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Shanghai OnStar's Diane Jurgens and her grand China adventure

Matt Hamblen | Feb. 17, 2015
If staying busy is the secret to happiness, Diane Jurgens can tell you all about it.

Diane E. Jurgens
Diane Jurgens, managing director of Shanghai OnStar, has lived and worked in China for almost 10 years. Credit: GM

If staying busy is the secret to happiness, Diane Jurgens can tell you all about it.

Jurgens runs operations and strategic planning as managing director of Shanghai OnStar, which provides telematics for cars throughout China, leading an organization of 2,000 engineers and other workers. A native of Seattle, she's worked in busy Shanghai for the last nine years with her engineer husband and two children, and finds her plate filled with long days -- and plenty of travel.

With work hours and personal time so intertwined, Jurgens has had to work hard to find the mythical balance between the two, while at the same time navigating the cultural differences of living and working in a foreign land.

"When it comes to work-life balance, I learned a decade ago that I'm never going to get an A grade every day," she said with a chuckle during a recent telephone interview from her office in Shanghai. (Jurgens in January talked with U.S.-based reporters at International CES in Las Vegas, leading to this report on her life and work abroad.)

The job has also given her perspective on the need for more women in engineering roles, and a rare view on how those roles differ in China and in the U.S.

First, there's the work
What brought Jurgens and her family in 2005 to China was General Motors. After working in Detroit for GM, she filled three different CIO posts from Shanghai, including CIO of International Operations. In 2012, she took the top OnStar job in China with Shanghai OnStar, a private joint venture made up mostly of GM subsidiary OnStar and a subsidiary of SAIC, a Chinese state-owned automotive manufacturing company.

Her training started in electrical engineering, including a master's degree from the University of Washington. She later received an MBA with a focus on international business from Seattle University. Now, she interacts with Chinese engineers at OnStar and negotiates business deals with Chinese partners, sometimes in formal face-to-face meetings. Over the years, there's been a substantial cultural learning curve.

"When I come to work each day, I love to walk around and never take a straight path to the my office. When I first started working in China, I'd walk up to Chinese workers in the office, but seeing the president standing right in front of them totally freaks them out. I learned to be more aware. No matter how much you want to be down to earth, there's a hierarchy in China."

She's known for hashing out engineering problems on white boards, talking loudly and waving her hands, but has learned to temper that approach. "I'm in teaching mode a lot, but I also have to be respectful and listen. Even if I think I know everything, it's still challenging to get Chinese engineers to open up. I have to be careful not to state my opinion on something until I've drawn them out. If I don't listen first, I will not get them to talk."

 

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