Heather Klish, 40
Vice President, Manufacturing, Continuous Improvement and Integration, BorgWarner
Location: Auburn Hills, Mich.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, Kettering University; MBA and M.S., mechanical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
What drew you to the auto industry? I grew up in the Detroit area and at a very young age my dad took me to work with him at General Motors. I was 8 or 9 visiting an assembly plant with him. My family had a big influence; we’re a car family. We love cars. We get excited when we see old classics and see new introductions. It’s kind of in my blood. At a young age, I had not just the interest in cars but the confidence in being around them. In junior high and high school I was involved in a lot of STEM activities.
First automotive job: I started working in high school after school at a small machine shop in 1996. It did automotive work, aerospace, work with printing companies. My first real job was a co-op with General Motors at the Milford Proving Grounds.
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Big break: When I look at my career, it’s built on itself. There’s been a couple really formative roles. One of those was when I was a first-line supervisor at American Axle in a very tough union environment. I was also responsible for implementing changes with lean manufacturing specifically. We had a lot of successes in this plant that got us a lot of recognition. It helped me earn credibility that, as a young female in a very tough environment, I could actually produce results that were looked at as benchmarks globally.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Most of my roles since after grad school have been as a change agent. I’m going into a role or a company where it’s very explicitly stated things need to be fixed. The task that’s on me is to really change the culture and produce significant results. That’s a big challenge for me. Throughout my last significant roles it has been stepping into a new company, particularly as an outsider, learning the lay of the land, establishing relationships and trying very quickly to understand strengths and weaknesses so that I can produce a vision and a strategy and communicate that to the team and get people on board.
You’ve been in the industry 22 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? I can very clearly see one of the biggest changes is with electrification. When I started at the proving grounds with that first co-op job, we had one of the first production electric vehicles on the grounds, the EV-1. That was just over 20 years ago and what we’re talking about now is $1 billion contracts that we’re winning or looking to win. It’s real money, real investment, and on the roads, you can see the real vehicles as well.
What work achievement are you most proud of? My first VP role. Over a five-year process, I was given quite a bit of autonomy and collaboration with different departments to really change the business process and create a new culture that drove real measurable value. Our company went from being in the red to double-digit profitability. What still excites me to this day is that the culture we created still exists.
What do you struggle with? As a change agent, to continually have to prove yourself so that you can win influence. That can be really tough — establishing yourself in a new role and a new company. It puts a tremendous burden on you upfront to do a lot of travel, to get out into the trenches and try to be hands-on so that people can see who you are and build that trust.
Describe your leadership style. I believe that I can achieve the best results if I can gain your trust and I can influence you if we trust one another and we can see the vision together.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? How effectively we can manage remotely. My team globally has really never missed a beat working from home. Using technology has become so much more of our daily work habit. I do think that having preexisting relationships helps a lot. The resilience of the supply chain in automotive has been really surprising. I expected a lot more disruption, a lot more lack of ability to get back online.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? Just to have more self-confidence at a younger age. I think all of us could use a little bit more self-confidence to realize that, whether it’s a comment, a question, making a decision, we have more to offer than we allow ourselves to believe.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? Having the ability for women to participate in STEM activities is just so important. For me, that made all the difference. But also, having more female role models is really important. That’s something I didn’t have early on in my career. The third thing would be, in our industry specifically, we need to evolve when it comes to embracing technology that makes our workplace more flexible.
How do you bring your best self to work? I try to maintain a mindset of being very grateful for the opportunity that I have at that moment.
— Alexa St. John