John Deere factory manager Jena Holtberg-Benge inspires others

John Deere factory manager Jena Holtberg-Benge inspires others

 March 30, 2022

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Exploring new countries and departments at work has never intimidated Jena Holtberg-Benge. In fact, it has excited her.

Jena is the general manager at John Deere Reman in Springfield USA, a factory that reclaims parts and components that can be used in other John Deere machines.

Jena joined the John Deere Reman team five years ago but has been with the company for over two decades.

Jena got her start as a consultant in John Deere's e-Business department in 2000 at the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois. 

Over the last 20 years, Jena has traveled far and wide with John Deere, taking roles domestically and abroad in China and India.

Jenas has become a champion for women in the workplace, particularly in manufacturing, and she hopes her success can inspire others.

Never saying 'no' to an opportunity

Traveling globally was a part of Jena's life before John Deere.

Though born in Massachusetts, she was raised in Hong Kong from ages 9-15, as her father was the principal of Hong Kong International School. She received her bachelor's degree in international business from Vassar College in New York and master's degree in international management at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona.

Right before Thunderbird, she met Jeff, her husband, who introduced her to working at John Deere.

In 2005, which marked Jena's fifth year with the company, John Deere closed a joint venture with a tractor factory in India and was in need of additional staff overseas.

"My husband and I rose our hands and said, 'We want to go,'" says Jena. So Jena and her husband, who also worked for John Deere, packed their bags and moved more than 8,000 miles from Moline to Pune, India. While in India, Jena served as head of the Technical Information Authoring Center, which was responsible for creating materials such as parts catalogs and diagnostics manuals. After two years, Jena's boss knocked on her door, asking if she would consider a new role in operations. "I went home and I cried," says Jena. "I was like, 'Did I do something wrong?' But I thought about it and I was like, 'This might be kind of interesting. It might open up some different doors.' So I went back and I talked to (my boss) about it and asked him, 'How can I learn more about operations? What do I need to do to do that?'"

Jena ended up taking the job, transitioning to the central quality department as a project manager. Jena and her husband worked and lived in India for three years before returning to the states. "I'm really glad I (took that job) because that year was really foundational for me in terms of learning operations," says Jena.

Fast forward four years, Jena and her husband, again, raised their hands to travel oversees — this time to Beijing, China. There, Jena was the manager of Strategic Planning and Business Development, where she worked to grow John Deere's business in China.

Despite her and her husband's successful dual careers at John Deere, Jena recalled a time, early in her career, when she was prompted with an ultimatum.

"One of my previous bosses had asked me, 'Jena, you need to decide. Who's going to lead and who's going to follow?'" Jena said. "I came back and said, 'Sorry, we both want fulfilling careers here.' And it ended up working out very well."

Other women who work alongside Jena can attest to her resilience and drive. Jackie Steffens, manager of employee relations at John Deere Reman, has worked with Jena for 10 years. She described Jena as a natural-born leader.

"She's fearless, but she also demonstrates care and compassion both for her team, the employees and the business," Jackie says. "She has a strong ability to talk to all levels of employees, from shop floor to the CEO."

Speaking up on behalf of other women in manufacturing

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up 29.2 percent of employees in the manufacturing industry in 2021. Similar to traveling and exploring new avenues at work, Jena has never let being a woman in the industry stop her.

In 2005, when helping get the John Deere factory running in India, Jena established a WomenREACH Employee Resource Group for workers there.

WomenREACH is an internal Employee Resource Group, a company-sponsored and employee-run organization. While John Deere has 13 different Employee Resource Groups, WomenREACH is the largest and oldest, with more than 4,000 members globally, said Daniel Bernick, John Deere public relations manager.

John Deere Reman does not have a WomenREACH Employee Resource Group but does have a Women in Operations group, that falls under the organization.

Jena recalled a specific time, when she was the project manager of the central quality department in India, when she felt it necessary to speak up on behalf of others.

"When I moved over to the tractor factory, I found, as I was working with other women, that the women weren't wearing metatarsal (personal protective equipment) shoes, but the men were offered metatarsal shoes," explains Jena. "I asked, 'Why is that? Why would there be a difference there if they're both working in the manufacturing operations?' We immediately corrected that. John Deere, of course, lives by that — safety and equality."

Jena is currently one of 10 female factory managers at John Deere, which she described as "awesome."

"The more we educate, the more we understand unconscious bias ... the more sensitized people are to (the idea that) there are a lot of reasons why you bring diversity into roles like manufacturing, factory leadership because of the perspective a woman might bring to the table," says Jena.

Jackie reiterated the importance of having female coworkers to lean on and noted that Jena creates a positive, educational atmosphere for employees at John Deere Reman.

"I think it's enormously important to have friends in confidence that you can openly share both triumphs, areas of opportunity, and seek coaching, mentoring and counseling on a peer-to-peer basis," says Jackie. "Jena does a great job of paying it forward, mentoring and supporting others, both within John Deere, as well as externally. It just helps you grow and it helps you realize that you're not alone."

Have courage, confidence and learn to set boundaries

Jena says she was never afraid to embark on a new adventure when an opportunity arose. But if she could go back 20 years and give herself advice, she'd remind herself the importance of courage and confidence.

"We talk a lot about this as women, that sometimes we are our own worst enemies in terms of lack of confidence or openness to apply for a role because we think we may not the skill sets, versus a male colleague that will err on the side of, 'I'm going to go for it,'" comments Jena.

Within John Deere WOMENReach are supervisor development programs, which allow women, who are interested in leadership roles, to shadow or fill in for their colleagues. 

Jena recommended that women interested in roles in manufacturing and operations talk to someone with experience, or shadow if the opportunity is available, as it gives first-hand experience.

In addition, Jena emphasized the importance of setting boundaries at work.

"Early in my career, I didn't hesitate to spend 20 hours a day doing what I needed to do, to get the job done," she says. "But I realized along the way, the work is always going to be there. Work is always going to ask more of you, and so making sure you're shutting it down and giving yourself some time, and your family some time, is really important."

Life away from John Deere is spent with family, often outdoors, Jena says. She enjoys running, hiking and kayaking with her husband, 15-year-old son and two foster children.

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