just a little better off because of how I engaged with them or helped them in their career."
In her own words...
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself?
"I can remember there were times in my career where a decision was made and I thought 'Boy, that is absolutely the wrong decision.' I really churned about that personally. Absolutely, you should be passionate in your job but when decisions are made that you think are bad decisions, you have to let go at some point. And bad decisions almost always come back and turn around. Now looking back after 20 years, you have some perspective on that."
What hobbies do you have outside of work?
"I do try to spend as much time with my kids as I can. It's quality time of being engaged at the right moment. I always also try to take vacations, try to do little work when I'm on vacation, because when I'm with my kids and my family on vacation, it's their time. When I'm at work, it's my time. I don't mix very well the two. I tend to be heavily focused on one or the other."
What advice do you have for aspiring executives?
"One of the pieces of advice that worked for me is to have a proactive career plan. Think about what's the next job and the job after that that you want, so you're working toward that. But that shouldn't be your focus. If you do good work, the rest will take care of itself. Work hard on the right things, work well with others, leave relationships better than you found them, and things will take care of themselves. But you still need to have a plan — how am I doing this, where am I going for the future. And the jobs I've been able to do, jump[ing] across functions, was because I was trying to build out that skillset."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.