Helen Emsley grew up in the North of England in Yorkshire, an industrial area of the country known for mining and textiles. As a young child, she dreamed of working in fabrics and fashion, teasing her mom and dad that she one day was going to leave home and travel the world.
She attended college at Birmingham, pursuing her degree in textiles. While there, Helen heard about an opportunity at the Royal College of London where one person per year would be brought in to create transportation interiors. Thinking, “What the hell, I’ve got nothing to lose,” Helen applied and landed the position. After receiving her Master’s degree in Transport Design from the College, the day came for Helen to tell her parents she’d realized her dream of traveling the world. She was offered a job in Germany at Opel Design.
Arriving in the country with two suitcases, Helen got to work as the only non-German Color and Trim employee in the studio. “I remember thinking that if I lasted there a year it was going to be a miracle. I ended up working there for nine years,” Helen says.
Helen then moved to the United States – accepting a job at GM and working her way up the ranks for the past 17 years. Helen was the first woman to oversee the interior design of the iconic Corvette. She now serves as executive director of Global GMC Design and User Experience, overseeing a team of more than 70, on the creation of popular vehicles including the Sierra, Yukon and Acadia.
How did your career at GMC begin?
Opel’s Wayne Cherry moved back to the United States and asked me to come to North America to head the Color and Trim Studio for GM in Detroit. I thought, “Why not? For penny for pound I’ll go there next.” So, 17 years ago I came over to America and worked my way around the studio. At this time, I realized we had an issue in that we had a Color and Trim Studio in every region, where no one was really talking to anybody else. The suppliers were having a great time, but we were all developing the same things.
At the time Ed Welburn was the boss of Design. I went and sat with him and said, “Ed, we’ve got a problem. I don’t know how you’re going to solve it, but you need to have somebody over Global Color and Trim, because the suppliers are bringing the same samples into each studio. We’re not talking to one another, so we’re paying for the development in all of these regions, and it’s turning out the same.” I get along really well with Ed, and as he sat there he said, “That’s a really good idea. You’ve got the job.” So, all of a sudden I became the Color and Trim Global Director of all of GM’s Color and Trim Studios. That’s the story of my life. [She laughs.] I’ve got to stop having ideas!
In that role I traveled a lot around the world – Australia, Germany, Korea, China and Brazil. I also was running the studio here. I really enjoyed going to the different studios and mixing with all the different nationalities.
Then, about nine years ago, Ed Welburn called me back into his office, saying he had come up with an idea. He tells me he’d like me to go into the vehicle design studios. I told him I couldn’t draw cars. I can do textile design – colors and fabrics. I can’t draw cars. His argument back to me was based on something I had said to him years prior: Once you get a higher position, you don’t do the drawing of the cars anymore, you manage the team. He told me to think about it. Six months later he called me back and said, “Remember that conversation?” I told him I was still thinking about it, and he told me I was going into the interior design studios, and so I said, “Okay, I can do this.” He then said, “I’m giving you the Corvette.” And I thought, “You’ve got to be joking.” Ed has this wicked sense of humor, and he just sat there laughing.
What did that feel like?
I was like, “Oh, God. I can see the headlines now: British Woman Kills Corvette.” He put me in charge of the Corvette’s interior, which was interesting because a woman had never been on it before, and all of a sudden I was leading up the interior with no history of what happened before on the Corvette. To be honest, I wasn’t really bothered. I just knew I had to do a job.
Then, my bosses gave me the full-size trucks. Anybody who knows GM knows that is our bread and butter. We sell a lot of trucks. So, within a year of doing Color and Trim, all of a sudden I’ve got the Corvette, all of the GMC Sierras, the Chevrolet Silverados, the mid-size pickup trucks – GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado, and all of the SUVs – the GMC Yukons, Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe, and the Cadillac Escalade in my studio.
About four years ago, Ed tells me he has another idea. This time I just said, “Oh what now?” [She laughs.] He told me he wanted to put me as one of the executive directors of one of the brands and wanted to know which one I liked. I said I liked Cadillac, but if he wanted my honest opinion, I really liked GMC. I knew Interior. I knew Color and Trim. I have a great team, but I knew I had to start learning Exterior Design. So, for the past four years, I’ve been in charge of all GMC design, and I really, really enjoy it.
When you’re presented with one of these opportunities that is ultimately super incredible, do you ever get a little bit nervous about it?
I’ll be honest with you; I’m terrified, but I don’t show it and I don’t tell anybody. The main thing I’ve learned is you’ve just got to rely on and empower your team. When I took over GMC, I had never done exterior design. I’d worked on exterior paint colors but not actually for the design of the vehicle. My opinion is that everybody gets hired for what they’re good at. It’s our job to let a team do what they’re good at. They don’t need me telling them how to do it. They need me to allow them to do their job.
What is your team like?
They are very bossy. They boss me around quite a lot. I’ve got about 70 bosses! [She laughs.]
When you think about building your team, what qualities do you look for in those you hire?
I’ve got to make sure they have the talent to sketch and draw. That is something that is very hard to teach, if you haven’t got the skill. But from there, we can teach them to do the car parts or the interiors. If they’ve got the ability, then we can show them how to use it, and they will always improve.
Beyond that, I look for people who can be themselves. Not everyone can be extroverted like me. I hire people who want to be themselves. I don’t need people to reinvent the wheel and be something that they’re not. I want people who are true to themselves, and then I’ll help them in every way.
What are some of the challenges your team is working to solve day-to-day?
At GMC, we don’t do cars, but we do the trucks and crossovers. Most of these vehicles are for families, so our biggest challenge is making sure we do a great job to meet their needs. There are so many good vehicles in the market now. A new vehicle is the second biggest purchase you’re going to make, after a house. It’s a lot of money, so we’ve got to make sure we’re really listening to what the customer wants. And, if for some reason they don’t buy a specific vehicle, then why didn’t they buy it? And, how could we get that customer back buying our vehicles by doing something new to it? That’s the biggest challenge I think we have.
We get asked a lot of times to create more storage – storage for handbags, for kids’ electronics, for charge ports … When I was working on the interior of the full-size trucks, we didn’t have a lot of chargers in the back. I know from having a child that you need to be able to charge all their iPads, and everything else, in the back of the vehicle. So, we made sure we put in extra chargers.
Also, I remember that on the pickup trucks the cup holders used to fold down, and if you ever put a drink in it, the drink would fall out, or the child would kick it out. So, then we decided to raise the cup holders and put them on the door so a child can reach it when they’re in the seat.
These are little things, but it means so much to the customer, and that’s where we make the most difference. It’s okay for a company to say they care about their customer, but if you’re not listening, then your customer will go elsewhere. So, we have to listen, react and make sure we’re always doing what the customer wants. That’s a big part of my job.
What are some of the most exciting aspects of your work?
There’s a lot. I’ll be honest with you on this, and I’m not joking. And GM is not paying me to say this, but I really enjoy what I do. Every year during the Detroit Auto Show, I take my son down for the day during one of the show’s normal days open to the public. We get to watch the public look over the vehicles and really, truly admiring and liking them. I think I get more out of this experience than any of the money I make, or anything I experience on press day, or more than attending any auto show around the world. I love just going with my son down to the show and showing him what my team works on. It makes it all worthwhile.
Do you feel that you have a good work/life balance, or do you feel that you have more of a work/life integration – where you’re making it all work together at all times?
That’s a good way of putting it. I’m a big believer that, whatever you’re doing in your life, it’s in your hands. When people ask me about work/life balance, it’s in my hands, and if I don’t balance it out or make it work, then it’s my fault. We all have cell phones and laptops and can work from anywhere, and so I like what you said about being integrated.
When I worked in a global job in Color and Trim, I couldn’t take my son everywhere with me, but I made him a part of it. If I traveled somewhere – even if there was a time difference – I would always get my son to call me in the morning to wake me up. I would pretend that he woke me up, even though I was usually awake and working, but he didn’t know that. So, he felt really proud that he was calling me every morning to wake me up. Then I would call him every night. Also, everywhere I went I would buy him a small gift that had something to do with that country. I used to put these gifts up in his bedroom, so it had pictures from all over the world.
I made him a part of my job, and he never felt left out. I worked all my trips around his schedule, so I never missed any of his events at school. And I still go to this day. I make sure that I leave work and go to his events and his presentations. This is in my hands, and I can’t blame anyone else if I don’t do it. There are ways to do it.
What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned in your career that really sticks out to you?
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned – and I live by this and think everybody should – is don’t ever forget where you came from, no matter how high you get in your position. Always think about the people under you; you’ve been there yourself before. I think that is a big, big lesson to tell anybody.
Here’s another: You spend more time at work than you do at home, so I always tell my team, “Don’t forget, this job is still going to be here. Go home. Enjoy your family.” The job will be there, and the work will get done no matter what, so I tell people, “Don’t forget your kids, and don’t forget your family.” If you’re having a good time at home, and your family life is going well, then you’re going to take that with you into work. Everybody is going to be happy. You can be good at both; nothing needs to suffer.
Another thing I’ve learned is that because of this philosophy, I never have to ask my team to work extra. Never. They would do it. Say you have a holiday that falls on a Monday. I’ll come into work on Friday and after half the day say, “Everybody, get out of here.” They’ll say, “What? A half-day?” I’ll tell them to get out of there. I don’t want any of them traveling late at night. My team now knows that every Friday before a holiday, I send them home at lunchtime. I’ve done it every holiday for the past 17 years. I don’t make them count it as vacation, and I don’t make them make up the time. I never have to ask them to because I know my team gives me more than 150 percent. It’s give and take. I treat my team as my family.
The first day back to school is another one that I do. I tell all my managers and directors that if they have kids, they should come in late on the first day back to school. And, they should tell the team to do that too. I want them to see their kids off on that bus, or take them to school in the car and then come in late. I don’t want anybody to ever say that they couldn’t see their child off to school, or be the one to take that first day of school photograph. To me, things like this go a long way. It’s how I like to lead and what I like to do.
I’d love to grab coffee with:
My favorite vehicle is:
GMC Yukon Denali in black with a black leather interior.
My go-to outfit is:
Jeans. I never wear them to work, but when I’m not at work I live in jeans. I’m a jeans girl.
My favorite dinner is:
When I go back to England I love to get fish and chips on the seaside.
I can’t live without:
My [13-year-old] son.
My favorite way to unwind is:
I love to listen to heavy rock music. Starting when I was 10 years old, I went to rock concerts with my dad all over England. We listened to any heavy rock, like Genesis and ACDC. I grew up on it, and it calms me down! [Laughs]
I feel my best when:
I’m with my son and my husband.
The main thing I’ve learned is you’ve just got to rely on and empower your team.