“Opportunity is rarely convenient and almost always requires a sacrifice.” – Tobin Williams
General Motors executive Tobin Williams, recently promoted to vice president of Human Resources for the automaker’s South America and Mercosur operations, is the prototypical pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be kind of man.
The former executive director of HR Corporate Staffs at General Motors has elevated his role as a cultural change agent and a key player in overhauling GM’s human resources strategies, to foster a more contemporary corporate environment designed to attract and develop new talent.
Williams, who assumed his new role only a month ago, will report directly to Barry Engle, executive vice president and president, GM South America, and John Quattrone, senior vice president, Global Human Resources. In addition to his responsibilities with GM in South America, Williams will also helm human resources management and development for Mercosur, a South American economic bloc comprised of five foreign states — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and Venezuela (suspended since December 2016) — free trade and the fluid movement of goods, people, and currency.
Williams, now in his 34th year with GM, spoke with Michigan Chronicle staff from his new assignment in Brazil, regarding his rise through the ranks which has been remarkably steady, strategic and stellar.
“[My] plan was to go to work for GM temporarily, make enough money to pay off my college loans, go to law school and ultimately become a politician,” said Williams, adding, “The only one of those things I succeeded at was paying off my college loans.” But while not attending law school or entering the political arena may be a non-success for Williams, his professional achievements at the world’s largest automaker have made significant contributions on the company’s bottom line. GM recently announced strong second-quarter earnings and revenue from continuing operations driven by robust results in North America and China, solid improvement in South America, all professional ports of call for Williams who came to South America by way of assignments in Thailand, India and Shanghai.
“Most people think your career goes in a straight line, but it’s actually lines and turns. One thing leads to another, and as opportunities opened up in the company, I made what I thought were intelligent decisions and decided to walk through the doors that were open to me to see what were behind them.”
Williams’ rags to riches story began in Saginaw where there was the prospect of a relatively bleak future in that city, devastated and desolate by the decline of the auto industry. Expectations for success beyond anything but high school graduation and the potential for landing a low-paying job were almost non-existent during Saginaw’s dire years.
“I thought Saginaw was everything. I didn’t know anything else. But I grew up in a community of people who nurtured each other and a family who always said, ‘it takes a village,’ and we actually were a village of people who guided me and had a significant impact in my life in terms of [refining] my perspective. So, my journey was actually a 90-mile journey, the distance from Saginaw to Detroit,” Williams said with a laugh.
But after earning a masters’ degree in business administration from Central Michigan University, and beginning his career at GM as a line production supervisor a little more than a decade later the ambitious manager took advantage of another open door and left Detroit for an assignment in Thailand.
“I had heard of Thailand, but like many people do, they get Thailand confused with Taiwan,” he said again with a laugh, “but they are distinctively different countries. If you haven’t traveled out of the country, you don’t know.”
Williams would leave Thailand after a four-year stint, and took another foreign assignment a world away. this time in India. “In India, I actually lived in a village, in the state of Gujarat, the same state that Mahatma Ghandi was born and reared in. It was a dry state, a non-alcohol state and a Red Roof Inn there looked like a seven-star resort,” he recalled. “I had to cross through cows, sheep and camels to get to my hotel and I existed on chocolate bars and potato chips for about six weeks, and I lost about 25 pounds. So, once I came to terms with the experience, I had to change my perspective.”
His willingness and ability to adapt took the aspiring administrator on to Shanghai, where GM was experiencing major difficulties with its attempts to globalize operations. Still undaunted by the culture shocks he’d encountered in his travels, Williams determined that a more aggressive, and ultimately less Western approach were necessary to achieve the company’s objectives to hire the right people and make a profit. “Many times, in emerging markets, with the skill sets that are there, people are really hungry to succeed. And many times, Americans can be lulled into complacency, and we do that in a lot of areas of our lives because we resist change, explaineds Williams adding, “One of the things that I found in many of the emerging markets is that there was such a drive, a passion to win.”
Williams’ ability to transform regions that are critical to GM’s global objectives and his Midas touch for tapping into talent pools too many executives would hurriedly wade through have culminated in a winning formula and are a significant factor in GM’s net revenue of $37 billion and income of $2.4 billion from continuing operations. And even though Williams’ impressive professional portfolio is chockful of notable accomplishments and contributed substantially to the company’s bottom line, he confides that he derives major gratification from his secondary role as chairperson of GM’s African Ancestry Network, which was established to provide a competitive advantage by attracting, developing and retaining African Ancestry employees.
“Being an African-American executive inside the company, it is particularly rewarding to see the progress that we’ve made and being able to point specifically to the contributions that [we’ve made] in terms of moving up and moving forward and looking at employees that you’ve played some role in their success,” Williams said.
I thought Saginaw was everything. I didn’t know anything else. But I grew up