Fireside Chat with GM's Dhivya Suryadevara

Dhivya Suryadevara, General Motor's treasurer and vice president of finance as well as GM Asset Management's CEO, sat down for a talk with Business Today's director of the Women in Business conference, Antigone Valen.

Antigone Valen: You joined GM Asset Management in 2004 and now, 11 years later, you’re the youngest treasurer of GM. Did you always envision staying in GM for this long? Were there certain points where you thought you might pursue a different path?

Dhivya Suryadevara: It’s been a great 11 years. In terms of whether I had always imagined my staying, I would have to say no, as I don’t plan out my career in the way that “in X years I have to do exactly this.” What attracted me to GM was that it’s part of a highly competitive, capital-intensive industry. The auto industry is a pretty interesting one because it is being constructed by changing technology. It’s a difficult business to be in. A lot of capital goes into it and it’s hard to make money. But I love challenges. I love being in an industry where you’re constantly required to think outside the box and try to do something new to disrupt an industry that’s technically an “old” one. That really attracted me to it. Along the way, I’ve had a few opportunities come and I’ve always thought about it in terms of what I’m learning. If I feel like where I am is going to give me a better opportunity to learn than where I’m going to go, I feel like it’s better to be where I am. It’s been a series of conscious choices along the way and I don’t regret it at all.

AV: You mentioned the challenges you’ve faced and how they attracted you to the industry. What has your personal experience been as a woman in the industry, especially the auto industry? How would you like to see a change for women over the next decade or so? 

DS: I think we can all agree that there could be more representation of women in the corporate world, especially in the “C-Suites”. That’s true in most industries and the auto industry is no exception. I think I’ve been lucky being with GM. It has multiple senior women in different places including our CEO Mary Barra. As I think about what I would like for women in the auto or across any industry, I’d say it’s important to stay in the game. It’s difficult to find others in senior positions as most drop out after junior positions. I want to encourage them to stay in the game and give them the tools to stave off the challenges that are coming their way. There’s different circumstances for different people but if you’re able to do it, I’d say stick it out.

AV: What are ways you think women can help other women, or men help other women to stick out and “keep climbing the mountain” as Anna Sedgley said?

DS: You need a support system, including one at home. I have a young family and it’s definitely a lot of juggling. Seek out help as much as you can and don’t be ashamed to ask. I feel like you can learn better with peers. I don’t look at work or the expectations of me differently because I am a woman. You are there to do a good job, man or woman. As long as you’re adding value and making a difference within the company, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman. Just make sure you give all that you have to your job as much as you can and at home try to strike as best a balance as you can. The more you are realistic about your own expectations, the better you can be.

AV: A good portion of this conference has been focused on mentorship, could you talk a bit about some personal experiences you’ve had with a mentor at GM and how that has shaped your experience in the professional scene?

DS: I struggle with the word mentor because it sounds like it’s someone who you feel a sense of urgency to seek out and meet with. To rephrase your question: Are there people who’ve helped me along the way in my career to make progress and bounce ideas off of? Yes, absolutetley. The one thing I try to do is talk to people who think differently than me. It’s easy to get validation. It’s harder to find people who can challenge you and move you outside your comfort zone. Don’t try to go find a mentor. It will happen. You will find people who will help you throughout different walks of life. I find that most believe a mentor will be there just to help you. What I’ve found as I’ve made more progress in my career is that it’s a two-way street. As much as you rely on your mentor for advice, people in senior positions also like developing talent, having people who are smart working for them, and having a great team that feels happy and rewarded. I would also advise against restricting yourself to female mentors. It’s perfectly fine to have male mentors. What’s more important is the fit.

AV: As a leader at GM, what type of culture do you try to promote for women within the company?

DS: I like to focus more on diversity of thought. Gender diversity is just one type of diversity. You want to make sure it’s not just everyone thinking the same way but instead each bringing their own perspective. Listening to different people, whether in terms of nationality or sex, is the best part of diversity. This goes back to the point of staying in the game. You want to make sure you give people the correct tools whether it means flexible hours or something else. I try to be as flexible as possible so that people are able to stay on and continue in their careers.

AV: Are there any experiences that you’ve had as an undergraduate or even a few years out of college that helped shape the choices you’ve made? Looking back, what advice would you give yourself? 

DS: I don’t know about specific experiences per se, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for hard work or being relentless. You can’t just give up. You’ve got to keep going at it and it’s a long journey. It sounds scary and negative but it is a long journey. You have to work very, very hard. I think being relentless does set people apart in terms of never giving up whatever it is that you’re doing. Having said that, I’d tell myself to try to have some fun while you’re doing all of that as well. I see a lot of young women here and the truth is that it’s only getting harder from this point on. Keep that in mind. Try to keep things in perspective and take time for yourself once in a while. Spend time with your families. You can keep working hard but there’s still things in your life that you care about that you should spend time on.

AV: Along the same lines of coming out of college, what advice would you give to undergraduates picking their first jobs? What are some things to look for in terms of challenging themselves? 

DS: You might think that this choice is life or death in terms of your first job which will lead to your second job which will lead to that third, perfect job in about 12 and a half years that you’d like to get to. Don’t sweat it. Take the job that comes your way. You have no idea what will be thrown at you. Make the best of it and that will lead to something that will lead to something else which you couldn’t have ever foreseen to begin with. So keep an open mind. Don’t worry about it being the only path that could take you “there”. Try to go with the flow and capitalize on every opportunity that comes your way and you’ll never know where you’ll end up.

AV: Switching gears to business schools, how did your time at Harvard Business School shape your career? What advice would you give to women who are thinking about MBAs or going to business schools? How did that develop your career? 

DS: There’s a point that’s often said about business school stating that it’s a lot about the networking and the people you’re surrounded with. There’s obviously academics and you can take certain courses to get better at something but ultimately, I think that networking aspect stays throughout your entire life. Some of my closest friends are people I met at business school. I met my husband at business school. I think nurturing those relationships and networks is important. You don’t go to business school to get a particular job. It’s more about exposing you to different skills that will be useful for a number of different industries and applying it to any job that comes your way. I found that helpful. You may have a plan of what you want out of business school but keep an open mind about that as well. You may go to business school for x, y, or z reason but then you may find that it takes a different path altogether. It’s a great experience. If you want to go down that path, go for it.

AV: In terms of work-life balance and considering you’re still very young, how has it been managing work and business life with starting a family and those types of decisions? 

DS: I’m not going to lie to you. It’s always a juggling act. I have a young daughter, so there’s a guilt factor associated with coming home versus wanting to do a good job at work. I wish I could tell you that I’ve found this great answer or silver bullet, but I think it’s more about managing week by week, month by month. During each stage of your career, you need a different kind of support. I have a great support system around me. I have a husband who’s supportive of my career. Back to the point I made about staying in the game, there’s a few years that are critical in terms of figuring how you’ll be able to stick it out and it will be difficult. But once you do stick it out, it’s a great example that you’ve set for your own young family as well.

AV: You’ve been featured in Fortune’s Forty under Forty. You’ve been extremely successful at a young age but that doesn’t come without challenges. Could you speak over a challenge that you’ve faced that’s served as a turning point in your career and how you overcame that? 

DS: I wouldn’t say a single moment. When you start a job and you feel like you have a lot of people around you who have more experience than you do, you start to doubt yourself and the value that you bring to the table. Initially I found that to be a challenge or more of a mind block for myself. But over time I’ve realized that it’s exactly what they have me there for. Some of the most highly functioning organizations have diversity of thought, whether that comes from people who have worked there for thirty years or people who’ve only been there for two but think in a different way. I would say the challenge has been overcoming my own mental block about it. As I’ve progressed throughout my career, I feel like I have more confidence to recognize that I may not have that specific skill set that you bring to the table but I do have something else and I believe I deserve a seat at the table just as much as you do.

AV: Outside of GM, you’re also on the board of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York. How do you see nonprofits such as Girl Scouts shaping the landscape of the business world?

DS: I think there are many organizations that focus on developing skills in girls. I really respect that and I think they can play a huge role especially when it comes to underprivileged girls or minority girls where it might not be in their future to go down a certain path if not for the influence that these organizations have. Girl Scouts does a great job and the mission is to build courage, confidence, and character. I am a huge supporter of causes like these.

AV: Before opening up for other questions, I have a few questions that are supposed to be fun and enjoyable. Do you have any guilty pleasure TV shows or songs that you enjoy? 

DS: I am a major TV show junkie. I watch all kinds of shows, from dramas to chick flicks. Every kind of TV show you can think of: Game of Thrones, House of Cards. I’m probably one of the remaining ten people watching Grey’s Anatomy through its 12th season.

AV: Is there any character that you really enjoy watching? 

DS: No, it’s more across the board. It’s my mindless guilty pleasure.

AV: How about books? Do you have any favorite books?

DS: I read a lot of boring finance books so I don’t think you’d want to hear about that. But I think in terms of broader topics which I think is pertinent to this audience as well, I do like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I’m usually not into those kinds of books but I picked it up when I was on my way to a vacation somewhere and I couldn’t put it down. I think she hits the nail on the head in terms of the number of points she makes and if you haven’t read it already, I recommend you do.

 AV: It is a great book. It strikes a perfect balance. I’d like to open the floor up for questions now. 

Attendee: Do you have any advice on networking and maintaining relationships in business? 

DS: Like mentorship, networking is also a seemingly scary word. It sounds like you have to put on fancy clothes and talk to people about things you’re not interested in talking about. Again, I would say don’t try too hard. If you find people you admire, write them a note or try to sit down with them but don’t force it on yourself to the point where you’re miserable. I’ve gone to a number of networking events in my life where I’ve felt like I would like to be anywhere else but there. If you’re in a specific field where there are people who you actually want to talk to and have questions for them, go for it.

Attendee: You brought up some great points about the work life balance as well as Sherryl Landberg’s Lean In. What are your thoughts on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Why Women Can’t Have It All? Do you believe women can or can’t have it all? 

DS: That’s a great question. I get asked this a lot and to me, it’s a personal choice you have to make. I could tell you to set up a template and figure out how in this year you’ll take it easy and these other years you’ll really charge it but it doesn’t work that way. Some people will enjoy taking a step back and saying that they’ll work part-time when they have children or whatever else. I think it’s a choice you have to make where you say either this is the amount of work that I’m willing to do and this is the time I’m willing to spend with my family and those outside of my family in order to achieve my goals or you’re not comfortable with it. Ultimately, I think it’s what makes you happy internally. As your children get older, it does get easier. I have a nine year-old. She absolutely enjoys it. She googles me and tells me how she found this or that link about me. Was it easy when she was a year or two years old? Absolutely not. It’s a personal choice. I can’t talk for people who’ve made the other choice because I’m sure that was the right choice for them.

Attendee: The president of Barnard, Debora Spar, wrote Wonder Woman which addresses the same topic but I’d like to ask more about the social life aspect of it. 

DS: I think of it as having a certain amount of time to dedicate to work, whether it’s 60 or 70% of your week. The remaining 30% is up to your choice. One of my favorite activities is dropping off my daughter at school because you get to chat along the way. The remaining time after work and after my daughter goes to bed, I either invite my friends over or go out for a drink and I have some semblance of a social life. And that’s important to me. I do think it goes back to the choices you get to make. Whether it’s spending time with the family, tv shows, or hanging out with friends, you’re going to take whatever free time you have and disperse it among all of that. I do enjoy spending time with friends.

Attendee: Based on your experiences so far, do you have any advice on dealing with any bad habits early in your career?

DS: I think the lack of trusting and delegating tasks to others is bad habit. I do tend to be over controlling at times and especially as I’ve progressed pretty early in my career, it’s hard for me to move from doing things myself to supervising others who are doing them. You can feel like you need to open up Excel and make sure everything gets done but that’s not practical and I think it goes back to the time management question as well. You need to surround yourself with people that you trust will do a good job and delegate tasks to them.

Attendee: At the beginning, you talked a bit about how the auto industry is right now. How do you see the auto industry being disrupted in the next five years, especially with companies like Tesla? 

DS: It’s a good question and I wish I knew the answer to that. I think we’re going to see more changes in the auto industry in the next few years than we’ve seen in several decades. It’s not just about the electric cars but also about autonomous driving, ride sharing, and the whole traditional business model of owning a car. I was surprised to hear a statistic that said that most people use their car for about 6-7% of their time. So for about 94% of the time, your car remains idle which opens up a lot of possibilities like ride sharing and things like that. I don’t know exactly how this will evolve but I do know that the players that will be most successful in this are those who realize that the industry is being disrupted andmanage to keep their options open. Out of the box thinking is key; not just focusing on one revenue stream or one way of doing business but being aware of everything else that’s happening.