Women make up a “substantial portion” of the more than 1,000 engineers and software developers at GM’s Canadian Technical Centres in Ontario, and 50 per cent of new hires at the Oshawa Assembly Plant, she noted.
“That is something new from the time I was in the business.”
Kempston Darkes steered GM Canada from 1994 to 2001.
Later in her career, she continued to break barriers as the president of GM Latin America, Africa and Middle East – a role that spanned three diverse continents and 84 countries. She held the position from 2002 until her retirement in 2009, although she remains active in automotive as a member of GM’s Monetary Board. Inducted May 12 into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, Kempston Darkes said she is excited not only by the promise of technological advances, such as self-driving vehicles, but by the industry’s drive toward diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Frankly, I’m quite enthused when I’m at GM Canada and I see the number of women that are in executive positions today,” she said citing such leaders as Marissa West, GM Canada’s new president and managing director. “It is developing and it’s developing rapidly.”
Kempston Darkes spoke to Automotive News Canada on a wide range of issues facing the industry.
DOES A DIVERSE WORKPLACE IMPROVE A COMPANY’S BOTTOM LINE AND THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE?
“Absolutely. It’s extremely important. The auto industry thrives on talent and he who has the best talent and uses it most effectively will win in the business. Your best ideas come from a collaborative environment. This role of collaboration and diversity is absolutely essential to the success of the automotive business going forward. Really great senior leaders recognize that value of diversity.”
HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE MORE WOMEN TO ENTER THE AUTO INDUSTRY?
“That’s a leadership reasonability in the auto industry. In my day, we started the GM Women’s Advisory Council; it still exists and is very active in GM Canada today. We have women leaders reaching out to schools and talking to young people about careers in STEM and in the automotive industry. It takes a lot of hard work and personal involvement.”
TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR SUCCESS?
“I always had a tremendous team of people that supported me and each other. Your ability to collaborate with people, get out of your comfort zone and take on new opportunities is very relevant to your ability to grow and to become involved more in senior management … Those are key skills to move forward in business today.
HOW DID YOU OVERCOME OBSTACLES DURING YOUR CAREER?
“When I first came into the business there weren’t other women in the C-suite, so it was quite unique, not just for me, but for the people I was working with. You had to make your presence felt. Making people understand you intended to be relevant and were going to make a positive contribution took time. But with time and hard work I made my way in the business. I had a lot of support from senior male leaders who also saw the value of diversity and different perspectives can bring to the business.
DID YOU EVER WANT TO THROW IN THE TOWEL?
“Well, sure. Who doesn’t have some of those moments? But it always came back to the fact that I had the vision and values that GM espouses around the world.”
WHAT IS YOUR LEGACY?
“For me personally, the only real legacy that you leave in your business career is the people you develop to go on to take future leadership positions and knowing that they will develop the next generation of leaders because that’s what really counts. The technology may change, the methods of manufacturing may change, but it will always take tremendously talented people to lead a business. For me, it was the talent I developed.”
ANY ADVICE FOR WOMEN IN AUTO?
“Be optimistic about your careers. Take on new challenges and learn to be collaborative. Get out of your comfort zones early. Be opportunistic. And go forward with a sense of purpose.”