100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry
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Grace LIEBLEIN

President and Managing Director • General Motors Mexico • Age 50
 
 
 
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Why did you want to work in the auto industry? My father worked for General Motors. He was an hourly worker at one of our assembly plants in California. He instilled in me a passion for vehicles. I wanted to go into engineering. I went to General Motors Institute because he suggested that.

First automotive job: Because I went to GMI, we did co-op, so you worked for three months and then went to school for three months. I was assigned to the GM Assembly Division in Southgate, Calif. In July 1978, for my first assignment, they had me do a noise survey throughout the plant. I had to go through the plant with a small meter and measure the noise level in every part. I had to do two readings per work bay. It was good because I learned the whole plant.

Proudest professional achievement: Launching the mid-sized crossovers [Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook, Chevrolet Traverse]. When we actually got those vehicles on the road and started to see the reaction of people — to be part of something and really start from scratch — it was an incredible experience. I was the vehicle chief engineer on that project and whenever I see an Enclave and Acadia today, I get a ting and think: "That's my car."

Current challenge at work: When I got this assignment, it was January 2009. The crisis of General Motors with bankruptcy and the crisis of the economy were both starting.

So when I started this job and throughout the last year, it has been in a time of crisis. The biggest challenge is moving from a leadership style of managing and leading in a crisis mode to managing and leading in a recovery mode. It's a very different skill set. Since I was new in this position and came in at crisis mode, you jump into that and lead with that kind of style. Now that we're in a recovery, it's changing that style so you can really take advantage of that recovery and make sure I'm leading with the right kind of focus.

The second challenge is becoming proficient in Spanish. That's a personal challenge.

Why does the auto industry seem like a difficult environment for female executives? The auto industry is very complex, complicated and can be a brutal business for anybody. It's even gotten more so in the last three years with everything nearly all the companies have gone through. You need to have a specific kind of personality and stamina to want to be in that business and to do well in that business.

The number of women who come into the auto industry is low; it's still about 20 percent overall. That in itself makes it a little tougher because there are fewer women to fill these executive slots. That creates a cycle and dynamic that is hard to break. We've been at 20 percent for at least 10 years.

How has the recession affected opportunities for women in the industry? People, women especially, who are young — because of what's happened in the auto industry over the last three to five years — are more hesitant to get into the auto industry.

Dream job: I'd say two. I loved product development. The vehicle chief engineer job was incredible. To be able to influence a product you're bringing to customers is so satisfying.

However, I really love this general management spot that I have now. I have learned so much about everything.

If I wasn't in the industry, I'd be running a coffee shop. I love coffee. I can see myself making a latte.

On a dinner party: About three months ago, the ambassador of the United States to Mexico had a small dinner because the secretary of trade to the United States, Ron Kirk, was visiting Mexico. There were a couple of us from the industry and officials in Mexico, and it was to talk about trade. I remember thinking: I'm sitting there with all these impressive statesmen, and then there's little old me — this engineer. It was a moment for me like "I wish my mom could see me now."

It wasn't that I was the only woman there, but it was just a thrill to be a part of this discussion of important and complex issues. It made me feel like I had arrived at a different level.

What you do to relax: I love to cook. I really enjoy exercising. I run and do various kinds of exercise. And I really love to travel with my family. We did a lot of that when we were in the United States, and we're doing a lot more of that in Mexico just to enjoy the country and see what's here.

— Jamie LaReau

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