Growing up, Diana Tremblay was the first one out of the house to greet her father when he came home from work each night. Sure, she was excited to see him, but she really dashed outside to see which shiny General Motors model rolled up her driveway.
"I couldn't even tell you which ones he brought home, but just a new car and the smell and the feel of a new car, I couldn't wait to get my hands on them," Tremblay says, her voice teeming with glee as she recalls the memory.
Those vehicles her father brought home as a GM employee kindled her passion for cars and dream of working in the auto industry. And that dream came true: In the 36 years Tremblay has worked for GM, she has climbed the ladder to become one of the company's highest-ranking female executives.
The 53-year-old metro Detroiter, who once jumped at opportunities to visit the GM plants her father worked in, was recently tasked with streamlining processes to make those plants more cost-effective. In her role as the company's first vice president of global business services, she'll oversee thousands of employees in areas ranging from finances and human resources, to real estate and purchasing.
Prior to her appointment, she served as the vice president of North America Manufacturing responsible for 56 assembly, powertrain and stamping plants. And as a former vice president of manufacturing and labor relations, she led the labor negotiations with the United Automobile Workers during the height of Detroit's auto crises.
Talking with U.S. News on the 11th day of her new position and about one week after the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, Tremblay expressed the same exuberance for sitting in the driver's seat of this novel GM operation as the first time she got behind the wheel of her father's Corvette. Her responses have been edited.
You became the vice president of global business on July 1 and have held several positions before this. Do you have any tips for people who move around in a company who want to prepare the next person to take over their role?
Whenever you're going to transition jobs, and somebody is going to come in behind you, they're going to see things with a fresh set of eyes. I would say every person brings their strength and abilities to the job, so let that person bring their own strengths to the job and contribute in ways that they can best contribute, rather than fit the mold of exactly the way I did the job.
Also, make sure you do have somebody, hopefully more than one person, prepared and ready to step in. No matter what job you're in, one of your main jobs as a leader is to grow and develop the next generation of leaders, so make sure if you're not spending time on that, that you do that.
One of your new responsibilities is to cut $2 billion in costs. For business owners who are also trying to reduce costs, what's one good area to target?
Take a look at the way you do work and the processes that you use - whether it's as simple as taking an invoice and following it through every step in the company and doing an evaluation. So taking a look at standardizing your processes and reducing the waste that you have in a way that you get work done is probably the biggest area of opportunity for about any company.
And all those times where people do stand around the water cooler and say, "Well, that's really stupid. I don't know why we do it that way," those are great opportunities for looking at ways to fix them.
If an employee wants to negotiate retirement or health benefits before taking a job, how should he or she go about that?
In any negotiations, the more facts you have to put on the table, the better off you are - whether you're negotiating with a union, negotiating with a supplier with a contract or negotiating your new benefit package. So go out, do your research, do your benchmarking, have your data there that says, "This is what this job is; this is the comparable database." So know your competitive environment.
In most negotiation situations you can end up with a win-win. If you can identify the things in your proposals that are good for the other party, as well as the things that are good for you, that certainly helps move the negotiations along.
What should employees who face foreseeable layoffs or furloughs do financially to prepare?
Somebody told me this along time ago: Pay yourself first. By that I mean put money aside in whatever account you're comfortable with first out of your paycheck. Don't leave it until the end when you've paid everything else, and you see what's left over. That never works no matter what your income is. So set some money aside first for the future so that you've got that, and then you have some time to either retrain, develop a new career, whatever it is that you want to do, depending if it's a temporary situation or long-term situation.
With everything going on regarding Detroit's bankruptcy, some people are saying GM has an obligation to help support Detroit. What's a realistic way for executives to support a city that their company is headquartered in?
Obviously being headquartered here in the city center is a big piece of what we do. There's a lot of jobs that come in here every day. All you have to do is drive down I-75 heading south any time about 6:15 until about 9:30 [a.m.] to see traffic that flows in because of people like us who have their main headquarters downtown.
The second thing is partnering with agencies like United Way and making contributions out of our foundation to help support school systems because if we can help kids be successful from an education standpoint, that of course leads to success later in their life. We're doing something this summer where we've brought some retirees back, and we have what we're calling a Retiree Corp. It's targeted at kids to help with their education. [GM retirees mentor Detroit high school students one day a week.]
The other thing we can do as leaders in GM is join boards. So I'm on the board of directors for Focus: HOPE [a Detroit nonprofit]. So not only give money, but give our time and leadership.
What's the best career advice you've ever received?
There are two things that come to mind: The first one is don't think because you're a leader that you have all the answers. You should make sure you're spending as much time listening, if not more, than talking. And make sure that you're not afraid to ask for help if there are things you don't know - I can guarantee there are things you don't know. It's OK to reach out and ask for help, and allow those people that have that expertise to contribute. You don't have to know it all because you're the leader.
As I've watched people through my career, the ones that seem to struggle the most are ones that haven't continued to develop. So the second piece of advice that I've heard from people is always learn and grow. You never "make it." You're always changing, developing, growing - particularly at the pace that the world moves today - and if you're not growing, changing, developing, constantly learning, you are going to fall behind. I think that's even more important today than it was when I first started my career, but arguably it's important all the time.
Editor's Note: Around the Water Cooler is an ongoing series, in which U.S. News talks with company executives to get their career advice for employees and managers.
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