Elizabeth Rolinski with Leadership by DESIGN :Don’t paralyze yourself over fear of failure”

Don’t paralyze yourself over fear of failure. Everyone makes mistakes. All leaders need to take risks. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn from your missteps. Own them. Move on. As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Rolinski, Partner with Leading by DESIGN in […]

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Don’t paralyze yourself over fear of failure. Everyone makes mistakes. All leaders need to take risks. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn from your missteps. Own them. Move on.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Rolinski, Partner with Leading by DESIGN in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Rolinksi led teams exceeding 200 professionals that built lithium-ion and other cutting-edge battery factories in Europe, Latin America, Asia and North America over the course of her 32-year career with Johnson Controls, Inc. (NYSE: JCI). Today she helps leaders develop their strengths and passions through a yearlong course of study, practice and executive coaching.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since joining Leading by DESIGN?

I spoke at an event a couple of years ago in Michigan, where it so happened that my old friend and mentor Rodger Price sat in the audience jotting notes. After my talk, Rodger — the founder of Leading by DESIGN — approached me with honest feedback. He shared the parts he liked about my speech, but more importantly, he had the courage to tell me how it could become even GREATER. I kept the note and reflected upon it. It was a real gift.

Of all the people in the room who might have had thoughts on how I could have performed better, Rodger stayed late to affirm and adjust my delivery. When I later took the Leading by DESIGN course, I discovered that the topic of giving and accepting feedback was among the most important leadership characteristics that he emphasized. I saw the value in action in my first interaction with Leading by DESIGN. It drew me to learn more about the organization and that for which it stands. We model our teachings.

What makes your company stand out?

The striking difference with Leading by DESIGN is its effectiveness. Leaders today can access all sorts of books, articles, courses and programs on high-level management. Leading by DESIGN’s approach takes it to a new level, allowing participants to experience, adjust and grow through a year-long introspective process. One-on-one coaching is a critical part of that journey.

It’s an experience that enables people to thrive, grow and get real results. Leading by DESIGN’s alumni overwhelmingly say it changed how they lead, as well as changed how they interact with others in their personal lives. Change cannot happen without action.

The journey doesn’t end after the course. With the relationships formed between groups, and the opportunities with our alumni program, it lasts a lifetime.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How will that help people?

Last fall I began a journey in one-on-one leadership coaching, which is one component of Leading by DESIGN’s program. I had the privilege of coaching Direct Reports for many years as an organizational leader, but third-party coaching presents unique advantages.

I am not a part of any leader’s organization, which enables me to create safe environments where leaders open up unencumbered by vulnerability. It’s amazing how deeply they explore their talents, passions and values once they can pause and reflect.

Real growth emerges as they experiment with new approaches and make commitments to themselves. This includes casting a clear vision to the team, empathetic listening, building trust and understanding and controlling emotional responses in the workplace. The value goes beyond what the leader gets out of coaching. It extends to the leader’s team and their company.

Can you share a fun story from early in your career? Can you tell us the lesson you learned from it?

In my first year out of school as a “real engineer,” I put a lot of pressure on myself. If I made a mistake, it felt like a catastrophe. In retrospect, I was learning, adapting and becoming a stronger engineer.

I remember running trials on an ultrasonic welding process, which I had selected as the means of joining the halves of a plastic cupholder for the upcoming Ford Aerostar model-year refresh. Weld strength exceeded expectations. I felt great.

The following week was a larger system validation run. To my horror, in front of the launch team, the cupholders were coming apart. My weld was not holding. It turned out that a foam component designed to fit inside the cupholder was the culprit. It was pushing the welded components apart before the bond had a chance to solidify. I ran earlier trials without the component because of a supply shortage.

With the help of fellow engineers, we jumped through hoops late into the night to design and build a secondary clamping fixture that sufficed until tool modifications could be made. I felt terrible that others had to stay late on my account. From that day forward, I was a stickler about process verification being done with all the right components. I never again hesitated to raise a red flag early on. I was also more than happy to jump in and help a fellow engineer late into the evening with their own crisis. That’s what the team is all about.

OK super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am not satisfied at all with the progress in engineering. Female representation in biology and biomedical improved over the last couple of decades, yet the data haven’t changed much in engineering. Only 13% of engineers are women.

Engineers solve some of the world’s largest technological problems. A high demand exists to fill such roles, yet females are underrepresented. Engineering still carries a stigma as men’s work. Young women are not steered into considering it as a viable career option as often as their male counterparts. With too few role models to change the false stereotype, the cycle becomes especially hard to break.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? How would you address it?

Women in engineering often find themselves caught in a “prove it again” pattern. They are asked to go out of their way to prove their ideas or demonstrate their work to a much larger extent than their male colleagues. They feel as though their leaders are watching closely in anticipation of failure. Some even notice a pattern of being assigned to less technically complex tasks within a team project.

An empowering work culture with growth potential builds loyalty. We need to foster a more inclusive environment for female engineers in the workplace. We also need to reach into elementary, middle and high schools with inclusive STEM initiatives. We can become hands-on with girls and parents to demonstrate that anybody can become great at math or science, whether female or male.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM. Can you explain what you mean?

Even with all the data out there, an implicit gender bias still exists with women and engineering. It is an all-too-prevalent misconception within families, schools and companies that it’s not “women’s work.” Be it a belief or an unconscious bias formed by years of women playing traditional roles, it decreases the number of women in STEM fields. I hope to see a huge shift with the next generation. Our society has much to gain in advancing STEM when we apply a diversity of approaches to solving problems.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In high school, a teacher named Mr. Bonnema encouraged me to pursue STEM as a career. Instead of steering me into teaching, which largely happened with women who studied math and science, he gave me a pamphlet about a STEM camp run by women at Michigan Technical University.

It set the theme for my career. We need more Mr. Bonnemas in our schools, as well as opportunities for women in STEM like the summer camp I attended between my junior and senior years.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why.

  1. It’s OK to be your authentic self. It’s OK to be vulnerable. That’s where you’re the most natural and the most inspiring.
  2. Prioritize. Overcome the feeling of needing to reach perfection. Prioritize your thoughts and time on what matters most.
  3. Value the power of the team. You don’t need to do it alone. Show your team where you want them to go. They will thrive when trusted and empowered.
  4. Don’t paralyze yourself over fear of failure. Everyone makes mistakes. All leaders need to take risks. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn from your missteps. Own them. Move on.
  5. You can do this. Overcome biased comments and doubts that arise from years of stigmas associated with women in STEM. Find a great mentor or coach to talk you through it if necessary. Only you can achieve self-actualization.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their teams to thrive?

Our mission as leaders — in addition to guiding organizations toward goals — is to help others grow and to create new leaders. One way we do this is by recognizing the talents in others and building upon their strengths. When we truly value every person for who they are and what they bring, they will reach new heights of confidence, engagement and contribution.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage large teams?

As a team grows larger, finding the right operating model becomes increasingly important. Create clarity around the company’s or department’s mission and how the team will work with one another. Such clarity helps to avoid confusion and frustration, as well as fosters collaboration.

Spend significant time on team alignment. Create a cadence. Then unleash your team’s talents by placing the right people in the right seats.

None of us achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person toward whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

MaryAnn Wright — an outstanding leader, engineer and recipient of the Automotive Hall of Fame award — was one of my mentors and sponsors who helped me tremendously along the way. She joined Johnson Controls, Inc. (NYSE: JCI) after establishing herself as a thought leader in hybrid and electric vehicle power trains for Ford Motor Company. MaryAnn saw potential in me. She pushed me outside of my comfort zone. She looked for opportunities for me to shine. She advocated for me behind the scenes, ensuring that I was known and considered for growth roles.

I really took that to heart. She believed in me and invested in me. I cherish opportunities to do for others what MaryAnn did for me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

First, I love the thought that I help others to grow, gain confidence and become awesome leaders. It is also a privilege to enrich other lives through creating an inspiring culture and a positive work environment.

Second, as part of sustaining and growing manufacturing, I always felt fortunate to play a role in creating jobs, which in turn supports families and communities. Manufacturing and technology careers are an important part of the economic engine.

Third, I’m proud to have been part of engineering teams that applied technology to solve problems and drive environmental improvements across the globe. Clarios, the former division of JCI where I last worked, developed a system for recycling more than 99% of lead from auto batteries. We were also the first in the U.S. to manufacture high-volume lithium-ion cells and battery systems for hybrids and electric vehicles as part of the movement to decrease carbon emissions.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to use STEM to introduce more hope and opportunity to minority youth in underprivileged neighborhoods in cities across the country. Many of these kids learn the realities of poverty, drugs and violence early on. Feeling let down by inadequate schools, broken families and the system, they often turn to gangs for both acceptance and protection.

I was struck the other day by something I heard Jalen Rose — former NBA star and current sports analyst/commentator — say as he reflected on growing up in Detroit. He half-jokingly said he and his friends saw two options for making it. Either sell crack or get really good at shooting hoops. A few days later, I caught an interview with some of Detroit’s great rappers talking about how they had viewed crime or rap as their only alternatives. I thought, could we get these kids to see STEM as another viable alternative? What would that take?

It means rolling up our sleeves, going into these neighborhoods and mentoring the kids through their critical years with inspiring STEM opportunities. There are some great efforts underway already, but what if we get enough of us to really tip the scale? Are there enough STEM career retirees whom we can pair with kids who express some interest in STEM? What if we linked this to internships and/or great scholarships? Can we help tie more STEM into the tremendous work of organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters? We need to answer these questions and turn them into action to create a movement.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how it was relevant to you in your life?

“All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.”–astronaut Sally Ride

For Sally, it was not only pursuing her education as a physicist in a male-dominated field but becoming the first U.S. woman in space. New territory for us might mean becoming parents, moving to a new city or accepting a new position with more responsibility. It’s an adventure. It’s scary. Do it anyway. Great things will likely come from it. It did for me.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to enjoy a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Dean Kamen. Entrepreneur. Inventor. Humanitarian. The iBOT mobility wheelchair, the Segway and a stand-alone water purification system — which is poised to enable epic health gains in Third World countries — are among Dean’s many inventions. I’d like to talk to Dean about his FIRST robotics program, which is now universally recognized as the leading, not-for-profit STEM engagement program for children worldwide. Dean managed to convince kids that science, technology, engineering and math are fun and cool. He also opened doors for more girls and minorities to discover STEM as a career path. He is changing the culture.

When asked if we need FIRST in every school in the country, Dean likes to say, “We only need FIRST in the schools where you care about the kids.” That hits me!

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