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the ladder

Nancy Gougarty, 61, is CEO of Vancouver-based Westport Fuel Systems, which makes alternative-fuel systems and components such as natural gas engines. Before Westport, Ms. Gougarty was vice-president of TRW Automotive Corp.'s Asia-Pacific operations. She started her career as an industrial engineer at the Packard Electric Division of General Motors. She has a bachelor of science in industrial management from the University of Cincinnati.

I was born in Berkeley, Calif., but Ohio is where I was mostly based growing up. I have three older brothers and one younger sister. My father, a nuclear physicist, was a university professor and a researcher. We moved a lot. He would work nine months in his teaching assignment and took on research opportunities during the summers and took sabbaticals, which allowed us to live in interesting places around the world.

One of his assignments was to the University of Saskatchewan. We lived in Saskatoon for 14 months. I was in the seventh and eighth grades. That was my first real winter. I don't think I've been through another one like that since. We also lived in Australia when my father spent some time at the University of Melbourne. Needless to say, I changed schools quite a bit.

Moving around a lot as a kid showed me the world is 360 degrees. You also get to know who you are. It's almost like starting over each time. You get to tell people what they know about you. They have no history. It made me realize that behaviour and power of speech matter and need to be managed.

I didn't really know what I wanted to do for a career when I was growing up. My parents didn't pressure us to figure it out. They had the attitude that we would find our way in life. They didn't want us to work during high school and university. They felt that was our time to be free. My first full-time job was after graduation. That's when I started my career with General Motors in Warren, Ohio.

I called them Generous Motors. I worked there for 29 years in a few different divisions – everything from engineering and sales to recruiting and finance. I was also able to obtain my executive MBA while working there, and while mothering three children.

Having the opportunity to live in lots of different places as a kid made me more willing to do that in my career. I spent nearly 15 years of my career in Asia, most of which was in China. Shanghai remains a special place for our family.

As a leader, I like to go and see people in person. I can't manage remotely. I can't make decisions based only on e-mail or phone calls. People can have very polished e-mails. Also, in my experience, you can't liken someone's speaking skills to their capability. I spend more than 80 per cent of my time outside of headquarters. When you're in the room, you can read body language. You can see comfort or discomfort. You can see happiness or sadness. There are also different nuances in different countries. Doing business in China has a very different nuance versus India versus Italy.

My husband enabled my career success to date. He never held me back saying, "We have three kids, you can't do that." Instead, he would say, "If that's what you want, go for it." The two of us always tried to figure out together what was best. I never felt constrained; I wanted to be a wife, a mother. I wanted everything and he enabled a good bit of that.

I'm a person who likes to get things done. I don't really have limits on the kinds of things I'm willing to do. I can type my own presentations. I'm pretty self-sufficient. I describe myself as a roadblock remover. I think, as a leader, my job is to get those speed bumps as low as possible or remove whatever is blocking the road.

I see my job as making sure I understand the whole voice of the organization. You can get very insulated at the top.

I have a good memory. People say, "Don't tell her anything you don't want her to remember."

Some people might say I move too fast without enough facts. My opinion is that a bad decision is better than a perfect decision, as long as it keeps up momentum. I'm not sure with the kind of speed, in the [business] environment we're in today, that we have the luxury of waiting for the perfect decision.

I make mistakes, and I readily admit it. I sense that we have to move quickly and swift and when it's not right, we'll fix it. People also need to be able to tell me it's not right. That means having an environment where people can tell me, "That wasn't your best decision."

I'm very happy with where I am today. I'd like to continue to make Westport Fuels Systems even more successful. I also want to learn to laugh more and enjoy life more.

As told to Brenda Bouw. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Special to Globe and Mail Update