The automotive industry is predominantly male – there is no beating around the bush about that – even though there are some women that have not only shaped it, but have gone so far as to even make it possible in the form we know today. Case in point – Bertha Benz, the first ever driver in the world and the woman who convinced people they needed cars in their everyday lives.
But there are also women who have not settled with being the brain behind the operation and remaining unseen and uncredited for their success-crowned work within the automotive industry. Ms. Mary Barra is one of those women. If the name sounds familiar to you, it is probably because she is the world’s top paid CEO in the automotive industry and the first woman to lead a major automaker – General Motors. She is also listed as #53 on the Powerful People of 2018 list by Forbes and #5 on the Power Women in 2017 list and has appeared on the cover of the prestigious magazine in 2014.
Ms. Barra was born December 24th, 1961 in Royal Oak, Michigan. You could say that the GM brand has been in her blood for as long as she can remember, seeing as her father worked at Pontiac for almost 40 years. She entered the automotive industry at the age of 18 – checking fender panels and inspecting hoods to pay for her college tuition at the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) where she studied electrical engineering (Bachelor of Science degree) and business administration (Masters degree).
After getting her MBA, she got her first job as a GM manager, running manufacturing planning followed by a series of increasingly visible jobs, including executive assistant to GM’s CEO in the mid ’90s, fixing a troubled internal communications department, turning around an important and troubled Detroit plant, and bringing data and efficiency to the company’s messy human resources department, which earned her a spot on GM’s executive committee. In January 2014, Ms. Mary Barra was elected as Chairman of the GM Board of Directors and took over as CEO of GM, thus becoming the first ever female to head a major automobile manufacturer.
However, she had her work cut out for her. Shortly after Barra became CEO, she was blindsided by a major crisis. A longstanding ignition switch defect was revealed to have caused at least 13 deaths (with the death toll ultimately rising to 124) and 275 injuries costing the company over $2 billion. Millions of GM cars had to be recalled, 15 high-level employees were fired, 5 others disciplined and Ms. Barra had to testify before Congress. She also created a compensation fund for victims’ families aside from the company being fined $900 million as part of a deferred prosecution agreement. For the most part, she has been lauded for how she handled the catastrophe, successfully preserved GM’s reputation and contributed to its ongoing success.
“One thing people outside of a company often don’t understand, she said, is that when you are in a crisis, it’s not like you have perfect information on day one. In our situation specifically, we learned we had an issue, and we acted. But then there was a lot to unfold.”
Not only had she handled the crisis outside the company, but she also used it to change the culture within. From the very beginning, she has ignored the GM template for handling these situations – minimize their importance, fight them, drag them out, settle grudgingly. Seeing that the company had a culture problem and an opportunity to attack it, she took the direct opposite of the GM approach. Basically, Ms. Barra acknowledged that the company hadn’t done its job in keeping their customers safe, something no previous GM executive had ever said.
“I never want to put this behind us,” she told employees at a town hall meeting that stunned many of them. “I want to put this painful experience permanently in our collective memories. The mistakes that led to the ignition-switch recall should never have happened. We have apologized and we do so again today. I believe that our response has been unprecedented in terms of candor, cooperation, transparency, and compassion.”
Moreover, the U.S. prosecutor Preet Bharara said the cooperation by GM executives had been “fairly extraordinary. It’s the reason we’re here after 18 months rather than 4 years.”
Nowadays, Ms. Barra is focused on making GM a big player on the electrical vehicle scene. General Motors has invested heavily in electric vehicles, created a digital in-car marketplace for finding everything from gas to coffee, has an affordable electric vehicle with nearly as much range as a Tesla – Chevrolet Bolt EV, bought a self-driving car startup now valued at $11.5 billion, and is building out a comprehensive network of shared cars on par with (if not better than) Google’s self-driving outfit, Waymo.
GM has publicly stated a goal of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. Since roughly 40.000 people die in traffic accidents annually in the U.S. and 90% of those accidents involve human error, Ms. Barra believes that autonomous driving can dramatically reduce those numbers.
The further refinement of electric vehicles, she said, can get us to zero emissions. And zero traffic congestion can be achieved with “a combination of autonomous and different modes of travel, not just the individual driving their vehicle but ridesharing and car-sharing.” Designing cities differently may also be necessary. “All of this we look at as General Motors’ responsibility,” she said.
As for work culture, GM executives and outside analysts say Ms. Barra’s approach is diametrically different – one that relies on team-building and seeks consensus. She holds “hall meetings” to solicit advice on project direction. She challenges engineers and designers to rethink their assumptions, the motto being: “Let’s all figure this out together.”
Makes sense, since her career at GM has been defined by a drive toward efficiency, agility, and better quality, things that the company sorely lacked as it fell behind other automakers before she took over. That is probably why she is now able to say that she hadn’t experienced the glass ceiling in the industry, or maybe it’s because she hadn’t allowed it to stop her from breaking it.
“I’m extremely proud of how many women we have in significant roles at General Motors, and it’s work that started decades ago by developing a pipeline of people who were encouraged, mentored and given “stretch” assignments.”
Finally, Ms. Mary Barra’s story is one for which other young female executives admire her:
“I have great admiration for Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors. I’m so impressed by her rise in a male-dominated industry, as well as how she navigated the 2014 recall crisis at GM during her first year as CEO.” – Ann Marie Campbell, EVP, U.S. Stores, Home Depot
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