"You can take that job, but you'll fail." Barb Samardzich, who is retiring Oct. 1 as vice president and COO of Ford of Europe, recalled those words from an old boss. But she ignored the warning.
The job was chief engineer at Ford's automatic transmission operations in 2000.
"At that time, and this is an understatement, that division was not performing to the same high standards as other Ford divisions were performing to," Samardzich told an audience in London this month at an event organized by Autocar magazine.
Her boss at the time "didn't think it was worth the risk" of her taking a job he perceived to be almost impossible. But Samardzich says her experience as a female engineer had taught her that calculated risk-taking was the best way to move up.
"Powertrain was my technical sweet spot, so it was the foundation for my confidence," she said. She turned the division around and eventually was made head of powertrain engineering.
"It worked, and I got noticed," she said. "It was risky but based on competence in an area I loved."
Samardzich, 57, started at Ford in the powertrain department in the U.S. in 1990. In an industry where women have been in a minority, she said the minority was "even starker" in engineering. She recalls meetings of 15 to 20 people in which she was the only woman.
"If the man says something that's not quite right, in a few minutes, people may not remember who said it," she said. "When you're the odd one out, it's much more memorable."