Novelis’ Plant Manager, Oswego, Kristen Nelson on the Advantages of Making Lateral Career Moves
If you told 10 year old Kristen Nelson that she’d grow up to be a Plant Manager at a manufacturing plant, she wouldn’t believe you. “I really wanted to be an astronaut. That was my goal in life and something I was very much fascinated with,” she reminisces.
Although her passions changed later in life, her ambition to learn new things and advance in her career remained unwavering. And she learned that sometimes going in a different direction– and even failing– can lead to unforeseen success. “If something's different, don't discredit it because it's not an advancement or what you would consider an advancement, it can still be critical for your growth,” Kristen reflects.
We sat down with Kristen, Plant Manager at Novelis, to learn more about her career journey and how taking calculated risks helped her career in the long run.
Learning from failure
By the time Kristen made it to college, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to study. “I was always strong in math and science when I was young and I would always be inventing crazy things or taking things apart,” she explains. Her natural gifts paired with influence from her dad who owned a milling company and aunt who was an aeronautical engineer, set her up to take the route of mechanical engineering.
When choosing what school to apply to, Kristen had one main requirement: the option to study abroad. “I wanted to experience different cultures and travel,” she explains. She ended up choosing Clarkson University which had a study abroad program with a technical school in Sweden. But before she took off on her adventure, she made sure to plan accordingly. “I was very worried about graduating on time, so I spent my first two summers ahead of applying taking summer classes.”
When she set off for her adventure, she was eager to soak everything in. “Studying abroad was one of the most pivotal times in my life. It’s amazing to wake up one morning in a place that you don't really know the culture beyond what you've read,” she reminisces. Living in an unfamiliar environment taught Kristen many lessons, but one experience with a linear algebra class would shape her for life. “I failed a course for the first time ever. It was taught in full Swedish, which I was not fluent in, and it did not go well,” she confesses.
Although she was disappointed, she took some time to process the failure, and decided to learn from her situation. “I didn't take it super well, but I learned that failing is okay,” Kristen shares. “I told myself, ‘this is why you worked hard to take summer classes to make sure that you could graduate in time and you still have the time to retake the course.’” And that’s exactly what she did.
Kristen’s failure taught her the resilience she would need to get started on a professional journey. And when she came to Novelis, she was prepared for all of the problem-solving and risk management her roles required of her.
Moving up and around the career ladder at Novelis
Kristen joined Novelis in 2012 after a 5-year run at a major beverage and packing company. “I felt a little bit stagnant there, so I was looking for change, more of a challenge, more growth,” she explains. And Novelis offered her just that. Novelis is the world’s largest recycler of aluminum and a global leader in innovative products and services. And providing their employees with growth and development opportunities throughout their career is one of their priorities.
Kristen’s career trajectory over the past 10 years at the company reflects this mission. She joined as an Associate Reliability Leader, and later got to explore other roles like Engineer, Maintenance, Reliability, and Automation Leader, CI Manager, and most recently, Plant Manager.
“You can see an obvious upward trajectory, but I want to highlight that a lateral move was really key for me in my journey.” The move from a technical role into operations offered Kristen new learning opportunities. “Lateral moves give you a whole different perspective, because you are able to see aspects of the business that you haven't been exposed to before, and you’re bringing knowledge from the prior role to give a different perspective into the new one.”
Moving up and around the career ladder wasn’t always intentional for Kristen, and sometimes career moves were met with some hesitation. “There have been times where I have said, I'm not interested in changing roles at this point,” she explains. To ease some of this hesitation Kristen decided that new opportunities were worth a try, to find out if she liked them or not. By focusing on the future, she knew which direction to move in. “I spent some time putting together a personal vision of my future self and by understanding what I want to do, I’ve gotten further into my career.”
Impacting women in manufacturing
Among her various roles at the company, Kristen says some of her biggest impact has been in the employee resource group, WiN (Women in Novelis). “Our purpose is to help develop, retain, and engage strong women talent so that we can continue to grow them, as well as meet our business targets.”
As the Chair of the North American sector of WIN, Kristen spends her time creating and planning internal events, external outreach, and safe spaces for dialogue. “Some of the main pillars that we focus on are engagement, development, networking, and community outreach,” Kristen says. Just this past year, WIN has done activities for International Women’s Day, engaged with local Girl Scout troops, raised almost $5,000 for women who have experienced domestic violence, set up speaking panels, and the list goes on.
Kristen works hard to continue expanding the impact that WIN has on women and allies both inside Novelis and in the community. “So we did a SWOT analysis– our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats– and we prioritized the top items that we would like to focus on for next year. It's been fun,” Kristen shares with pride.
With her passion for supporting women in business, she offers her insight to women trying to advance in male-dominated fields.
Kristen’s advice for women on moving up the career ladder
Don’t be afraid to make a lateral move. Career growth doesn’t always mean moving upward. “Making lateral moves [can] provide you with a lifetime of experience that will help you grow and learn,” Kristen shares. Within Novelis, she moved from tech to operations and has seen many others do the same. “We've had people start in finance and end up in supply chain. We've had people start out as admin and go into commercial groups, and then end up in procurement,” Kristen explains. “Don't discredit a role just because it's not what you would consider an advancement. It can still be critical for your growth, learning, and understanding, both personally and professionally.”
Share your vision for your career. Kristen also encourages women to be vocal about their career goals. “Share your vision with people that you consider your sponsors so that they can advocate for you when roles come up when you're not in the room,” she advises. “If no one knows what you want to do or the direction you want to take, they won’t be able to support you as well.”
Step outside of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. “When you're outside of your comfort zone, that's when we tend to learn and grow as individuals,” Kristen shares. She wants other women to take the leap outside of the familiar and try something new. “There have been times in my career where I won't know if I’d like [the role] unless I try it.”
But don’t take the leap without calculating the risks first. “I always like to say that I'm a calculated risk-taker,” explains Kristen. “So I weigh in what I want the outcome to be and what an acceptable result would look like.” It’s all about finding a balance. “You don't want to just go willy nilly, but you can't be so cautious that you never really push yourself to improve.”
Do you want the opportunity to move up and around the career ladder like Kristen? Check out Novelis’ open roles here!