GM’s 1st Woman CEO, Mary Barra

In 2014, Mary Barra became the first woman CEO of a major automobile company when she took the helm at General Motors. During her tenure, she’s cut costs, streamlined processes and driven the company toward efficiency while combating the negative repercussions from the government bailout.

Career Path

Barra grew up with General Motors in her life – her dad worked at a Pontiac plant for almost 40 years, her first car was a Chevrolet and GM sent her to college through a program that helped pay for her tuition. When she graduated from Kettering University with an electrical engineering degree in 1985, she began working at a Pontiac Fiero plant as a senior engineer.

GM realized that she had the potential to be a manager, and they sent her to Stanford University to obtain her graduate degree. After she graduated, she became a manager at GM and ran manufacturing planning. Her career progressed from there as she entered the role of executive assistant to the CEO. She also headed up the human resources department and helped to fix issues at an important Detroit plant.

While she was head of HR, she reduced GM’s written dress code from 10 pages to two simple words: “dress appropriately.”
“I said, ‘I can trust you with $10 million of budget and supervising 20 people, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ It was kind of a step in empowering,” Barra said in an interview with Fortune. “We found that sometimes people hid behind the rules and didn’t like them, but didn’t necessarily step up. So, this really encouraged people to step up.”
In 2011, she was named senior vice president of global product development – giving her a chance to expand her career, as she didn’t have much experience in vehicle design and development.

GM named Barra CEO in January 2014, and elected her Chairman of the Board in January 2016. Under her leadership, GM is working on strengthening its current offerings while expanding into advanced technologies like autonomous driving and electric vehicles. She is also a member of Disney’s board of directors. As of April 2017, she was the highest paid CEO of a major automobile corporation, earning $22.6 million in 2016, according to CNN Money.

Barra’s Leadership Style

According to an NBC News article, Barra leads as a coach instead of acting as a micro-manager.

“It’s not that Mary is weak. Quite the contrary,” a close GM associate said in an interview with NBC News. “She is able to make quick and sometimes controversial decisions. But she encourages the team members she trusts to make a case for what they believe needs to be done.”

In her own words, Barra says she is collaborative and encourages her team to make the decisions. She also wants constructive tension.
“But at the end of the day, when the decision has to be made, if we don’t have complete unanimity, I have no qualms about making it,” Barra said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I want that tension in a constructive way to make sure we evaluate things from every angle. I am pretty hands-on as well. I will call a chief engineer when I am driving a vehicle.”

Words of Wisdom from Barra

“In this area of rapid transformation, you have to have a culture that’s agile.” – Interview with Fast Company, October 2016

“Not everything needs changing. Some things need protecting. And that can be just as important, challenging and rewarding as changing the world.” – Kettering University commencement address, June 2013

“Everybody does a better job when they’re able to balance … in a world now with our Blackberrys and our smartphones, we’re always on. We need to find the opportunity not to do everything, but to do the important things.” – Interview with Inforum, March 2012

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(Image attribution: Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors.)

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