Following her passion, Betsy Flegg’s unusual career journey led to guiding GM’s newest model introduction.
Hopefully, you’ve never had this happen: your first day on your first job you’re assigned to a department where you’re the only woman in the office, and girly calendars adorned with automotive supplier logos decorate the walls. Some women would bolt, others would complain and most would feel intimidated. But Betsy Flegg dug in and ignored it. This was General Motors and she was pretty sure that this was where she wanted to be.
Betsy knew she would be good at her first job—writing technical service manuals for Cadillac; she had sailed through engineering school at the University of Michigan and was recruited by GM. And it was just the beginning of a new era at General Motors—though Betsy didn’t know it at the time. Realizing that its future rested with female car buyers and more women in the work force, GM began a mission to hire and promote more women in the organization.
Shortly after Betsy started the job, sensitivity training was instituted; the calendars came down, her co-workers came to regard her as one of the team and she knew she’d made the right move. “I didn’t know enough to be intimidated,” Betsy says of being the only woman on her team. “It was like that in engineering school: there were only 1 or 2 of us in a class of 10 or 15.”
Engineering was a natural choice for her; in high school she realized “that I was good in math and felt I should use it. I didn’t know what kind of engineer to be, so I picked aerospace. I thought it would be cool, but after a few classes, and an internship with GM,” she decided to major in mechanical engineering. “I liked the idea of working on something people can see and touch and recognize,” she said.
But a career in automotive— and GM particularly— was a natural: Her father spent his career at GM, too, working in quality control at a plant in northern California.
Growing up there, Betsy thought she’d attend UC Berkley, but just before her junior year of high school, her father was transferred to Detroit. When it came time to look at colleges, she toured the University of Michigan and it became her first choice.
That first job writing service manuals led to engineering power train components, making service calls to dealerships, writing service bulletins (a sort of pre-recall effort to fix an issue) and working with manufacturing plants to resolve issues.
Often Betsy was not just the only woman in the unit, but she had to work with clients or mechanics who were all men, too. “As the only female, you just have to do your job and people will come around,” she said.
One day a call came in that she had to hand off to a colleague, and overheard the technician on the other end of the phone say “That girl’s a real barracuda!” She was stunned. She knew the comment was unfair, so when she got back on the phone with him she was as nice as she could be, and was every time she talked to him. “Eventually that service tech asked for me when he called,” she said. “You have a job to do, and when you do it well [any prejudice] goes away.”
Betsy learned just how much the technicians who relied on her advice and expertise valued her. “When I was pregnant, I told them I was going on maternity leave. When I got back they all asked ‘how is the baby?’”
Betsy’s engineering talent is complemented by her easy smile and friendly nature—she’s good with people. This made her a natural for fleet sales. She took a promotion that moved her to Nashville where she represented all GM brands to customers who bought fleets of cars. Betsy loved going into a customer’s business, learning what they do and what they need from their vehicles, then finding cars that best meet their needs. “I got a taste of how other businesses run, I was making big deals, it was entrepreneurial, and my responsibility was to grow the customers and develop new ones.”
She also got a view into how other sales and marketing reps found success. “There were three women out of 40 sales reps at the time, and there was one woman in New Jersey, she was a legend, she knew everyone. I thought, I want to be just like her. And eventually, I was.” Finding a role model and mentors was critical to her success. Her career trajectory, Betsy says, is a combination of her own hard work and ambition, as well as GM’s process for developing talent and some good mentors along the way.
Often, male mentors.
“I had a boss who managed by walking around; he would come sit with people and talk about our jobs and what we wanted to accomplish. He identified three people I should work for, and helped to make that happen. Sure enough, I worked for all three people,” even though they weren’t in the same disciplines or divisions.
This is the idea that’s at the core of growing a strong workforce: good people can learn anything – they don’t necessarily need to come equipped with job skills. “When I was moving from fleet [advertising] to Chevrolet advertising, my boss convinced them to give me a chance,” even though she didn’t have experience in consumer advertising. “I learned on the job, from great people who taught me everything. I was doing the red tag events, end of the year sales,” all the staples of consumer marketing. Which led her to the marketing team and the Trax introduction.
And through all this, Betsy has learned to give back, too—as a mentor. A mentor has to be willing to share experience, advice, insight. “Good mentors lead by example, talk the talk, are wiling to share,” Betsy says, and they stay in touch. In an environment where she’s changed jobs every few years, she’s made it a point to keep up with people she’s worked with and mentored in the past.
“There are some women who have worked for me—I had teams of high potential women when I was advertising manager for the fleet group, and several have been promoted,” she says proudly. “We have coffee, tea or lunch, stay in touch, talk and share.”
Changing jobs every few years has brought Betsy to another critical point for GM: Marketing a new type of car for the company. GM developed the Trax when it became clear that small SUVs are just what customers need in urban settings around the globe. The Trax is small, maneuverable and easy to park, with flexible space and great connectivity (rear view camera and 4G LTE are standard on all models). It’s designed to master tough urban roads the way other SUVs master off-road hills and gullies.
With the mission of being the conduit between engineering and the customer, to help the customer understand the car and to help engineers understand the customer, Betsy is also charting new territory in her career. And she believes her advantage is her engineering background. “Engineering is problem solving, a methodical way to solve a problem. Life is made of story problems; you learn how to break down the story problems, the same systematic way you work through an engineering problem,” she says. As the Trax breaks new ground for GM, Betsy is thrilled to be the one to help shape the story.