Although Mary Kubitskey has been with General Motors for more than 30 years and has amassed an impressive resume — helping to launch OnStar, appearing twice on “The Apprentice” and more — she knows, she said, “what will be written on my tombstone.”
Kubitskey was a young brand advertising manager for the Pontiac G6 when she pushed GM to do a giveaway on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in September 2004. That moment when Oprah shouted “You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” to her 276 screaming and crying audience members has become an iconic cultural moment, the subject of countless memes. The effort resulted in legendary numbers: an estimated $100 million in free press coverage and 87 percent awareness of the promotion among the American public, according to GM.
But for Kubitskey, who serves as senior manager – brand strategy, media and partnerships for Chevrolet, it was just one moment in a career she said she loves.
Growing up, she said, “I always knew I wanted to be a businessperson. I never played with dolls when I was young; I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore. I knew I wanted to live on my own in a beautiful apartment somewhere. And my mother, to her credit, never pushed me to be anything else.”
She graduated with a business degree and said, “If you grew up in southeastern Michigan and get a business degree like I did, you went to work for one of the Big 3. I went to GM.”
Was she always interested in cars? “I’ve become a car person,” she said. “But down deep, I’m a communications person. I love consumer communications.”
Kubitskey started her GM career as a temporary staffer in the company car department. “My job was to give company cars to executives. I wanted to get hired in, and it was a great place to meet people,” she said. “I’d give out my resume with the keys to every car. And that’s how I got hired.”
She spent her first six months at GM working on the Chevy advertising team, then moved to other brands.
“The Oprah promotion happened at a time in my life when I was pretty junior,” she said. “Honestly, there were a hundred reasons why we should not have done it: It was too much invested on one day. It was too dependent on PR. But I’ll never forget sitting on the curb at the airport, talking on the phone with the executive whose approval I needed. He said, ‘I don’t see it working.’ I said, ‘Go home and talk with your wife about it.’ And the next morning he called to approve the idea.”
“It happened fast and it was a great moment,” she said. “But what it really taught me was to not let a good idea go — the importance of sticking to what you know is right.”
It wasn’t easy.
“Being brave and standing up for that idea was really hard. There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me in the business at that time.”
Despite that moment, Kubitskey said she’s never sought the spotlight. Instead, she said, the most fulfilling parts of her career have been the opportunities to help others — to influence who was hired at GM, and to help boost the careers of deserving young women, in particular.
“I’m not a big fan of the word ‘mentor,’ ’’ she said. “Men never say that. And you don’t really need someone to have coffee with — you need someone to hire you, to promote you, to have your back when you screw up. You need a champion.”
For women in the industry, she stresses the importance of speaking up with confidence.
“I used to wear with pride the notion that I was a quiet leader. I felt that in a meeting, I didn’t have to be the first one to talk,” she said. “I finally had a boss who told me to stop saying that. He said, ‘If you’re quiet, you’re not a leader. You can’t be quiet and lead. You have to be sure that your perspective is clear.’
“So, for example, the first couple of years I worked with him, he’d seek me out in meetings to ask, ‘What did you think?’ I waited to be called on. Finally, he said, ‘You’re smart and articulate, but I’m not calling on you anymore.’ He wanted me to be confident enough to join the conversation on my own.”
She said women in the auto industry need that confidence.
“We all know it’s important for women to have a seat at the table. But honestly, even today, you’ll get into senior leadership meetings — and it’s still that guy running the meeting,” she said. “In our organization, there are lots of women, especially at the junior levels, but cracking through that ceiling is still hard.”