Global Vice President of Quality, E-Systems, Lear Corp.
Location: Southfield, Mich.
Education: B.S., industrial engineering, GMI Engineering and Management Institute; M.S., industrial management, Central Michigan University
What drew you to the auto industry? A scholarship. I started out with a scholarship from General Motors to go to GMI Engineering and Management Institute for engineering.
First automotive job: Working for Rochester Products in New York in 1989.
Big break: It’s when we started doing Six Sigma as a company. When we started to practice the DMAIC (quality strategy for improving processes: define, measure, analyze, improve and control) principles, it was natural to me. I think I sort of stood out — that’s something that I understood or embraced faster than others. I really captured it, got hold of it, and that’s when I really started to rise within Lear.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? The first time that I had an overseas assignment. I wasn’t well-traveled at the time. Going to South America, meeting all these different people, trying to work with a joint venture to teach them how to do things in an automotive way to our systems, I learned about myself. I learned that I could do almost anything and that I could work in that environment without having too much behind me going in as long as I believed in myself. That was a breakthrough for me.
You’ve been in the industry 37 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? When I started with Lear, we were very conservative. People looked different, but when you came to work you were basically the same. You had the same uniform. Whereas in today’s work environment, it’s not like that. When you have customer meetings, then you present that professional confidence that the customer needs to see. When you’re working with the team, you have latitude. I like it.
What work achievement are you most proud of? One of the things that I pride myself on is the team that I create around me and the team that works with me. I’ve been really blessed in that I’ve been given the latitude to be an expert at what I do. I see the quality of team members improving over time. But I also see that we’re putting square pegs in square holes and round pegs in round holes.
What do you struggle with? When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail and sometimes that’s not the right tool. Sometimes I struggle to step back and maybe not be a hammer. In the early days as a female in automotive, I felt the need to be ever present, to make sure that I had a seat at the table and my voice was heard. I think that maybe I developed some of those skills of being a little bit of a hammer, making sure I was heard and recognized. It’s a different environment today.
Describe your leadership style. I absolutely believe that there is no problem that the right combination of humans can’t solve. It’s my job to put together the right combination of humans to solve problems, whatever they happen to be. I tend to try to understand what skills each person has and try and draw upon that particular skill. It’s a very important thing as a leader to recognize your team’s strong points and weak points and try to match-pair together and make sure you’re always getting the best from their strong point but being aware and cognizant of their weak point and helping them to improve that.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? When I left GM and came to Lear, I wanted to be a plant manager. Once I got here, I totally deviated to the left and found a different method and a different way which I thought was really interesting. It was great, because I’m a manufacturing engineer by background, never was in quality. Suddenly I got into a quality group after Six Sigma and I found my thing. I don’t think too much about what I didn’t do.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? There’s a lot of talented and smart women in STEM, they’re just not coming to automotive — they think it’s not a sexy career path, but they don’t know what we do. I think that we’ve got to do a better job of reaching out to them to tell them who we are and what we do. If you reached out to young women, early in their career, and gave them a view of that and explained to them that you could increase their capacity, not just give them a job and give them a salary, but you could increase their learning, their knowledge of the world and people, business strategies, the growth of product, the change of commerce.
— Alexa St. John