Mary Barra Drives The Future Of GM

GM's Mary Barra, the highest-ranking woman in the automotive industry, talks to Fast Company about where she sees Detroit headed post-bailout, how the Volt reenergized her team in its darkest hours, and how to make cars that capture the imagination.

When it comes to glass ceilings in the auto industry, just put Mary Barra behind the wheel of any GM car and she’ll likely figure out a way to blast right through them. Sure, there are plenty of women taking lead roles in car design and manufacturing (we’ve talked to several of them here, here and here), but Barra’s in a coveted spot.

Current CEO Dan Akerson tipped his hat to her executive prowess by naming her to the short list of top brass who would succeed him. This came just a year after he placed Barra in the driver’s seat of GM's global product development efforts. As senior vice president, she has her hand in everything from engineering to quality control as well as overseeing about 30,000 people and managing a multibillion-dollar budget.

Sound impressive? It should. Now that GM’s pulled itself back from bankruptcy and reclaimed its spot as the world’s top automaker (selling 9 million vehicles—a fact often overshadowed in a firestorm of criticism about the company's post-bailout performance—in 2011), Barra’s the highest-ranking woman in the industry.

Right now, Barra’s too busy to be drafting plans to redecorate the corner office. In fact, she insists, “I have the best job in the company already. I am surrounded by great new cars, trucks, and cross-overs every day, and I play a role in bringing new innovations and vehicle designs to life.” She did make some time to talk to us about leadership and the lessons she’s learned during her 32 years at GM.

Love Your Work
“They don’t write songs about toasters and iPhones,” Barra quips, “But cars make it into a lot of them.” Though she’s not quick to call herself an auto geek, Barra’s got a sense of purpose in her work that has taken her through three decades. She says she feels as though she’s had a lot of careers within GM, ranging from stints in communications to managing Detroit’s Hamtramk assembly plant. “I have had many experiences that helped me grow and take with me a fundamental understanding of the industry and our challenges.” In addition to working for great leaders, Barra says, she attacked each new position “like I am going to do it for the rest of my life.” With that much passion and energy, she says, managers can’t help but take an interest in you.

Though she’s never worked directly in design, Barra’s not concerned about critics who say she couldn’t lead GM without that experience. “Where I can contribute most to my team is applying my formal engineering training, experience, and leadership,” she says, citing her wide-ranging experience as a unique perspective to see a new vehicle from its initial concept as a line on paper, through engineering, to production, and ultimately to the customer.

Put Everything on the Table
Barra’s more than just a lifelong employee at GM, she’s the second generation in her family to do that. Her father spent 39 years as a diemaker at Pontiac and retired just six months before her own career began as an 18-year old co-op student at the Pontiac Motor division of General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). In addition to paving the way for her degree in electrical engineering, Barra says it was then that she learned the importance of taking responsibility for problem solving. “If you don’t address problems head on, they don’t go away—they get bigger. Get the right people together, address the challenges, and keep moving forward.”

In her current position, Barra says she’s trying to create an environment that gets the best out of everyone. That means holding court at weekly staff meetings as well as walking around or urging employees to send her emails with their ideas. Acting as the coach of the “team,” she sees herself making the call if they can’t reach a consensus, but she encourages debate and constructive tension. “If we have a spirit of that, we will have all the ideas on the table quickly and be able to make a decision.”

Tear Up the Road Map
Just before Barra was installed in her current position, she was VP of Global Human Resources for GM, a spot she took in 2009, right about the time the automaker was being kept afloat by a $50 billion bailout by the federal government. Barra remained optimistic. “It was an open book to innovate; a fresh start to say, How do we want to change the culture and what process and policies can we put in place to reenergize.” Even though she’s changed jobs, Barra says GM is still in that mode. “Nothing is sacred. We are still challenging processes.”

Always Race to Win
Barra’s unabashedly competitive for GM, stating, “Our goal is to win in every segment,” whether that’s with the affordable mini-compact Spark, a traditionally muscular Camaro, a pat-of-butter-riding Buick Regal, or even a massive luxury Cadillac Escalade. “You gotta have an array,” Barra says, citing GM’s core strength in its breadth of cars.

“You cant design a vehicle [just for] show,” she adds to underscore her belief that you can’t hang hopes (and revenue projections) on blockbuster cars alone. Barra’s also convinced that there’s a balance to be struck between innovation and giving customers what they really want and need. “You can go in so many directions with the technology, but it’s got to be where the customer finds value.” GM tasks a variety of teams to come up with the next big thing, including engaging studios around the world to compete with their sketches of next generation vehicles. What it comes down to is that the look of the car must speak to the individual buyer. Barra says if it's too trendy, it won’t “age gracefully” and do well over its sales life cycle.

Keep the Charge
Speaking of aging and iterating, Barra points out that GM was first with EV1 technology but elected not to introduce the Volt until 2010, giving Prius the opportunity to grab a big piece of the U.S. market. Chevrolet has sold 10,666 Volts as of July 2012, compared with 7,671 for all of 2011, outselling both Prius and Nissan’s Leaf.

Barra’s look in Volt’s rearview mirror indicates that the company did well to take the time to develop a battery that is just one-third the size of the original EV1’s hefty 1,200 lbs. but still offers the same storage capacity of 16 kilowatt hours on lithium ion instead of lead acid chemicals. What’s more she says, the Volt was the spark that boosted morale during its darkest days in 2009. Even if they weren’t working directly on its development, she says, “It was critically important for them to say ‘Hey, we can do this’ and demonstrate GM’s capability.”

No Obstacles, No Gender Roles
Forging any career path is fraught with challenges, and Barra started at a time when there were few female role models in the industry. Ever the pragmatist, Barra maintains she’s never allowed being a woman to hinder her moves up the ladder. “Every time I approach a new business opportunity, or a new activity, or a new role, I approach it as an engineer, as a professional, as a leader. My gender doesn’t really come into it.”  At the same time, she’s encouraged by the rise in high-profile female leaders and board members in the auto business, and in virtually every industry, she says, there are personal decisions every woman has to make to balance career and home life. Those ultimately determine where their individual careers will lead, she says. 

Road Warrior
Barra’s driving different cars and trucks all the time. She currently drives a Regal to work and a Cadillac on the weekend. But she’s still looking for that perfect, collectible Camaro to satisfy a longtime yearning for the classic muscle car. The bottom line for Barra? “Cars and trucks are exciting and an important part of people's lives,” then adds, “It’s in my blood. I want GM to succeed.”

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