Telva McGruder On Making A Difference With Your Career

By Joan Michelson

When General Motors transformed some of their manufacturing facilities from making vehicles to making ventilators to help save lives in the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, it took “making a difference” to an entirely new level. But CDO Telva McGruder, who started at General Motors 28 years ago as an engineer, after earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University and a stint at NASA, says you can make a difference every day in your career or business.

From project execution, maintenance, quality, operations and labor negotiations, to driving innovation, she’s leveraged her engineering and leadership skills to benefit herself and the company and that has been critical to both her professional success and her personal fulfillment. McGruder also makes serving her communities a priority, mentoring FIRST FRC high school robotics teams, serving on the board of the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan, and on the advisory board of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

Those choices line up with how she described making a difference with one’s career on my Electric Ladies Podcast recently. But it doesn’t just happen. She said it’s a skill that you develop – and is beyond “getting work done.”

McGruder is talking about making a difference with who you are and how you do your job: “If we say making a difference is making a difference for the people around you and making a big difference for the business you’re in, and, maybe for the communities that you move in, that takes practice and it takes really sitting back and looking at how should I behave every single day, so that I’m making a difference for people.”

She explained that she “started working on (this idea) many years ago, when I realized that as a technical leader, I could solve all the technical problems in the world, but there were a lot of days where I still had people around me that weren’t necessarily super-excited about being at work, that weren’t necessarily, you know, really bringing their best to work every day.”

How did she motivate people around her?

To engage her teams, McGruder focused on helping them instead of just focusing on the tasks at hand. It took practice, she said: “I started working on making a difference for them…. I started practicing and I started figuring out for different people, what do I need to do? For these teams, what needs to happen? And you look at what is the challenge that the team is facing….What’s really going on here?”

She listened for people’s real agendas and motivations, adding, “How do I listen with the third ear and really hear why decisions are being made? Let’s go work on that. Not necessarily focusing on the superficial thing, the thing that everyone can see is happening. Let’s focus on why that’s happening and practice getting after that underlying why.”

That’s how McGruder believes you make a difference.

It’s by “mak(ing) a difference in the trajectory of the way people are feeling, or teams are behaving together.”

It takes practice and “it’s hard. You know, you try something, it doesn’t necessarily work. Let’s try something else. Let’s figure out what this is, McGruder said. “And then once you learn, take those tidbits and use them the next time…That’s really how you find out how to make a difference.”


Photo Source: General Motors