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Megan Wallin-Kerth

Management

CEO Jessica Gomez Shares Her Leadership Advice

Good leaders share seven qualities, says the founder of Rogue Valley Microdevices

Published: Tuesday, September 20, 2022 - 12:03

Leadership is a topic that garners interest from many but is rarely outlined in both tangible and personal terms. For instance, while one person may lay out the metrics of success within their company, the next prefers to talk about the interpersonal dynamics of instilling trust in a team. Jessica Gomez, founder and CEO of the chip-manufacturing company Rogue Valley Microdevices, touches on both.

In an exclusive interview with Quality Digest, Gomez shares her thoughts on what makes an effective leader in her industry. Her rare combination of life experience, personable candor, and razor-sharp practicality makes her a formidable presence in the manufacturing industry.

“There’s a lot involved,” she says of good leadership. “I mean, having good judgment is really important, and then also being able to put aside your personal beliefs—or your personal relationships, in some cases—to do what is best for your team. That’s not easy sometimes.”

Gomez knows a thing or two about not taking the easy route. She grew up in a low-income family, which at one point meant going without a roof over their heads for nearly a year. With three younger siblings, Gomez had to take on many responsibilities early. Despite multiple setbacks, she graduated on time while working part-time jobs on the side, and took an interest in semiconductors soon after high school.

By the age of 26, she started her own business. With the help of her husband, the two worked 12 to 18 hours per day keeping their bare-bones company afloat. However, this only seemed to strengthen her resolve. Rogue Valley Microdevices has continued to defy the odds as a primarily woman-run tech company in Oregon.

Though she and her husband no longer spend nights sleeping on the manufacturing floor and waking to check on the progress of machines, Gomez recalls that time period well. She also knows that it helped shape both her passion and leadership style.

For Gomez, being a good leader isn’t just about training and rule-following, but also about modeling what you would like to see from your employees.

“Whether you’re focusing on trying to inspire a team or just providing daily direction, I attempt to not be a micromanager,” she half states, half advises. “I try to encourage people to develop themselves professionally. [My employees] do grow and thrive in their careers. I think that’s really important.”

Building the right team for hard times

The pandemic and the domino effect of supply chain issues have presented particularly challenging times for a company that prides itself on chip manufacturing efficiency. So, it was vital to have a team that could hold up under pressure.

For one thing, Gomez noted that staff members everywhere were faced with an almost impossible dilemma: working together while working apart.

“Some things became easier,” she says, “and other pieces sort of fell apart.”

Although her manufacturing business was considered essential, certain team members were allowed or encouraged to work from home. But the lack of daily interaction took a toll on problem-solving and collaboration processes.

To ensure success, she needed to recognize her team’s needs and adapt.

“That work-life balance turned much more to sort of work-life integration,” she says. “How do we get the best of both worlds while we’re going through this really tumultuous time?” By asking the right questions, Gomez was able not only to motivate employees to work hard but also to support each other. However, the practical side of this meant an overall shift in managing not just personnel but materials.

Looking at the big picture

Rogue Valley Microdevices was considered essential, she explains, because chip development is so fundamental in the manufacturing industry across the board. Not only are chips vital in the supply chain, but they also play a role in research development.

“Several customers came to us and said, ‘Hey, we’re taking our biomedical platform, and we’re quickly trying to adapt that to do... Covid testing.’ The message to us was: ‘Please don’t shut down. We absolutely need you to continue delivering these chips that we’re building this technology on.’” Though the company remained open, it needed to make some major adjustments.

“It was a pretty big shift,” she says. “We had some parts of our business that completely dropped off, and other pieces of our business that were being just overwhelmed by requests, because depending on where companies were—in the United States or overseas—some were getting shut down, and some were staying open. That shifted the work that we had on the factory floor. So we had to react quickly and adapt to that, move people around where the need was, as well as adapt to all the new rules and regulations, trying to keep up with everything.”

Keeping materials in stock was also a struggle; however, Gomez notes, it was one she anticipated.

“There was a worry that many of us in our industry had about materials because, in the semiconductor industry, we share some of the materials that are used in hospitals. So one of the first things I did was call our partners, and I said, ‘Hey look, we suspect there will be a supply chain issue. We’re going to be ordering materials upfront to ensure that we’ve got three months in stock ready to go in case we can’t get helium or oxygen or nitrile gloves’—things that really are essential in keeping everything moving forward.”

While making those decisions under the mounting pressure of Covid-related shutdowns and massive delays could have spelled disaster, Gomez said not only were they ahead of the curve, but she also found motivation while reflecting on her company’s overall impact.

Knowing the industry

“You know, I look at our business and how we support technology development overall, and it’s a pretty important role,” she says. “We have long been involved with companies that are developing brand-new, cutting-edge tech, and without a manufacturing partner, that technology doesn’t come to fruition a lot of times.”

The chip manufacturing companies in particular struggled with many others in the United States as they lost capacity to manufacture chips, she says, adding, “when that happens, you end up with situations where either they can’t or don’t want to send their technology to be manufactured outside the U.S. because of IT protection issues—or even because of simple things like time differences, right? It’s hard to be able to call a team that’s 16 hours ahead of you.”

Even prior to 2020, Gomez says she prioritized “identifying companies that were U.S. manufacturers, that were accepted into IT protection, to make sure that [they had all the necessary registrations] at the very least, and had the security in place to make sure that the technology wasn’t at risk.”

But that’s easier said than done.

“I look at where we sit in that supply chain, and the role that we play in developing good biotechnology and different types of sensors that are now out in the market,” Gomez says. “[Those products have] vastly improved the standard of living for people and helped to make people safer at work.”

As CEO, she says that focus is shared with her entire team, from upper management to engineers and technical workers. “Because it’s not just the salespeople at our company, it’s not just the engineers or the CEO that are making that technology,” says Gomez. “It’s those people on the shop floor, and they are incredibly important, so I always try to make sure they feel that and they see where we fit into the entire global ecosystem.”

Gomez would be the first to remind people that, despite the integral nature of chip production, which has become a part of manufacturers in nearly every industry today, this work hasn’t always been so highly valued.

She adds that while times have changed, it’s mainly been due to the realization that local, established manufacturers play an integral part in efficient production and distribution.

“Many times, what companies would do is develop technology, and they would bring up their own manufacturing facilities, and when the manufacturing facilities were [too high of an investment], they would say, ‘You know what, it’s not worth it. We’re just going to shut it down and send it somewhere else overseas.’ And now they’re back, going, ‘What happened? Why can’t we get this manufactured in this small amount of time?’”

Gomez is happy to see the change.

“I see we’re shifting that attitude toward ‘manufacturing is important,’” she says. As for tackling the supply chain problems, she explains, it’s a matter of planning and execution.

Keeping materials reliable and local

“It’s vital that we have a diverse supply chain—a locally diverse supply chain—not clustering all of our materials and supplies in one part of the world,” she says. “Because in the case of a natural disaster, a pandemic, we see the global impact of that.”

And, while she says quality assurance isn’t typically something that people associate with leadership, it is the primary responsibilities for a CEO. “If you look at, you know, ISO certification, there is one person in that executive team who takes responsibility for that, and in our company, that’s me, and I take it seriously,” says Gomez. “When we struggle with a problem, when there are questions from a customer, it’s important to have that executive team member involved.”

While Gomez looks at several key factors in determining quality, she says much of it comes down to one thing: traceability.

“How are we making sure that we can trace back to the supplier and the batch and the information that we need to know about? [We need to know] everything that happens to the content, and that you can follow that chain all the way back to the very beginning.”

She adds that it’s not unusual for small components to lead to large system failures, especially affecting safety and effectiveness. When it comes to these issues, Gomez isn’t willing to accept compromise, and it shows with her dedication to every detail.

“We are primarily a manufacturer and a manufacturing partner for many companies, and so I have a lot of input on the design of our facility, what sorts of capabilities we have, where we invest our dollars, what our philosophy is, and how we work with customers,” she says.

Her leadership style has a strong commitment to transparency—not just effective and efficient production—which is evident in the work culture.

Transparency is key

“We tend to be much more open, much more collaborative, and we share all of our data with our customers,” says Gomez, explaining that sharing information with all members of their team—and with customers—ultimately shapes the final outcome. “It makes us more efficient, and, I think, a better partner.”

Customers, she says, can note this trait when assessing quality in both products and services.

“The test of that relationship [between customer and manufacturer] happens when all things go to hell,” says Gomez. “When things aren’t delivered on time, when there’s a big yield problem, or let’s say parts are delivered and there’s an issue.”

She emphasizes accountability in interactions between customers and manufacturers, from explaining why deadlines weren’t met to being upfront about expectations, limitations, and mistakes. She adds that such mistakes happen to everyone, but as long as the focus remains on quality and preventing the same mistake from happening twice, manufacturers can expect the best from their team.

“It really makes a huge difference in how your team feels about the work that they do when stuff goes wrong,” she explains. This attitude is part of how she has fostered and maintained a positive work culture.

“Company culture is probably the most important—and the most difficult to fix when it goes south,” she says frankly.

What it takes to be a great leader

Gomez says this level of understanding about her team absolutely plays a role in how she chooses to lead.

Tales of CEOs sleeping on manufacturing floors, she says, aren’t all that unique. Part of the reason, beyond cost and necessity, has to do with gaining knowledge of what employees will encounter.

“You can go look at a spreadsheet, but it doesn’t tell you the complete story,” she says. “I think it’s important to do that—not every day, but periodically. It keeps you really connected to those people who are moving your company forward.”

Gomez acknowledges that leadership isn’t the path for everybody.

“In my opinion, great leaders possess a combination of innate traits and attributes that are developed over time.  Great leaders are forged by overcoming adversity, experiencing failure, and providing leadership throughout the recovery process.”

To sum up, Gomez provides seven tenets of good leadership. In her words:

1. Great leaders are humble and willing to listen. They take into consideration all information provided, along with the opinions of individual team members, paying close attention to those who will be affected by that decision and those who will be involved in implementing any new strategy that may come as a result.

2. Great leaders are both decisive and transparent. They don’t delay making tough decisions and follow through once a decision is made. They clearly communicate why they came to their conclusion and how it will help the team move forward. Team members may not always agree, but they will feel valued and respected.

3. Great leaders don’t micromanage. They hire the right team members and then empower them to do their job.

4. Great leaders don’t retain underperforming employees regardless of their own personal connections.

5. Great leaders invest in their team’s professional development by taking the time to learn what each team member is interested in and providing them with opportunities to learn, grow, and add their unique value to the organization.

6. Great leaders truly care about their employees and their families. They are aware when an employee experiences a life-altering event and make sure they feel supported by the organization and their team members.

7. In the face of failure, great leaders will take responsibility for the failure and do what’s necessary to achieve success. 

Discuss

About The Author

Megan Wallin-Kerth’s picture

Megan Wallin-Kerth

Megan Wallin-Kerth is a Quality Digest editor and writer.