Derek T. Dingle
When Ramona Hood achieved her milestone appointment as president and CEO of FedEx’s Custom Critical after a three-decade career with the company, the accomplished executive never fathomed she would lead the division in the throes of a pandemic.
Engaged in expedited ground and air transport of goods that includes a temperature-controlled network providing secure delivery of perishable products to hospitals, clinics, wholesalers, and retailers, her unit has proven vital to meeting emergency needs of customers.
“I didn’t anticipate incorporating COVID-19 plans into my first 90 days as CEO of FedEx Custom Critical, but I’m thankful for our team members who have risen to the challenge to keep us operating and serving our customers,” she says. “This situation has certainly altered my plans, but I think that comes with leading a dynamic company.”
As Hood and her team reviewed the unit’s business continuity plan, she says they methodically approached aspects such as social distancing as well as mapping out strategy and decisions on safety and operations based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and other leading health organizations.
“I’ve been pretty adept at breaking down complex challenges into smaller situations, examining the data, and then being able to convey that into actionable items for the team,” she asserts. “If I look at our current situation, each day, sometimes each hour, brings us a new data point—a new environment. As a leader, I think through the complexity and the uncertainty of the situation, then communicate a plan to my team.”
Dexterously managing the expansive, Uniontown, Ohio-based subsidiary while embracing this generation’s greatest public health and economic challenge is true to Hood’s M.O. The 28-year FedEx veteran has never let barriers stand in her way as she made her ascent from a 19-year-old receptionist and single mother to the first African American divisional chief executive of the corporate leviathan that provides millions across the globe with a range of transportation and business services.
The following are edited excerpts of Black Enterprise’s interview with Hood about her remarkable career journey and lessons for career success she developed along the way.
Getting Comfortable With The Uncomfortable
BE: Let’s start with your background and career ascent. How did you land your first job at FedEx and what factors have driven your movement within the company?
RH: It’s an interesting journey. Part of it was planned, part of it was being blessed and a part of it just couldn’t even be imagined. I started with the company as a 19-year-old single mom who took a job as the receptionist. For me, it was just a transition of finding a job that was Monday through Friday with consistent hours. Once I got into the organization, I saw that there was opportunity of promotion from within. There were positions being posted, and there was a strong internal promotion opportunity that happened within the organization. It led me to our Safety department where I spent the next six to seven years. Within that department, I began to shape what the possibilities could be for me as well as for others.
I had an opportunity to learn a lot of different jobs in Safety through raising my hand and showing an interest. Probably the most significant event that happened during that timeframe was connecting with my first work mentor. It was the safety director at that time. We talked about my career aspirations.
Finding that mentor placed you on the path to move up the ranks? What were the next steps you took to realize your aspirations?
My career started to become more purposeful. At that time, one of my goals was to get into leadership. When I looked around the organization, the area that had the most opportunity was the operational area. Then I also received guidance from my mentor on the importance of having P&L responsibility. Depending on how far I wanted to go with my career that would be something that I would need to consider.
BE: You’ve held key positions in Operations, Sourcing, Sales and Marketing. Beyond performance, you also came to understand the value of building a network.
RH: I call it my personal board of directors where I leveraged sponsors, coaches and mentors and understood the difference among the three. They all serve a different purpose. I’ve always used coaches to focus on areas that I wanted to gain more experience or develop specific skill sets. I leveraged mentors more as a generalist to my career. They were individuals who have gone through the same journey and I talk through those things to celebrate or to position myself to be able to manage differently in the future.
Then the last one I think this is the most important, especially when you have career goals of moving up to a C-suite position, and that’s having sponsors. Those are individuals in authority positions. They’re in meetings where decisions are being made about where people may need to take special assignments or appointed to different positions. So when you have a sponsor, you have that person who’s advocating for you in those rooms that you don’t have exposure to yet.
BE: As you pursued new opportunities within the company, what were some of the lessons you learned?
RH: I looked at becoming well rounded as I continued to move up in leadership positions. An opportunity came up where I could actually apply for an officer position within a different FedEx organization. It was great because we had completed an acquisition so it allowed me to get exposure to post-acquisition work. In applying for that position, I was promoted to VP for the business unit [and took] three separate lines of services and blended them within one division. From there, I had an opportunity to come back to Custom Critical as our VP of operations, strategy and planning. During that time frame, I focused on technology and how we were putting strategy together. I was also part of the succession plan and had an opportunity to be appointed to [my current] position at the beginning of this calendar year.
Those experiences taught me that it was important to stretch myself and get comfortable with the uncomfortable. So taking on some job tasks and responsibilities that maybe my past experience doesn’t completely align to it but the opportunity of learning something new would definitely benefit me and the organization because I could bring some of those past learnings to it.
BE: As a business leader in the white male-dominated transportation industry, what advice do you share with other African American female professionals about overcoming adversity and finding success within the sector?
RH: I recognize the fact that I’m one of few African American women who sits in an executive position in transportation so I look at it as part of my obligation to take on responsibilities and roles that allow me to strategically touch individuals—women, African American women. I talk to them about the industry and the importance of ensuring that we have a future generation in it. For me, it was important to get involved at large scale. I have been involved with Women In Trucking, where the entire mission is to focus on getting women to participate in transportation everywhere from being a driver up to a C-suite position. I was appointed to the board of the Transportation Intermediary Association and took the responsibility to chair the technology committee. The board and I recognize that there was no diversity at that level so we wanted to be intentional about it. I think it’s important that we get involved because it provides us a greater network as well.
Diversity and Technology
BE: Explain the thrust of Custom Critical. Is a large part of its focus related to medical supplies and other life-enhancing products?
RH: I’ll give you examples that show the diversity within our portfolio. Specifically on the medical side, it could be medical supplies, actual clinical trials or medicine that may be going through a patent. We provide the transportation that brings assurance that there is no tampering with the freight that we’re delivering. We also a support business. When you think about a product launch and the ability to put something in all markets around the same time, we provide the necessary operation procedures to make sure it doesn’t hit one market sooner than it should. We also provide support for small and medium-sized customers who need the capability from a logistic standpoint for appropriate solutions.
BE: What are your plans to expand customers or services?
RH: Specifically, my strategy around our customers and the expansion of our business is really to narrow down on the vertical markets of the industry that we connect and align with them appropriately. The second part of our growth strategy is really to understand from the customer what their needs are and to make sure that we’re bringing value in the services that we’re doing. Some of that is focusing on business agility, our ability to respond very quickly to customer’s needs and being able to understand what that value is. That leads into a second strategy of focusing on our workforce and evolving what it looks like so that we have the appropriate skill sets and capabilities within the organization, and continuing to be intentional with diversity within our organization as we add these additional skills to it.
BE: How do you apply diversity to drive innovation throughout the division?
RH: We value having different thoughts of team members because it brings innovation and allows us to recognize what’s important to our diverse customer base as well. We also realized we need to be pretty purposeful with it and that starts from where we choose to recruit. We want be diverse and look to source potential candidates in a variety of places. We also want to make sure that that slate has diversity when we hire decision makers. We really focus on the onboarding of our team members and to make sure that they have outlets that allow them to connect with individuals that look like them, have similar experiences to them and value the new ideas that they bring into the organization as well.
BE: How does technology impact the services provided by Custom Critical?
RH: It’s very relevant from the standpoint of the way that we think about agility and the methodology we use to move our technology forward. We really are focusing in two areas with technology. One is to ensure that the organization continues to utilize technology to optimize our workforce and gain efficiency. The second part of our technology strategy is understanding the capabilities that customers are looking for. That requires us to get very customer centric to understand their needs and start to anticipate those even quicker than they’re articulating them to us.
The Case For More Black CEOs
BE: There remains a paucity of African American CEOs at the enterprise and divisional level. From your vantage point, what can be done to expand the pipeline and advance the careers of more African Americans to CEO positions?
RH: I think in order for us to have success in movements with that, it requires us to be intentional and purposeful. When we talk about diversity, we just have to be intentional with hiring individuals that we feel can do the job but they also show the characteristics of someone with potential to move up in the organization. If you don’t bring a diverse slate of leaders at entry level and mid-level then you’re not going to have that pipeline for a potential CEO position.