How 3 Women Tech Leaders Accelerate Professional Ambition at GM

“There’s always people there to help support and guide you to the next step. The sky's the limit.” Three leaders share how they’ve forged unique, opportunity-rich career paths leveraging support and mentorship, all while paying it forward.

Written by Stephen Ostrowski
Published on Dec. 15, 2022
How 3 Women Tech Leaders Accelerate Professional Ambition at GM
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Elizabeth Hayes has held many roles in her decade-plus tenure at General Motors, but her favorite position at the automaker was as a vehicle safety crashworthiness lab operations manager. 

The irony? According to Hayes, the role was one that, originally, “I would have never in my entire life ever considered.”

At the time, Hayes felt that, even though she had extensive industry experience, she didn’t have the operations background required of the role. But her manager recommended she pursue the position nonetheless. 

“My leader saw a lot of potential in me. He mentored me throughout. He said, ‘This would be a really good experience for you,’” Hayes said. 

After landing the position, Hayes went from overseeing 30 people to leading 160 across various levels of the company in a capacity that she said was akin to being a plant manager. 

My mentor at the time clearly knew that I would grow as a leader and be able to help an organization that just needed to be more efficient, needed to be cared about and needed to be listened to. That was hands-down the best experience I’ve had in my career. I grew into a totally different engineer, person and leader in that role,” said Hayes, who has since moved to a new area of the company.

 

general motors team members in the office
GENERAL MOTORS

 

Hayes’ experience points to the importance of mentorship in one’s career path, which can help shine a light on areas of potential that might not be readily apparent to the individual themself. And those broader themes of support and development are also a through line in the experiences of fellow GM team members Silvia Karlsson, aerodynamics manager, and Jhansi Nalla, engineering group leader for driver technologies and software-defined-vehicles program management. 

All three colleagues say that, just as they have been guided in their careers, it’s important to continue that mentorship, molding fellow technology and engineering talent. 

Karlsson, for example, is on the board of directors for the Society of Women Engineers, participation in which she said is an enriching complement to her day-to-day role. Karlsson’s deep involvement with the nonprofit involves helping organize its partnership with GM in the Take 2 work reentry program, along with fellow GM colleague and current VP and Chief Sustainability Officer Kristin Siemen. 

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to see the results of the program. The support I get from GM on SWE initiatives has been really tremendous,” Karlsson said. “There are lots of companies where you could do great technical work, which obviously motivates me. But I have that extra support for SWE.”

 

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to see the results of the [Take 2 work reentry] program. The support I get from GM on SWE initiatives has been really tremendous.”

 

Meanwhile, in her time at GM, Nalla said that she has come to appreciate an open-mindedness at the organization: Not just from a professional perspective, but as well as how individuals are guided to roles complementary to their professional backgrounds. For Nalla, that includes her current role as an engineering officer in the Army Reserves.

“Our leadership team and peers welcome us as a person instead of seeing us and thinking, ‘She’s gone for military duty, she’s gone for maternity leave or paternity leave,’” Nalla said. “I’ve been respected as a person instead of labeling me in all those multiple categories. GM does well at helping provide extra support to individuals when we have multiple hats we put on.”

Built In connected with Hayes, Karlsson and Nalla to learn about their experiences at GM, how they’ve been able to grow their careers and why it’s rewarding for them to reciprocate mentorship received to fellow talent. 

 

GM Drives Inclusion

GM Women and Jumpstart — the latter of which is focused on development opportunities for newer team members — are just two of GM’s 11 ERGs. “I'm involved a lot with ERGs across GM, which helps me to get visibility,” said Nalla, who is a diversity and mentorship lead for the company’s Veterans ERG. 

 

Exploring New Opportunities

Elizabeth Hayes
Program Engineering Manager, Autonomous Vehicles • General Motors

After a few years in the aforementioned crash labs role, Hayes moved to her current role as  a program engineering manager for autonomous vehicles. Beyond mentorship, Hayes singled out the company’s work-life balance as being particularly central to her experiences at the organization, which has freed her up to pursue personal passions (like participating in sprint triathlons), spending time with family and continuing her education. 

 

Here’s what she had to say …

On work enhancing life: “The flexibility that GM has given me over the last several years has been very important to me, being an active athlete and also being active in my  community. GM has also allowed me to enjoy a fulfilling career doing a lot of different things that I never thought I would do because my background is electrical engineering.”

On giving back: “It’s been really fantastic to be part of the Professional Management Network. Mentoring young team members and seeing the potential as they’ve grown through the industry in these different jobs has been extraordinarily rewarding for me. I’ve also been the recipient of mentorship from some great leaders at the organization.”

On ERGs:There’s a home for everybody. We encourage our mentees to join some of these groups to broaden their scope and make additional connections. You never know when there’s a job opportunity you may not think you're qualified for but somebody else might say, ‘You have the potential to do this job.’ I’ve had that with a few of my job opportunities. The networking and opportunity to engage with other people is very important in GM.”

On advice to fellow women in tech: “There’s so much opportunity to do so many different things. If you don’t like something, or it’s not your niche, you can try something different. There’s always people there to help support and guide you to the next step. The sky’s the limit.” 

 

“There’s always people there to help support and guide you to the next step. The sky’s the limit.”

 

Mentorship-Minded

Silvia Karlsson
Engineering Group Manager, Computer-Aided Engineering • General Motors

Working in the automotive industry wasn’t initially part of the plan for Karlsson. But years ago, while with Boeing, Karlsson attended a SWE conference where she became aware of opportunities at GM. Pursuing those opportunities seemed, as she described it, a “temporary kind of thing,” but has blossomed into a nearly three-decade-long career in various areas of the company. “One thing that I love about GM is that you can grow your career in many, many different ways, without having to leave the company,” she said. 

 

One thing that I love about GM is that you can grow your career in many, many different ways, without having to leave the company.”


 

Here’s what else she had to say …

On career guidance at GM: “If you talk to your leaders, and you say ‘This is what I’m interested in,’ they will guide you either way. Like, ‘That’s not necessarily the best idea,’ or ‘In order to get there, there's something that you need to do to get to the next thing or to get that specific skill that will make you successful in the next step.’ 

On mentees she has helped grow: “Two people come to mind and they’re very different. One was a track engineer at the plant when we were launching the Cadillac CT6. I remember seeing her potential and her enthusiasm and guiding her through it all. Now, she works in motorsports in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s great to see her growth. 

On the other side of it, I had somebody who clearly was in the wrong job and it wasn’t the right fit. I was able to mentor her through that into realizing that it was a job fit situation. I just received a wonderful note thanking me for what I did, telling me where she’s at right now and how she was just promoted. That’s really dear to my heart: That we got through that, she is where she needs to be, she’s happy and she’s excelling at her job.”

On mentorship she has received:There was a particular role — vehicle systems engineer — that I resisted for many years because I thought it was quite demanding. If something happens at the plant, you’re on the next plane; being a mom, I thought that wasn’t necessarily a good fit. But an executive in my department was very good about making sure I understood why it was important that I did that role in my career growth and they guided me through that decision. I’m really glad I took that job.”

On what it’s like to be a woman in tech at GM: “You could dare to dream. As engineers, we innovate, we dream and we look at the way we want things to be, not just the way they are today. At GM, you are able to guide them to that state. Dare to dream and we’ll follow.”

 

general motors team members in the office
GENERAL MOTORS

 

 

Mobility, Growth and Development

Jhansi Nalla
Engineering Group Leader, Driver Technologies and Program Management (Software-Defined Vehicles) • General Motors

Nalla initially joined GM in an engineering role four years ago before moving to a stint as assistant program manager with GM Defense — a role designed for her given her military background, said Nalla, who ultimately returned back to GM earlier in 2022. 

Additionally, Nalla has an eye on DEI beyond her ERG involvement: When she suggested a professional development program for women in the SDV organization, she said leadership was supportive. “My leadership was like, ‘When can we start?’ Nobody questioned it. We know this is a space where we want more women,” Nalla said. 
 

Here’s what else she had to say …

On women’s career development: If you’re a woman who joins GM, you’re automatically a part of the Women’s ERG. It provides a platform for information. There is also a mentorship program, which I’ve seen formally become sponsorships; sometimes advocates help guide you through your career. It’s all about raising your hand, telling what you want to do next and you'll receive guidance, be it from peers or mentors.”

 

“It’s all about raising your hand, telling what you want to do next and you’ll receive guidance, be it from peers or mentors.”

 

On how GM supports women in tech: “The GM Women’s ERG has a leadership bootcamp that provides emerging women leaders with extra training to be successful in future roles. Mentorship is another big pillar of the ERG. Its mission is to make sure all the women have the right opportunities within GM. 

Also, we have a Take 2 program where you can take a break in your career and come back. Almost 90 percent of the Take 2 program are women. It’s a good way to provide opportunities for women to return to the workforce.” 

On mentorship opportunities: “This is my first first year stepping up and saying, ‘Let me help others as I’ve been helped’ I had multiple mentors who have helped me recognize the important things I bring to the table and talk about my areas of improvement as well. Having that clear communication has helped me a lot, and I’m doing the same with my mentees 

On the best advice she’s received from a mentor: “I used to never say that I’m in the military because I had bad experiences with other companies. As soon as you say that you’re a current service member, the first question your hiring manager asks is, ‘How long will you be gone?’ Or, ‘Do you have any deployments coming?’ Not all the companies, especially some of the hiring managers, understand what the military is.

My first mentor said, 'I want you to start introducing yourself by saying you're serving in the military right after your name.’ The push I got to be bold and to tell people the other part of me — I’m not just an engineer, I’m also a soldier — has opened multiple doors for me. They actually created a position for me as the first assistant program manager within GM Defense.” 

On what it’s like to be a woman in tech at GM: “In in my four years with GM, I’ve learned two big things: First, high risk, high reward. If you’re ready to take those high risks, you can make anything happen. If you have an idea that can change lives, people are always there to support and help you grow. 

Second, fail fast to learn fast. If you have an idea and fail, you’ll have multiple people supporting you to make that idea better. It’s a good innovative space to explore — and not just technically. If you want to become something, you never know when a role might open for you.” 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via GM.

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