Grace Lieblein has had an incredible career in STEM. The daughter of a Cuban autoworker at General Motors’ assembly in Los Angeles, she would rise to become General Motors’ Vice President of Global Quality. Over the course of her 37-year career at General Motors, she developed a resume rich with experience in engineering, product development, purchasing, and supply chain management. Starting out as an engineer in the late eighties, she quickly rose up the ranks to become General Motors’ Chief Engineer of Midsize Crossovers. But she didn’t stop there. In January 2009, she became the first woman to be named President of GM Mexico. Three years later she became President of GM Brazil. In 2013, she would become General Motors’ Vice President of Global Purchasing and Supply Chain, and, finally, Vice President of Global Quality in 2014.
Grace Lieblein’s numerous accolades and awards include receiving the Michigan Woman’s Foundation 2015 Women of Achievement and Courage Award, the 2015 Automotive News’ Top 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry, the 2014 Automotive News’ All-Star Award, the 2014 Engineer of the Year by Great Minds in STEM, and the 2013 Fortune’s 10 Most Powerful Women in Automotive.
Now retired, Grace Lieblein currently sits on the boards of Honeywell, Southwest Airlines, and American Tower. Ahead of the release of the 2019 HACR STEM Report, HACR asked Ms. Lieblein to share her insights on the topic of what corporate board members can do to increase Hispanic representation in STEM-related fields and what she has done to personally overcome barriers to success.
1. According to the 2018 Missing Pieces Report, women and minorities held just 34 percent of board seats among Fortune 500 companies. As a Hispanic woman, what do you feel are the barriers to getting on a corporate board and how did you overcome these barriers?
Historically, most Boards have looked for sitting or past CEOs as Board candidates. This narrows the pool significantly, for women and minorities. Recently however, many Boards have become more flexible in their criteria for candidates. There are many great women and minority candidates that have had significant positions (i.e. running a division, a brand, or a country subsidiary) or unique skill sets (technology, customer engagement, supply chain…) and would bring much value to a Board. After I was President of GM Mexico and GM Brazil, and responsible for large P&L entities, I became a viable candidate.
2. What qualities do you feel make a corporate board member most influential?
A board member’s background and knowledge are important. However, how a board member interacts with the rest of the Board and the management team can be a more significant factor. Lastly, Committee Chairs and Lead Directors have a level of positional influence within the group.
3. As the former Vice President of Global Purchasing and Supply Chain at General Motors, you were the highest-ranking Hispanic American woman in the auto industry, what advice would you give Hispanic women struggling to advance in their STEM careers?
One of the most important ways to advance, is to take advantage of stretch opportunities. These assignments could be outside of your functional area, a special assignment working on a new project, or an overseas assignment. All too often, we get competent in a given area, and then we get comfortable and don’t look for change. I have found that those stretch assignments, although a little scary at first, are the ones in which I grew the most, both personally and professionally.
4. Research suggests that many Hispanics leave STEM-related fields due to slower career progression and advancement into leadership positions as compared to their White counterparts, what can board directors do to help corporations “plug” this leaky pipeline?
The first thing is to make sure that the Board is seeing the data on career development, and attrition, broken out by women and minorities. Once the data is clear, then discussions can take place on best practices to improve.
5. What do you feel your biggest accomplishments were in your career?
I feel fortunate to have been given so many great opportunities. I’d say my favorite technical challenge was being chief engineer for an all new line of crossovers. The other defining assignment for me was becoming President of GM Mexico. That was a great stretch opportunity and I learned so much there.
Grace Lieblein has helped paved the way for other Hispanics to blaze their own trails in Corporate America, especially in the STEM industry. While many industries have made strides in Hispanic representation, STEM-related industries continue to struggle in recruiting and retaining Hispanic talent. Ms. Liebein is a prime example of the level of talent and innovation the Hispanic community has to offer to this rapidly growing field.
HACR thanks Ms. Lieblein for providing her unique insights on achieving success in Corporate America. You can learn more about Hispanics in STEM by downloading a copy of the 2019 HACR STEM Report here.