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...