Inside Track: Rolinski creates leaders worth following

Leading by DESIGN partner spends a year working with executives from top West Michigan corporations.
While working for Johnson Controls, a visit to China for the 2008 Olympics convinced Elizabeth Rolinski to pursue work around the world. Courtesy Leading by DESIGN

Elizabeth Rolinski is writing the next chapter of her professional career after retiring as a global executive from the world’s largest battery manufacturer.

She is a partner with Zeeland-based Leading by DESIGN, which is a company that helps executives and other leaders further develop practical leadership skills that are designed for the workplace.

Along with being a partner, Rolinski also works as a coach, working with a cohort of executive-level leaders. Some of the West Michigan companies that have had their leaders participate in the program include Gentex, JR Automation, Bissell and National Heritage Academies.

The cohort, which is made up of nine leaders, goes through a year-long class that meets once a month, and throughout that time the coaches tackle different aspects of leadership such as vision, values, talent and roles in the workplace. During that time coaches are continuously assessing the cohort’s practical applications of their leadership skills.

“A huge part of Leading by DESIGN is creating leaders worth following,” she said. “Many leaders are leaders because they are in a certain position and they have authority. This is about being a leader worth following and who people are inspired by because they believe in the mission, the vision, the purpose, and they are inspired by this person and they feel great about what is coming together because they are a part of it. So, there is a different philosophy, and it is different than reading it in a book. It is the part about learning, applying, reinforcing and coaching. It is a very practical and ongoing application that makes it unique.”

While Rolinski is taking on a new role after retirement, it’s a role she has been familiar with for decades. She has spent much of her career leading teams exceeding 200 professionals that built lithium-ion automotive batteries and battery plants across the world for Clarios, a former subsidiary of Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, a global manufacturing company.

The West Michigan native got her start in the automotive industry at the age of 17, when she applied for a co-op opportunity at General Motors, which was required before she could enroll in Kettering University, formerly known as General Motors Institute of Technology, in Flint.

Leading by DESIGN
Position: Partner
Age: 56
Birthplace: Spring Lake
Residence: Muskegon
Family: Husband, Adam; sons, Zach and Nick
Business/Community Involvement: Project Lead The Way, Boy Scouts of America, YMCA, The Hope Project, Society of Women Engineers, Inforum Michigan and on the boards of Lakeshore Advantage, Holland Hospital and Holland Salvation Army
Biggest Career Break: “I was incredibly blessed when Rodger Price, owner of Leading by DESIGN, reached out to me to talk over a cup of coffee about a year ago. It happened right when I was planning the second chapter of my career and hoping to focus more heavily on teaching, development and sharing what I’d learned with others.”

When Rolinski got the job, she started out working in the noise and vibration lab at GM, where they could measure the effects of noise and vibration on different equipment as it was being designed. She specifically worked on a fuel pump on one of the vehicles at GM.

“That was when I started using a lot of calculus and that kind of thing to try and see what is the volume through this, and at what speed does it change and what point does it start making this ticking noise. And I loved it, but I ended up working in the Reatta program,” she said.

Rolinski said the Reatta was a two-seat vehicle under the Buick brand “that did not last long.” However, she spent four years in that program and in a new plant that was launched at GM.

After five years, she headed to Prince Corporation in Holland. The company was founded by businessman and Holland native Edgar Prince and it created numerous products, machines, materials and equipment, some of which were for automobiles.

Rolinski took on many engineering and leadership roles at Prince. She was a shop floor supervisor, manufacturing engineer, plant manager, and director of operations for a group of interior plants in Holland, Canada, Detroit, St. Louis and Toledo, among other roles. 

In 1996, a few years after Rolinski joined Prince, Johnson Controls acquired the Prince Automotive unit, which was a supplier of interior components such as door panels and headliners.

Johnson Controls had separate divisions for automotive, building controls, power solutions and energy storage solutions. After the acquisition, Rolinski continued in her role as director of operations.

“Automotive was one division, doing seating, and Price Corporation did everything other than seats, so by the time Johnson Controls bought Prince, we did full interiors then,” she said. “Between what Johnson Controls did with the seats and what we did with door panels, IPs, headliners … so it was a really great fit that way and they were quite global already. Johnson Controls is most known for what they started with and what they focus on now, which is building controls. Johnson Controls invented the room thermostat; (today they continue) to build building controls in the environment like security (equipment) and HVAC for very large buildings.”

As she settled in at Johnson Controls, she had many opportunities, including working in the power solution and energy storage solution division, which took her around the country and around the world.

One of those opportunities led Rolinski to Beijing, China, to work on some building controls prior to the Olympics in 2008.

“The water cube (Beijing National Aquatics Center at the Olympics), we did the controls system, monitoring the water temperatures, the air temperatures and the chemical profiles and all that,” she said. “It was not one of my major projects, I went there during the final part with the team doing some readiness, ‘What might we be missing to make sure that everything will go off OK?’ That was a great opportunity and it launched me into wanting to work in an international role, which I did, in the quality role.”

Rolinski got another opportunity to go into the lithium-ion business. Eventually, the power solution and energy storage solution division spun off from Johnson Controls and became known as Clarios. She and her team began looking at new technologies that could power electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles, which were emerging at the time. They decided to start making large-format lithium-ion cells and battery systems for electric vehicles.

“We were the first (in the U.S.) to do that,” she said. “I got involved in that program from the beginning. I got to lead that plant and launch that plant in Holland. In West Michigan, we were the first to manufacture lithium-ion cells and battery systems for that market. There are a lot of things to figure out when you are the first to pave the way, and it is not an easy thing to make, so it was a lot of fun. At the same time, we were launching (plants) in Germany, France and China, so I was doing a lot of back and forth traveling, but we were really leading the way with our plant in Holland, Michigan.

“President Obama came in 2011 once we were up and running and toured,” she said. “I got to do that tour and spend time with him, explaining the technologies to him. It was a thrill to be able to spend time with him and sit down and talk with him. We hosted a lot of members of the community to come and hear him speak afterward right in the plant.”

After spending more than 30 years in the auto industry, Rolinski decided to retire. But before she did, she took classes at Leading by DESIGN, and in August decided to begin coaching her cohort of leaders.

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