Grace Lieblein began her career at General Motors as an 18-year-old student in an assembly plant in Los Angeles. The daughter of two immigrants—her father from Cuba and her mother from Nicaragua—was practically born into the auto industry. Her father was an autoworker at GM’s South Gate Assembly. It was more than 35 years ago that she began her studies in engineering at the GM Institute—now Kettering Institute. Today, Lieblein is the top ranking Latina in the automotive industry and a General Motors (GM) corporate officer, having risen through the ranks at the company she has seen through good times and bad.
As vice president for global quality, a role Lieblein began in December 2014, she oversees the quality of products for every region from China to South America as they go from engineering to manufacturing and makes sure GM consumers are getting the best products on the market.
“Quality is really at the heart of everything we do,” she says. “We are the conscience of the organization relative to the customer.”
Lieblein says she encourages her quality team—about 900 people globally—to think hard about quality from different perspectives. “There’s hard quality—making sure parts don’t break and the customer isn’t returning to the dealership—but, there is also quality on a more personal level. We want people to love their cars, trucks, and crossovers because of the design, the user-friendliness, how comfortable they are, and how great the fuel economy is.”
Releasing new products comes fast and furious for GM, which Lieblein says is both the most challenging and most enjoyable part of her job.
“We have a pretty heavy product cadence globally. Being a part of that process is really exciting. To see the teamwork between the engineers, the plant, and the suppliers all coming together for a new product is nothing short of incredible,” she says. But the challenge for Lieblein lies in managing all those different moving parts and being responsible for ensuring that every new product launched is of the highest quality. Lieblein stamp of approval carries a world of meaning for GM products.
While quality is Lieblein’s top priority now, she has focused on a variety of aspects for the vehicle manufacturing giant during her 20-plus-year tenure. After spending the first half of her career in manufacturing, she moved over to product engineering. From 2004 to 2008, she was the chief engineer on developing GM’s midsize crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave—which dominate the market now, but were new at the time.
“The leadership was placing a huge bet on whether there was a place in the market for these products,” she remembers. “But we have sold millions of them. To this day, whenever I see one on the road, I know I had my fingerprints on the product, and it was a great experience.”
In 2009, Lieblein became president and managing director of GM Mexico in the midst of a difficult time for the economy—and GM in particular, as rumors of bankruptcy were running rampant.
“It was a really challenging time with a lot of anxiety. People say that when the US sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia, so everything was multiplied with the financial crisis,” she said. She had to make significant adjustments to the business and the product portfolio at the start of the recession.
Having been with the company since she was a teenager, Lieblein said she took GM’s filing for bankruptcy to heart.
“I had been with GM my whole career, so to think about my company going into Chapter 11 was emotionally and personally hard. It was a dark time and probably the toughest of my entire career for a lot of reasons, but you learn from times like that. Getting through something and falling so spectacularly apart, makes you stronger as a person, and it made us stronger as a company.”
In 2011, she moved on to lead GM in Brazil, where she launched nine new vehicles in 15 months. She came back to the United States in January 2013 to run global purchasing, supply chain, and logistics before a top-level shake up moved her into her current position.
“I may be demanding, but i also try to be fair. if, as leaders, we are not being demanding of our teams, then we’re not doing our job, frankly. we need to set the bar high to help the organization to achieve greatness.”
Lieblein credits CEO Mary Barra for getting the company back on track and calls Barra a role model for the entire auto industry. “She has shown the world that she is an incredible CEO, who just happens to be a woman,” she says. “We are always going to have challenges somewhere in the world, but she put together the exact right team to deal with those challenges.”
It is the dawn of a new, healthier era for GM, and Lieblein is excited—for both her company and the automotive industry as a whole. Now, she says, the challenges lie in continuing to hire the right talent.
According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, by 2020, there will be a shortfall of 500,000 engineers in this country. For Lieblein, it is especially important to encourage the next generation of young people, including women and minorities to go into STEM fields.
“Our industry is going to see more advances in the next five to 10 years than we have seen in perhaps the last five decades. We can’t do it without new generations of well-educated engineers, scientists and inventors,” she says.
Lieblein has been through high times and low with GM, but having the right people on her team who respond well to her leadership style has helped her through it all.
“I may be demanding, but I also try to be fair. If, as leaders, we are not being demanding of our teams, then we’re not doing our job, frankly. We need to set the bar high to help the organization to achieve greatness,” she says. “I tell folks that with a responsive team, you can accomplish the impossible.”