Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Grace Lieblein
Story By: Chriss Swaney
Shifting in delight from the role of automotive leader to that of an attentive mentor for Hispanic women, Grace Lieblein recently discussed with affection and poignancy the people, family and successful strategies that helped her become a key player at General Motors. She retired as Vice President of Global Quality from GM in 2015 after 37 years of service.
Lieblein credits her success to her mother’s optimism and her father’s advice that no matter where one goes, education remains the one constant that can never be diminished by anything or anyone. She is a leader who has found success in every assignment she has ever undertaken, and every personal and professional goal she’s pursued.
“My focus has always been on excellence; it has been a driving force in my career,’’ said Lieblein. “My philosophy has always been, when you get the job, you let your credibility, your performance and your drive propel you forward. If there are people who, maybe have question marks in their mind about you being a woman or a minority, or any other reason, they’ll be won over even before they have a chance to say anything. You’ll be seen as a leader first.’’
That leadership mantra was a quality instilled early in life by her parents. She grew up in Los Angeles and was GM’s highest-ranking Hispanic woman (her father is from Cuba and her mother is from Nicaragua).
At the urging of her GM autoworker father, Lieblein applied to Kettering University (then called General Motors Institute, or GMI). Sponsored by her father’s plant in California, she earned acceptance to GMI and began her engineering career in 1978. She graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in 1983.
From 2004 to 2008, Lieblein was a chief engineer on GM’s large crossovers, the Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia. She said that job was a turning point in her career because it raised her profile inside the company and immersed her in the business side of vehicle development.
“I was fortunate,’’ she recalls. “I had a couple of leaders who pushed me out of my comfort zone. They called them stretch assignments. They told me you will do this, you can do this and you will be great.”
Two such stretch assignments took her into international business. In January 2009, she was named president of GM Mexico, making her the first women ever to lead the $2 billion operation that employed 11,000 workers at the time.
“My daughter was halfway through her senior year in high school, and my husband and I decided he would stay back with her. It was very difficult for me at first, ‘’ she said. “I spent a lot of time at work and worked out. Eventually I met people and became fluent in Spanish.’’
However, she continues, “I went immediately from Mexico to Brazil and the first thing my Portuguese instructor told me was I had to forget all my Spanish to learn Portuguese. Now that I’m back in the States, I’m trying to relearn my Spanish.”
“I went from being somebody in engineering to somebody who got exposure to the broader base of leadership,’’ she added. “I was always quite hesitant when somebody wanted to give me a new job. There’s always the voice in the back of your head saying, ‘You don’t have experience in that,’ or ‘I’m not sure you can do that.’ I had to get over that.’’
As an innovator, she also put in place a new system for nurturing closer ties to GM’s largest and most strategic suppliers.
And her mantra of success for future generations includes three basic points:
• “Believe in yourself. And as parents make certain you instill that in your children.’’
• “Get an education and stay in school to maximize your potential.’’
• “Learn what success means to you: For some it could be the corner office or a promotion. But to others, it could be taking jobs where you don’t have to travel and be away from family.’’
At the same time, Lieblein admits that you must be willing to take chances and endure some risk to be successful. And that success has continued to follow her as she shares her business experience and leadership skills on two corporate boards.
She has been a director on Honeywell’s board since 2012 and joined the board of Southwest Airlines in 2016.
“I’m not afraid to speak up now and provide input when needed at these board meetings, ‘’ she said. “I care about people. And if you don’t care about people, you should not be a leader.’’
Her many accolades include being named Michigan Woman’s Foundation 2015 Women of Achievement and Courage Award, the 2014 Engineer of the Year by Great minds in STEM, and the 2013 Fortune Magazine’s 10 Most Powerful Women in Automotive.
She also pointed out that the business world is not stable, and says successful leaders must be agile and willing to change course when consumer demands dictate change.
“I was also a smart kid and good in science and math, and I think that also helped me a lot,’’ she recalls.
Her path to engineering was always a challenge, though. She remembers her high school friends asking her why she wanted to be an engineer because they saw it as a male-only career.
“I saw it as something I wanted to do and my parents encouraged me,’’ she said.