Carla Bailo is synonymous with automotive, having spent 25 years at Nissan and 10 years at GM before transitioning into academia, to make her mark with SAE International and, for the past five years, as CEO of the Ann Arbor based non-profit, CAR.
At last week’s CAR Management Briefing Seminars, just after announcing her retirement, the engineering and business leader took time to sit down with Women in Autonomy to talk about the state of the automotive industry, how companies can attract more young people, the progress of women in automotive, and how she’s lived her life on mission.
WIA: You’ve spent your career dedicated to automotive. What do you feel are the biggest issues facing the industry today?
CB: I would say there are several issues facing the industry and they're not insurmountable, but they need to be tackled quickly. One of the predominant ones, I believe, is the training and the future workforce, as we make the transition into electrification. Autonomy is going to require a completely different mindset. It's going to require a completely different development cycle than we have today. The customer is not going to put up with a five year life cycle. They're going to want things to be adapted as quickly as their cell phone is.
Beyond that, the customer tomorrow may not even want to own a car. They may just want to use a car when they need it, and use other forms of mobility. Thinking about how that transition is going to drive your organization, your development, your talent, I think is going to be critical to the industry going forward.
The other thing is risk mitigation. We saw it with the supply chain. It took us off guard, but it also enlightened us that we have to be consistently looking at geopolitical situations, resiliency of where raw materials are coming from, how those products are being transported. What does that supply chain look like? Anything that can interrupt that supply chain, be it climate, war, or any number of reasons, you have to always be analyzing that for many different facets and viewpoints. I'm not so sure we have that skill set. It's kind of a new one in the supply chain world. But I think these are two of the biggest things facing us.
And then, just the large amount of money going into electrification, into automation, in seeing the potential payback that could be considerable, and then making sure you have the capital to continue to invest despite inflationary pressures. I think it's one of the best times to be in the industry with all this technology and innovation. But it's also one of the times you have to be on top of things and be ready to make quick, tough decisions.
WIA: You seem like a person who lives their life “on mission”. What would you say your mission is with CAR - what “drives” you, so to speak?
CB: If we just go back to my time in industry, my mission was to always inspire, to be a good leader, and to see those that work for me get promoted - to always be raising up the next generation. Of course that involves product, making sure the product is coming out the door. Those (products) were like babies for me, too. But more importantly, that the organization and the people were also growing.
And then I went into academia. The reason I went into academia was very similar. I wanted to work with young people. I wanted to advise them. I wanted to guide them. I wanted to inspire and make them the next generation of leaders and innovators. With CAR it is much the same because the research that we do is really thought leading. It's looking at data and analyzing it and giving people a toolkit to navigate the waters of the future. And in this kind of role, we're involved with every facet. So again, it's working with a lot of organizations that need our help and need our guidance, and working with students. We always have at least five interns that are working for us, and then to be able to continue to work with other similar nonprofit organizations that are thinking about the future of mobility and how it needs to be managed. On a personal note, I've been on a lot of nonprofit boards, and all of them are all about technology plus they all have student programs which is what we all have to continue to do.
WIA: You have definitely used your position to advocate for youth in this industry. In addition to CAR MBS student/mentor roundtables, you are moderating a panel on “Making automotive work meaningful in the age of Gen Z”, and you reference cultural changes organizations are making to attract young people to a career in automotive. What types of changes do you see taking place?
CB: Fundamentally, I think we all went through this when COVID hit. Suddenly, we had to go remote. Fortunately, at CAR, we already had the technology to make that happen, but everybody had to quickly change. Now that you can come back to the office, people are saying, “But I don't want to come back.” It used to be the odd duck, the person that worked from home: “You work from home. Wow.” I remember when I started work from home at Nissan and we'd go into succession planning and people would say, “But they work from home. They can't be considered for promotion.” Why not? They give me more output in their part time job than I get in somebody sitting in here full time. “Really?” Yes, really. Because they could work when they wanted to work, and what we found is that if people could blend their personal lives and needs with getting their job done, they’ll work all kinds of hours because they are so happy to have this blend. And quite frankly, my whole career I've done that, too with four children. I told people, “I have to leave at 5pm.” Even at Nissan. People there work until 8 or 9pm. This is normal. “I have to leave at five. I have kids to pick up from daycare,” and I never stopped saying that. Occasionally I had to stay a little later and we'd deal with that. But they knew I would get the job done. I think we have to be very strict about that.
But now people are saying, “I want this blend.” Some companies have told people, “You’ve got to come back full time”. And people are saying, “But I don't want to.” But they're still getting some people to come back full time. I'm afraid what's going to happen if we're not careful is those who come back full time are likely to be men. The women are likely to be the ones who don't want to come back on a full-time basis, and if we're not doing something in our company to make sure that those people that are not in the room are still being included in those discussions, we're going to have a big problem.
We have to be really careful as we have this merger of people coming in and people staying remote that we're keeping everybody engaged equally. I always bring up that we often have these “coffee pot “conversations. When you're having that, when you're talking about a subject that another party should be there, you have to stop and say, “Wait a minute, let's call so and so. Let's bring them into this conversation.” And it's hard to do. It's not in our culture.
WIA: So you're really talking about leaders being intentional.
CB: Yes, very intentional. You can't just say it and then go about business like, “They’re here, so I'm going to talk to them”. Even in our small organization, we're having the same problem. There are some people who are adamant they have to be in the room here. And I said, “Wait a minute. We just hired somebody who is in North Carolina. They're not going to be in the room. So what are you going to do differently to make sure that they are part of the team?”
It's a new way of thinking. We are going to have to do some training in that regard, too. But I see this new ecosystem of work. It's going to be challenging. It’s going to be a while until we figure it out.
WIA: CAR MBS hosts a Women’s Reception, and has an impressive agenda, including all women keynotes. This intentionality aligns with goals you’ve publicly talked about, to leave a legacy of breaking the glass ceiling in automotive - helping to create a roadmap for women that follow. Where do you think the industry is, in that regard?
CB: I'd love to say it's doing great but it’s not. We are not near where we should be. The number of women executives is relatively flat. The number of women coming up through the ranks stays low. We need to do more to help each other. And we need to do more in our succession planning. I was delighted to see at the CAR women's reception so many men - that's the most men we've ever had there - because they play a big role. And not only do you need to have somebody mentor you, but you need to have somebody sponsor you. You need to make sure they are at the table when the succession meetings are being held.
WIA: What's the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?
CB: There's a huge difference. A mentor is someone you go and talk to and they give you career advice. A sponsor is somebody who sits at the table and says, “I know she can do the next level job. Trust her.” I've sat in so many succession meetings where a man's name gets raised and they say, “But he doesn't fit in this box and this box.” And somebody says, “But I know he can do it. He'll be fine.” If a woman is on the same list with the same checkboxes missing, they will automatically say she can't do it because she doesn't have these boxes checked. But if you have a sponsor at the table, they're going to say, “No, I know that she can do it, and I would challenge you to say she can’t.” And they are there supporting you as you move through your organization.
WIA: Is that a formal or informal arrangement?
CB: For me, the way it transpired is I started doing some work for them and they saw what I could do and they kept asking me to do other things, and some of these things were things I needed to do for the product for my job and others were, “Let me ask you about this. Give me your advice.” Or they’d give me a super tough assignment and they’d see that I could do it.
One of my main sponsors was an early president at Nissan that asked me one day, “I see your capability to do project management and other things, so I want you to start three new departments. Come back to me in a couple weeks with a full plan,” and this is when I was just a test engineer! So, of course, the first thing I did was cry and say, “They don't think I'm a good test engineer.”
Anyway, he ended up being one of my greatest advocates and sponsors. But he was not really a mentor. And mentors can be good or bad. You've got certain people that you work for that are horrible to work for, but they're a mentor in a way because they're teaching you how not to be. You can learn from everybody.
WIA: You’ve also talked about the importance of curiosity and continuous learning, and you’ve referenced Engineering as a springboard for so many roles in life. Can you talk about why that is, and how female engineers can parlay curiosity into an expansive, engaging automotive career?
CB: I think almost any degree can be a springboard because it demonstrates your capacity to learn, and you should never stop learning any day of your life. Everyday I try to learn something new because if you stop learning and stop growing, your career will also stop. I think engineering alone doesn't mean you're going to be designing things your whole life or whatever it is you think you love. I mean, I love plastics. I never worked in plastics a day in my life. I still love plastics. But I didn't work in that area. I don't know if I missed it or not because I never worked in it, but having that engineering background, that critical thinking analysis and the curiosity that comes from being an engineer because you're always wondering how things work or why not - If you keep that Why not? mindset, then you continue to challenge, and that can then go into so many different areas. You can work in textiles. You can grow your management skill and that can be transmitted to so many different areas. And when you think about the convergence of technology today - A.I., cyber - you can go to any industry you want. But for me, engineering is a great springboard and you can be any discipline fundamentally and find a place to grow from there.
WIA: And it's probably a little bit of a combination of why not and fear not
CB: Yeah, I think so. And the “Why not?” is always the most fun challenge. I always told the engineers that I work with, “I don't need cookbook engineers,” because we train engineers to be cookbook engineers. That’s what we want them to be: Read the spec. Design to the spec. Never vary from the spec. If you do that, you're never creating anything that the customer didn't even know they wanted. So I said, “I don’t need a cookbook. I need a chef, so we can take all the ingredients and give the customers something that they would never think of that they just love to eat.”
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