"You Have to Show Vulnerability": How a GM VP Defines Leadership

Pamela Fletcher interview
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No doubt it's a topic you've heard before, and while the following stats aren't necessarily surprising, they're worth repeating. Despite the increasing number of women receiving college degrees—even surpassing that of their male counterparts by 0.3% in 2014—the amount of women in STEM fields has had a slower growth rate. A report by the U.S. Economics and Statistics Administration says that in 2015 women filled 47% of jobs in the U.S. workforce. Despite this, only 24% of positions in the STEM were filled by women. The same report notes that women only hold about 30% of all STEM degrees, despite being even with men in overall numbers of undergraduate degree holders.

To gain perspective on women working in STEM, we sat down with Pamela Fletcher, the vice president of General Motors' global electric vehicles programs. Fletcher has led teams responsible for cutting-edge products in the electric vehicles field, like the Chevrolet Volt, Spark, and Bolt EV—the first mass-market electric vehicle that was both long-range and affordable.

As a part of GM's electric vehicles team for over a decade, Fletcher has gained a unique perspective on why women are still sparse in the STEM fields and how women can not only move up in STEM but also land high-ranking leadership positions in any field. Fletcher, who earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, has her own thoughts on how to cultivate an interest in STEM among today's youth. She also lends us her advice on the nitty-gritty of everyday challenges in the workplace.

Read on for Fletcher's take on how to ace an interview, how she overcomes self-doubt, and the one takeaway she would give to young people starting their careers.

Can you take us through your average workday?

Oh my gosh, there are a variety of things. A day could be working to refine our lineup of future products and making sure they’re not only great products customers will love, but also the financial side of it. It could be going over to our design studio and working with our creative design team. It could be going out to our grounds and driving one of our prototype cars and giving the team some feedback. Everything from strategy down to the actual execution.

What kind of jobs were you doing that led you to this point in your career?

I was a development engineer responsible for things like calibration, ride handling, and electric compulsion systems. Then I became responsible for entire vehicles as chief engineer, and then I grew to have responsibilities for many vehicles, and now for vehicles globally.

Was there a specific experience that cultivated an interest in engineering for you?

Definitely. I grew up in a family of four, and I had one younger sister. My dad raced cars, and that’s what our family did on the weekend: We went to the race track. It got me hooked on wanting to know how things worked, loving cars, and I went on in school to become an engineer.

Can you tell us about any mistakes made or lessons learned that have helped you along your career path?

You know, to me, it’s okay to ask questions. There’s so much technology across the cars—one person could never be the expert across every one—but being responsible for a whole vehicle program, you have to have the wherewithal to ask the right questions. So you don’t always know more than everybody else on a certain topic, but you’ve got to ask those insightful questions to ferret out the information to know if everything's on track, not on track. I just encourage people to, before making the mistake, if you’re not sure, ask the right questions.

What do you do when you feel doubtful or intimidated by your work?

I find the smartest person I know and educate myself. That’s a huge tool. I think as a young person growing up, I got exposed to a lot of, frankly, nontraditional things for women, and my parents never discouraged me, so it made me confident to go into these situations that maybe weren’t typical, but to not be afraid and to be comfortable to just observe, learn, and ask questions, and get comfortable.

How do you cope with self-doubt?

I think you just have to push through it. You know, in this stage of life where it’s not like I’m a kid anymore, I have responsibilities to deliver things for the company and push through it. Again, one of my techniques is if I’m not sure, I go seek out who I think has some other insights or a perspective I should be familiar with.

So it seems that collaboration is very important here.

Yeah, I think collaboration here, teamwork, makes sure you create an environment where people will come forward. If they think there’s a problem, they’ll tell you, and that’s huge. Or if they think that they have an alternate point of view or a different idea, they’ll raise that. So collaboration and teamwork—to me, that’s how we continue to move forward.

And as a manager and leader, how do you foster that kind of openness among your team?

I think you have to show some vulnerability yourself. I tell my team often, “I’m not the smartest person sitting here, so who can tell me about X?” Or I ask people, “What do you think we can do?” And have that vulnerability and actively—not passively—try to include people and let them know that it’s a positive experience to contribute, not a negative experience.

What’s it like being a VP in a traditionally male-dominated industry?

I’ve only ever worked in this area. I don’t know what it would be like to work in a different one. But I have no complaints. It’s been good, it really has, and I’m just really thankful that I had exposure to something I really liked as a kid that allowed me to fully exercise the intellectual side of my brain, and it’s been a very rewarding career. I’ve worked for many companies, I’ve changed jobs over the years, always with the idea that there was something I wanted to learn that I couldn’t learn where I was.

So you think that idea of always having a curiosity to know more is key?

Absolutely. Look at the rate of technology—you can't become stagnant. No matter what role you play in the industry, you have to have that curiosity and drive to continue learning and growing.

You say your parents really fostered curiosity in you and encouraged you to pursue this path. How would you encourage people to raise their daughters to pursue STEM?

There are a number of points. One is never give our young people the impression that they shouldn’t pursue something they love. This idea that Oh, girls don’t do that, that’s not what we want to instill in them. What we want to see is what are they interested in and start talking about and asking the questions of Oh, well, what makes that happen? It’s like, You love your phone? What is it that makes that phone so cool? Who makes that phone cool? What do they do? Or as young girls become adolescents and may start to get interested in makeup and fashion, it’s like, Who do you think makes that makeup? There’s a chemist behind that, and that’s the cool person who figures out what are the things you put together to make the colors, to make the textures. See what they are interested in and foster their thinking around it to have a broader understanding.

I think a lot of girls don’t go into STEM because they either don’t know what the possibilities are or they have misconceptions. Think about being an automotive engineer. They probably think I work in a garage and have grease under my fingernails. And there have been times when that is true. But you know, they make ways to clean them. So I think just fostering girls to be curious and ask more questions. STEM won’t be for everybody, but I want the door to be open for everyone, and then it’s a choice. But at least know what the options are before you make that choice, because I think it could be a very rewarding career.

You’ve said for you, it was an interest as a child that took off. By the time you got to college, did you know engineering was what you wanted to pursue?

Yeah, I specifically went to college to get an engineering degree to work in the auto industry, but GM and Chevrolet want to promote STEM. We hope that we’re encouraging not only girls but all young people.

When I talk to young ladies of many ages, what you find is that for those in STEM or pursuing STEM, they had some personal experience at home that got them interested, and that is a very common thread. For me, it was a family hobby of racing, and for other people, it’s other things, but it’s often from personal experience. The problem is we’re not exposing enough people through that means, so that’s why we have to do other things. To me, STEM is a very grassroots effort, and it’s very intensive, from a lot of people out there helping to interface with literally one child at a time. There’s a number of groups out there doing phenomenal work to expose more people, and we sponsor a lot of those activities because it’s going to take all of us to really try to move the needle.

Why do you think there aren’t a lot of women in leadership roles, and how do you think we can rectify that?

I think there are a couple of things. I’ll use an example for one. I interview a lot of people for jobs, and you wouldn’t believe how many times people never say, “I want this job.” So they walk out of the interview, and I think, Are they interested? Did I bore them to tears? So, to translate that, do something you love, that you have a passion about, and do your best work. You’re going to do your best work if you like what you’re doing. Get good results and you’ll get more opportunities. Don’t be afraid to tell people when you want a job. Now, you’ve got to earn your way there, but I think if you’re genuine and you’re really passionate from the inside out, it shows in your work and attitude.

And you think that’s the key to going from, let’s say, an entry-level position to a leadership role?

Yeah. And I probably didn’t do a great job on the ask side, but what I did is I asked to work on certain projects with things that got me excited, and it just kept flowing from there.

Do you have any specific interview advice? Qualities that you look for when hiring?

For me, we are in a technical business, so you want a certain technical background. Beyond that, you want people who are excited about the opportunity and are ambitious and you think the interest is genuine, because they’re going to do whatever it takes to help the team be successful. Again, I’d say if you’re interviewing for something and you want it, tell the person you want the job. It sounds so simple, but it’s so common. For women in particular, you asked me about self-doubt, and I think that is a very common trait among women, and we’ve got to get over that a bit. We’re doing a lot of hard things on my team, and I don’t have all the answers. I could wallow in doubt endlessly, but I can’t. It’s about creating the future, and it’s about that “create.” I don’t have all the answers today, but it’s about every day we’re getting more answers. And you’ve got to be comfortable with that.

How do you deal with work/life balance?

Here’s what I tell people. There is no one answer to balance, and as you go through your life, your definition of balance changes. If you’re right out of college and maybe you still live at home with your parents, your idea of balance is different than if you’ve just started your family or if your kids have gone off to college.

People are searching for it, and the reality is it’s different for each person, and it’s different at each stage of life. I think you just have to figure out what’s important, and you’ve got to carve that out because nobody else is going to do it for you. And that’s not a perfect answer, but there is no perfect balance.

Last question: What kind of advice would you give to your younger self?

There are a lot of things I would have done differently, and there are a lot of things I would have done more of. Pursuing things that got me excited I wouldn’t change that at all, although sometimes it wasn’t obvious in the beginning that it was the right thing. One thing I would have done a lot more of is appreciate the value of a network. I was always very focused, head down, working hard, and not realizing that if I networked more with others, a lot of those things that were hard wouldn’t have been as hard. So I think that value of a professional network is something I would’ve appreciated more. Whether you’re inside the company or outside the company, the second that you start to make that relationship with somebody, it’s so much easier to pick up the phone when you have a problem.

Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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