Jaclyn McQuaid: “Don’t put limitations on yourself”

I think as a leader it’s important to meet each person where they are and take the time to understand what makes that individual tick. Building a personal and unique relationship with every person on your team enables more open dialogue and richer discussions, often leading to more innovative solutions than would otherwise be found. As […]

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I think as a leader it’s important to meet each person where they are and take the time to understand what makes that individual tick. Building a personal and unique relationship with every person on your team enables more open dialogue and richer discussions, often leading to more innovative solutions than would otherwise be found.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaclyn McQuaid.

Jaclyn McQuaid is the Executive Chief Engineer for Full Size Trucks. In this role she is responsible for the strategic framing, program development, and execution of these products.

Her team is responsible for the initial launch, lifecycle planning, and financial performance of all the programs within this architecture. Recently McQuaid also served as the Executive Chief Engineer for Global Midsize Trucks, Medium Duty Trucks, and Vans.

Prior to these most recent roles, McQuaid served as the Vehicle Chief Engineer for the Next Generation Heavy Duty Pickup truck, which launched in the summer of 2019. In that role she led a cross functional team to deliver the program strategic intent of the Next Generation

Heavy Duty Pickup truck and enable the launch. McQuaid began her career in 2000 as a test engineer at the General Motors Proving Grounds.

She held positions of increasing responsibility within Engineering over a 12-year period working in areas such as Vehicle Handling, Noise and Vibration, Exhaust, Tire/Wheel Systems, and Brakes before transitioning to a cross functional assignment in Global Purchasing and Supply Chain in 2012.

While in the Purchasing organization, McQuaid served as the Global Commodity Manager for Seats, where she developed key commodity strategies and lead an enterprise focused approach to seat sourcing. She also served as the Director of Program Purchasing for the Electric and Global Small vehicle architectures. In that role McQuaid drove the creation and implementation of new tools into the Global Purchasing and Supply Chain organization to enable enhanced cost knowledge and optimized SORP material cost.

McQuaid earned both a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My dad always wanted to be an automotive engineer for General Motors; he spoke about it often when I was a child. After high school he enrolled in college, intent on earning an engineering degree, but after one semester was drafted for Vietnam. Sadly, after he was honorably discharged, he didn’t go back to college, a decision he later regretted. When he noticed my interest in math and science at a young age, he encouraged me to go into engineering. Both him and my mom were my biggest supporters.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I’ve had so many great experiences during my time with GM, it’s hard to pick just one. I would say my favorite role was my time as the Vehicle Chief Engineer for the all-new heavy duty pickup trucks that launched in 2019. The experience of leading a cross functional team, all focused on the same goal of delivering a world-class product that put the customer at the center of every decision, was very fulfilling. I still get a thrill every time I see one driving down the road.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I certainly had a lot to learn when I first started my career and made many mistakes, I still do come to think of it! I recall a day shortly after starting at GM as a young college graduate when I was talking to one of our technicians in the twilight of his career. When he found out I didn’t know how to drive a manual transmission vehicle he was incensed. He said, “how could a university in good standing dare award an engineering degree to someone without that skill! “

It was quite a funny conversation with him being appalled at my youth and inexperience. Despite his prickly exterior he was actually a teddy bear inside and began dedicating his lunch hour every day to taking me out on the test roads and teaching me how to drive a stick shift. Now 21 years later, I still think of him every time I get in a manual transmission vehicle.

Beyond the practicalities of those lessons, he also taught me the joy of paying it forward and dedicating time to ensure the success of future generations. His love for the company he dedicated his career to, as well as his desire to see it continue to thrive long after he retired was incredibly inspiring.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

GM has been very open about our objectives as a company, not just from a business perspective but also from a corporate citizenship perspective. Our CEO understands and embraces the responsibility that comes with our size and impact in the communities we interact with. The public commitments we have made with respect to aiding in the coronavirus pandemic through mask and ventilator production, the creation of the Inclusion Advisory Board, and our recent announcement of a plan to be carbon neutral by 2040 demonstrate that understanding and commitment.

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

I can’t comment specifically about any future projects but what I can say is we are all aligned in GM’s vision towards zero crashes, zero congestion and zero emissions. We have some exciting technologies coming out across our complete portfolio that will continue to advance us along this journey, so stay tuned!

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 think it’s important for every child to look at an industry they have an interest in and see people who look like them succeeding. This isn’t restricted to gender, I‘m talking about each and every child regardless of race, ethnicity, disability or anything else. The more diverse we make our workforce in all industries the more we encourage each child to reach for their passion and not put artificial limitations on themselves. At the end of the day, that’s my true goal. Sure, I would love to see more woman enter STEM fields and ideally the automotive industry, but my primary goal is for each child to realize whatever their passion is because that’s the first step towards greatness.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

In my opinion the biggest challenge is the propensity for girls to de-select themselves from STEM fields at a young age because of peer pressure or societal norms. Some girls are also concerned that showing an interest and strength STEM will make them appear less feminine. That’s why it’s so important for schools and industries to continue to highlight the growth of women in STEM and Tech. We need to move past this misconception that boys are more naturally adept at math and science than girls when we know that strength in these disciplines is gender agnostic.

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

A myth I would like to dispel is that there’s some sort of inverse relationship between technical expertise and femininity. I love being a truck technical expert, but I also love fashion, makeup and jewelry and I find no conflict in that. I know many women who are incredibly strong technically across multiple industries and sadly some still feel the need to fit themselves into an appearance mold as a way to visually reflect this capability. I want to ask all women to reject that pressure and instead commit being exactly who you are, both in and out of the workplace. The faster we all get comfortable being our authentic selves at work, the faster we can overcome this myth.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Perfection is a myth. Anyone who goes through life seeking perfection in themselves or others is doomed to a lifetime of disappointment. What we should seek is excellence…which is very different. Perfection is never making a mistake; excellence is realizing that mistakes are gifts if you’re open to learning from them. Perfection is knowing everything yourself; excellence is understanding the richness that comes from different people with different strengths coming up with a solution together.
  2. Don’t put limitations on yourself. Especially don’t question your ability to succeed in the field because it is labeled ‘male-dominated.’ It will continue to be labeled as such until more woman challenge the status quo. Find your passion, whatever it may be, and pursue it with your whole self.
  3. Choose your squad. Surround yourself with people that emulate the attitude you aspire to; with the right attitude you truly can conquer the world.
  4. Every failure has a lesson. When the team sees their leader being willing to openly share her failure and resultant learnings, the rest of the team feels comfortable doing the same.
  5. Attitude is a choice. We have three rules in our home for our children. Rule 1 states: “The only thing in life you have complete control over is your own attitude.” It’s a rule I remind myself of whenever I feel negativity threatening and it helps build me back up and prepare me to take on whatever challenge I’m dealing with at the time.

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

I think as a leader it’s important to meet each person where they are and take the time to understand what makes that individual tick. Building a personal and unique relationship with every person on your team enables more open dialogue and richer discussions, often leading to more innovative solutions than would otherwise be found.

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

My advice would be to learn to listen to others and trust them. About a dozen years into my career, I was asked to take a cross functional role in the purchasing organization to learn that side of the business. I knew nothing of what that organization did and was immediately put in charge of one of the biggest buys on the vehicle. To say it was challenging is putting it very mildly.

It was humbling to be working in a space where I wasn’t the expert and had to rely on other people’s expertise to solve problems, which I realized later was why I was put in that role. I needed to learn how to listen to others and trust their judgement. I needed to learn how to empower a team and let go of the control rather than feel the need to make all the decisions myself. That experience taught me all that and more. When you do this, you progress from ‘managing’ a team to ‘leading’ a team and the resultant performance is limitless.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had several outstanding leaders throughout my career, but two in particular pushed me to realize the full depth of my potential beyond where I might have otherwise pushed myself. In both cases I was offered leadership positions in spaces where I might have questioned my readiness if not for their encouragement. The first was my cross functional assignment in purchasing which I talked about a bit above and the second was my first vehicle chief engineer assignment back in 2016. In both cases their confidence in me convinced me I was ready for that next step, and they both continue to be there for me today when I have questions or just need to talk something through.

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

By continuing to advocate for diversity and inclusion in my industry and STEM in general. If sharing my experiences can inspire even one child to set aside whatever limitations they may be imposing on themself and instead reach for their passion with confidence and determination then I have succeeded in my goal.

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. 🙂

That’s a tough question, but I have to say I’m 100% behind GM’s vision towards zero crashes, zero congestion and zero emissions. I believe that this isn’t our challenge alone to solve and would love to inspire other inventors, thinkers and visionaries with ideas along our journey.

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

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretzky

We’re a big hockey family and my husband and I use this quote often to inspire our children when they are hesitant to put themselves out there and try something new. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to be outstanding at everything you try. Sure, you might not end up with the win but if you don’t give it a try, you’re not even in the arena.

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 have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I recently finished reading the book Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, and I was incredibly moved by her story. Her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, despite the tremendous emotional hurdles she had to overcome to achieve that goal was very inspiring. I would love to talk to her about where she found her strength to push forward against so many obstacles, how the process of writing the book impacted her, and what’s next for her on her journey.

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