What attracted you to the auto industry? My father worked for GM for 20 years at the Janesville [Wis.] and Lordstown [Ohio] assembly plants. I loved the cars he exposed me to, and I loved the stories he would tell about factory life.
First automotive job: While I was studying at Kettering, I worked as a co-op student in Defiance [Ohio] in our iron casting operations. I was a fill-in production supervisor.
Big break: It came when I was working with skilled trade unions as superintendent of advanced manufacturing engineering in Saginaw [Mich.]. We decided we were going to work as a team, and we made enough business improvements that I came to the attention of the top management of the division. They selected me to go to MIT on a fellowship.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? There have been several, but one of the assignments I had in Luton [England] was to shut down an assembly plant that had been in operation for almost 100 years. We worked together as a team — union and management — and did the best we could through the run-out of the plant. But it was personally challenging. You hate to do anything like that.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? My parents. Every night when I was growing up we had coffee time. I got to listen to my dad's counsel on how he handled things at work and my mom's counsel on how he should have handled them. He had expert knowledge, but she had her own thoughts on how to lead people. And they both felt I should go out and do whatever it was I wanted to do.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? It needs to start at a really early age, and it has a lot to do with encouraging girls to stay interested in math and science.
Tell us about your family. I've moved 13 times and I've had 19 or 20 different jobs at GM, and my husband, Daniel, has been by my side the whole way. He's also a Kettering grad with a master's from Purdue. GM has been excellent about supporting him. Without his support, I probably wouldn't have moved so many times. And some of the moves were for the challenging jobs that taught me the most. Had I not been able to take them, I probably wouldn't have risen up to the level that I have in the company.
What's your favorite weekend activity? My husband and I have a place on a lake. During the summer we spend time playing on the water on our Jet Ski. Also, we like to play computer games like World of Warcraft. One of my sisters is really into it, so she drags me around and I do what she tells me.
Are you able to maintain friendships? I still have my best friend from high school. Just last summer we went on safari in South Africa. I've found that sometimes when you move around, you actually do better at maintaining friendships. The Internet helps a lot.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? President Obama. Just look at how much he has aged on the job. I'd love to hear his honest thoughts on the direction of the country and the experience of being president — not as a politician, but as a person.
What's your guilty pleasure? Raspberry vodka.
Name one talent you wish you had. I wish I could sing. My mother can sing, but none of us inherited her talent. So I will only sing in front of my close friends and family.
Best advice you've ever gotten? Some people put value on working a ton of hours because they think that's the only way to be successful. I was discussing that with a former boss one day, and he looked at me and said: "Working hard is fine, but what really counts is the quality of the work you do, and the quality of your thinking, and your strategy." That made me pause and think: How am I spending my time? Am I spending my time on things that are going to make a difference for the company's success?
By Gabe Nelson