Christina Tsai, 40
Vice President and General Manager, Global Sealing, Tenneco
Location: Southfield, Mich.
Education: B.A., economics; B.S., engineering, and M.S., biotechnology, University of Pennsylvania
What drew you to the auto industry? I have to admit it was kind of an accident. My major was in chemical engineering. At that time chemical engineers were going to pharmaceutical and biochemical companies. My area of interest was more in the area of petroleum chemicals. At the time I joined Federal Mogul, they made a lot of fabric and textile-based products for wiring, and they were developing an application to go into biomedical devices and I thought it would be a good fit. I interviewed with a lot of companies, but this was the only one that took the time. I spent 2½ days getting to know the company. And I thought if a company is willing to invest that kind of time getting to know a recruit, they will make sure I succeed in any career I will have with the company.
First automotive job: In 2002, I was an R&D engineer in the test lab working on validation of materials, products and test methods.
Big break: When I was asked to go to China to run the sales office. I was 27 and I had no sales experience. I was considered because I know the language, I know the culture and I know the product. The company was very focused on developing talent and so they took a chance on me. It was very rough, but it gave me a foundation within Tenneco to develop my career.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Learning how to do business in China. I had my own assumptions on what the Chinese culture and business environment would be and it was nothing like I imagined. I had to learn a lot when I got there, how to do business, how to work with my colleagues there. I think it changed me fundamentally as a person, made me much more open-minded and less stressed about challenges.
You’ve been in the industry 18 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The rise of the Chinese market. It gives us a pipeline of different talent. We recently completed our global talent review. Ten years ago, you would never see an Asian candidate with high potential in the succession planning. This year I was very happy to see several colleagues across the business units, from India, Japan and China, being considered for global roles. That’s certainly a very good change for the auto industry. On the reverse side, I am very nervous about how to recruit young talent into the auto industry. They want to go work at Google. I have lost engineers, not to competitors but to completely different industries. We need to start thinking about how we are going to bring young talent into the industry and keep them here.
What do you struggle with? Automotive is going through a transition period and there is a lot of question of what will be the future technology, how much do we continue to invest on the internal combustion engine. Tenneco as a business is very focused on internal combustion engines. What I struggle with is that here is a perception that the internal combustion engine is not the way going forward. There’s a lot of excitement toward electrification, and it’s understandable, but it distracts from some of the resources and attention that we should be placing on the core traditional powertrain technologies.
Describe your leadership style. I am more a collaborator. I like to use the Socratic method. I ask a lot of questions. Everyone on my team, they are experts in their function. I am more of a generalist. It is my way to learn and to get people thinking.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? There are a lot of women still interested in coming to the auto industry. A lot of my hires in sales and engineering are talented women. I think the question is how do you retain women in the auto industry? I don’t think anyone would argue that automotive is a conservative industry, and we have many conservative practices in terms of HR policies. Maybe, to retain this young talent, we have think about how we modernize some of these policies. Tenneco is starting to look into this area, especially for women who have children and need more flex time. I see a pipeline of women coming in, but they tend to leave earlier than their male counterparts.
Tell us about your family. My family is very global. I was born in Taiwan and my whole family moved to Vancouver, Canada, where I grew up. My parents are still in Vancouver. I have one sister and her husband living in Taiwan and another sister and her husband living close to London. Once a year, we get together and do a big trip. Unfortunately, we can’t meet this year.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? I like sports. I picked up tennis about a year ago and I have been in boxing for 3½ years.
— Richard Truett