Women in Business Q&A: Pam Fletcher, Executive Chief Engineer for 2016 Chevrolet Volt

05/24/2015 05:01 am ET | Updated May 23, 2016

Pam is a woman spearheading the electrification of vehicles and the future of transportation, which is a major focus and priority for GM and the auto industry overall. She was a major player in the first Chevrolet Volt, and is currently working on the newest version that debuted at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit recently. She's also worked on other major electric vehicles in GM lineup - Cadillac ELR (first luxury EV from a full-line automaker) and the Chevrolet Spark EV, just to name a few.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I always try to work in areas that push the boundaries of technology. Before becoming the Executive Chief Engineer for electrified vehicles at GM, I was the chief engineer for the propulsion system on the first-generation Chevrolet Volt. My team worked on developing a completely new propulsion system - something the industry had never seen before. We call it an extended-range electric vehicle. That allows owners to use their vehicle as an all-electric car during their daily, shorter commutes, yet have the ability to travel hundreds of additional miles using an on-board generator.

Before that, I worked on the team that developed another cutting-edge propulsion technology: GM's full-size truck Hybrid system. We were the first automaker to make hybrid full-size trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Working in "uncharted territories," if you will, has taught me to be open to unconventional thinking, to take calculated risks, to not be afraid to fail and to rely on the "big thinkers" on my team.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at General Motors?
Working on electric vehicles is not something someone would normally expect from someone who has a Master's Degree in combustion. I started my career working on racecars and traditional vehicle engine programs. Let's be honest, this isn't an area where you see a lot of women. So, I learned early on to ignore gender stereotypes and to roll up my sleeves and do the best possible job I could. I let my track record and work ethic speak for itself. I also enjoy working with a team that isn't afraid to push the boundaries when it comes to technology, quality and performance. At some point, you just have to become fearless and jump in and figure things out.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at General Motors?
Unquestionably, the biggest highlight has been being a part of a team that has made history in the auto industry. When the first Chevrolet Volt arrived in the market in late 2010 we didn't know what to expect. Would customers buy Volts? How would they use them? Were our predictions on how much they'd use battery versus gas engine accurate? The Volt has been the best-selling plug-in vehicle in America. We have displaced more than 34 million gallons of gasoline as a result of our current generation Volt owners traveling more than 650 million all-electric miles. That's pretty remarkable. At Chevrolet, we have every intention of creating more monumental experiences, the next being the 2016 Volt that will have an increased EV rage of more than 30 percent and the all-electric Bolt after that.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in the automobile industry?
I want women to understand the diversity of careers available in the automotive industry. It's not just mechanical engineers standing around in goggles and lab coats. That's a misperception we need to change. We need bright, creative, intelligent women in the areas of chemistry, design, software development, electrical engineering, material science, physics, computer science and aerodynamics. We all know the research says that if we do not get young girls interested in science and math by the age of seven, we may not be able to get them interested in these career fields. We need to make sure these girls understand that science and math is all around them and that it is exciting. We need to start that exposure early with simple examples of science that are fun. For instance, the chemistry of adding Mentos to a bottle of soda.

We also need to demonstrate how the auto industry is progressing in terms of diversity in the past several years. Just look at GM. There are more than 2,200 female engineers working at GM. Our CEO, Mary Barra, was the first female to lead a global auto manufacturer and we now have five women on our Board of Directors. We also have many women in key leadership roles at our company: Alicia-Bowler Davis leads our connected vehicle and customer experience initiatives and Grace Lieblein leads our global vehicle quality team. Times are changing in the auto industry.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is an on-going topic of discussion in any field, for anyone. I think it varies by person and how each individual is "wired." It also varies by stage of life. So the balance that works for you in your 20's will get adjusted in your 30's and again in your 40's and beyond. There is not a single answer in for any individual. Working for a global organization means you literally could work 24-hours a day, but you have to make a conscious effort to take time to enjoy your family, friends and carve out time for yourself. It's all about prioritizing, working smart, and allowing yourself down time to recharge.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe that while we continue to make strides in diversity in leadership not just at GM but across the industry, more still needs to be done. By diversity I am talking about more than just women. I'm talking about getting a diverse set of points of view that will allow us to create products people around the globe "gotta have". But specifically for women to be successful and contributing their point of view, we first have to close the gender gap in business. I think women need to be fearless in standing up for their ideas and taking credit for their accomplishments.

Confidence is key and confidence doesn't mean always having the answers. It means having the courage and the will to work through tough challenges by doing your homework and bring together the talent to get the job done. We also need to be willing to challenge authority and the status quo. This is hard for anyone, but I think women in particular have a harder time. Luckily at GM, Ms. Barra is encouraging this type of behavior. Lastly women, and men, need to leverage mentors. We can all benefit from people who will share their experiences and help guide and teach us as we work through challenges and roles of increasing responsibility.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I can say that I truly feel a great support network around me personally and professionally. At GM, we have incredible technical expertise and great leadership. Support in the form of technical expertise and even just old-fashioned encouragement is never more than a phone call away.

I think just like work-life balance, your needs for mentorship evolve over time. Most importantly: reach out, don't wait for guidance and support to come to you. Personally, I have an amazingly supportive husband and family, and a small but very close group of friends who keep me grounded and provide me with perspective. My small circle includes girlfriends who are also industry leaders along with friends schooled in the fine arts and fashion. I can quickly catch up with the ladies who are in the industry as we share many of the same interests and challenges. I have tremendous interest in the arts so when there's time, I enjoy sharing those events with close friends.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Personally, I would not be where I am without my mom. She encouraged me to pursue anything that interested me, even when they were not very popular for girls. I have so many examples: I wanted to play basketball (which I had never played by the way) and there was a clinic being offered after school and when I showed up I was they only girl; I guess it was a clinic for boys. By the next week, the clinic also included girls - I am pretty sure Mom was the reason for that. She also gave me courage by being independent and taking responsibility inside and outside our home. She was the one who fixed everything. She did this while being a working mother. In fact, she's still working now at an impressive but unmentionable age. In most interviews I give credit to my dad for my love of cars and racing but it was really my mom who enabled it. This is really good reminder to all of us to support and encourage our daughters and sons and all the young people around us.

Professionally, I look no further than our CEO, Mary Barra. She has worked her way through several different jobs in many different parts of the GM organization to the pinnacle. I am so proud to work for a company that's leading in diversity. I have tremendous respect for the women in leadership roles in technology companies.

I think Apple does a lot of things right and I've been watching Angela Ahreandts, the senior vice president of retail and online stores at Apple. She's revamping Apple stores around the world to meet customer expectations. Chevrolet is very focused on the customer. As we developed the next gen Volt, we poured over customer data and the 2016 model changes are all results of direct feedback from our current owners.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year in your role at General Motors?
n the near term I am committed to working with my team to deliver to the market the next-generation Chevrolet Volt this fall. We're focused on making sure every detail is perfect and that we raise the bar when it comes to excitement in the EV marketplace.

While I can't give away too much more when it comes to the vehicles we're working on after that, I can tell you our team is committed to delivering exciting, affordable and game-changing electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt in the next several years. You'll have to stay tuned for more on that.