Women in Business Q&A: Heidi Magyar, Director of Community Outreach Programs, General Motors

In March 2015 Heidi Magyar was appointed to a newly created position at General Motors as Director of Community Outreach Programs for Southeast Michigan. In this role, Magyar leads a team that includes GM's ever-growing TeamGM Cares employee volunteer program, GM Student Corps and other community activities in Detroit, Warren, Milford and Pontiac.

Prior to this, Magyar was a Business Planning Manager supporting GM's Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. She acted as a chief of staff managing day-to-day operations for a global team of 30,000 people focused on vehicle programs worldwide.

In 2013, Magyar developed and led the GM Student Corps, a one-of-a-kind program which partners retired GM executives and university interns with 120 Detroit-area high school students for paid summer internships. Students learn, earn and lead by selecting and completing community improvement projects, such as park and athletic field renovations. The comprehensive program also includes career development, tours of local companies and universities, and life-skills training. The program is expanding to 13 schools in 2015.

Magyar truly believes that relationships matter and exemplifies community involvement by serving as a GM Champion Council member since 2010 to East Detroit High School, and works closely with the United Way of Southeast Michigan. She currently serves on the board for the Detroit Parks and Recreation Foundation and was formerly a board member of the Capital Area United Way, and Girl Scouts of Michigan - Heart of Michigan Council.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've been fortunate to have many opportunities to work closely with different leaders and see various styles in action. These experiences taught me to be resourceful and practical, to think on my feet, to be a problem-solver, to build strong, supportive relationships with my colleagues, and surround myself with those people.

This served me well when we launched the General Motors Student Corps, a summer program pairing under-served high school students in Detroit, Flint and Pontiac, MI., with retired GM executives and college mentors. The mentors help prepare the students for adulthood with job training, career development, college prep and life lessons, while they work as teams to improve their communities with projects they develop and complete themselves.

I've always been interested in working with youth. Originally, I wanted to be a teacher but my mother, who taught in Detroit for 17 years, encouraged me to follow some of my other passions. She said, "you can always find a way to teach," and Student Corps offers that opportunity.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at General Motors?
I started my career answering phones in GM's Customer Assistance department. My job was to listen to our customers and essentially work as a negotiator with them and our dealers to resolve issues. Listening and learning. It was one of the hardest jobs I've had, but one of the best places to start my career. It taught me to work with people and look for creative solutions. Those skills helped tremendously as I moved into a career doing vehicle, plant and executive communications, then serving in a chief-of-staff role for our global product organization, and today leading GM's community outreach group.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at General Motors?
Creating GM Student Corps has been a career highlight. Taking an idea and making it a reality from the ground up was thrilling and incredibly challenging. After we launched it was a great feeling to know we'd overcome just about every obstacle a small start-up within a large corporation could encounter. It's incredibly rewarding to see relationships grow between the local students involved in the program and the mentors [GM Retirees]; helping the students achieve their dreams and dream bigger - going to college, finding jobs, just setting them up for success and having a great support system. The mentors also say it is such a rewarding program for them to be involved in.

Plus, I was able to work with auto-industry legends. I remember my first call with some of the retired GM executives who helped develop this program - amazing people who'd had brilliant careers. I was in awe.

Another highlight was launching two new auto plants in Michigan - Lansing Grand River and Lansing Delta Township. I grew to love manufacturing and the people during my 10 years there.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in the automobile industry?
I'd offer this advice to any woman or man: It's easy to find your passion and pursue it in the auto industry, because it's a great business with careers in so many fields all over the world - everything from design, engineering, manufacturing, sales, marketing, HR, finance, the list goes on. The opportunities are just about limitless and I find that exciting. I've worked at GM for 18 years and feel like I've had 6 different careers. That's a good thing.

As I look back, it's clear that saying "yes" to the right things led me to this place. Years ago, I got a phone call to join our product communications staff. At first I said no, because I loved my job. A few minutes later, I picked up the phone and said, wait, I've changed my mind, and never looked back. This doesn't mean you should say yes to everything, but don't take a pass on a new experience or opportunity just because you're content and comfortable.

When I speak with young people about GM and explain how complex the auto industry is, how manufacturing a car made of 30,000 parts is the end of a long, fascinating process, and how we're on the forefront of every technology and innovation to help solve the world's transportation issues, you can see them light up. We're not kidding when we say STEM (science, technology, math) education is so important because we need young women and men who are interested in asking why and finding these solutions to join our team.

Finally, I'll also say that this industry is built on relationships. Developing and maintaining strong relationships is key to success.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have a great husband who is truly my partner. We both work full time, so with three young children it takes a lot of juggling and communications mixed with creative solutions. These days, work and home is a continuum - you manage life into work and work into life. We live in the country, where we can enjoy our hobbies and passions, and my husband and I often drive together to work. We use those long car rides to catch up on everything from life to logistics. Or, one of us naps while the other drives! We work hard, but also do our best to protect our precious family time. Somehow, it all works out.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
You know, this is hard for me to answer because I don't think of it that way. I don't go to work to focus on gender, I go to work and interact with people. I've been lucky to work with people with the same mindset, in a supportive environment that's focused on getting the job done.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
There have been many people who have served as my mentors; most don't even realize they played that role. Over the years, I watched them make major decisions for the company with honesty, integrity and strength of character. I'm fiercely loyal, and it made me want to make them proud by doing the same.

The mentoring aspect of Student Corps has probably been the most inspiring to me. We've seen up close how the mentoring boosts the students' confidence, pride and motivation to achieve and serve their communities. Many of our retirees stay connected to students after the program ends with regular check-ins, report card reviews, even joining them on college visits. They've helped students find employment, assisted with college applications, and applauded at their graduation ceremonies.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many women I admire, including our CEO Mary Barra. Some of the women I admire most are the small business owners I know. They so strongly believe in their business idea and in themselves, and they're willing to take such on a wide variety of roles to assure their success. We need that resourcefulness, flexibility and inventiveness in our communities and we need that in Detroit. We expose our Student Corps members to some of this, hoping they'll eventually seek careers or launch their own dreams here.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year in your role at General Motors?
I want to see GM Student Corps grow and mature. Not necessarily in size, but in substance, depth and quality. We want to expand opportunities for mentoring and college and work readiness, as well as bring back our "graduates" to new roles with Student Corps or GM. Ultimately, I'd love to see the program come full circle, with our former high school students mentoring our new high school students with new thinking and ideas. That would be incredibly satisfying.