If I were more of a betting man, I'd wager that Mary Barra is a very clever poker player.
How would I know?
A few weeks ago, Barra—the newly appointed General Motors CEO—came through New York City on business and met me for coffee one afternoon in Greenwich Village. (Actually, Barra ordered tea.) If she had any inkling at the time that a big promotion was coming down the road, and that she’d be named the first female chief executive of a major American automobile company, there was no telling.
Instead, the conversation veered from talk about GM’s big cars (the new Cadillac) to its spunky smaller models (such as the Chevrolet Sonic). We took detours into the company’s view on the future of the Chevy Volt (still very positive) and spent a few minutes circling around whether GM perceives a market in tiny, low-impact, city transportation vehicles (entirely plausible).
As usual, Barra knew the details as well as the big picture, talking expansively about price points, horsepower, buyer demographics, and (her specialty) the user experience. And as I’d known from previous conversations with her in Detroit, she doesn’t just talk up GM cars, or parrot the promotional literature: She knows them inside and out. In large part this is because she tests them every Friday at the GM proving grounds in Milford, Michigan.
But just as crucially, she tests them in her own life, borrowing them for an evening or two from the office to see whether they can easily handle her son’s hockey equipment or family groceries, and whether they pass muster for her on cold morning commutes.
In person, Barra is relentlessly pleasant; she is surprisingly down to earth. And for most GM watchers, the promotion wasn’t much of a surprise. She has the qualifications, as someone who has run a GM manufacturing plant, the company’s human resources department, and—most importantly—it global vehicle development efforts. She can talk powertrains; she can talk diversity. She regularly reads emails from lineworkers with a problem or an innovative suggestion and uses her sway to address it. She has never believed a venerable legacy or better marketing can maintain GM’s image, which was tarnished by the government bailout and by some of the company’s brands’ weakening performance.
"It’s something that didn’t happen overnight," she told me in 2011 when we discussed GMs problems at her office in Detroit. "And it won’t change overnight. And our only way out of it is great products. That is the only way out of it."
Finally, there’s her pedigree, which goes a long way in explaining her ascension. It would be difficult to find someone more committed to GM, more congenitally involved, then Barra. As the head of new product development, Barra often would tell her colleagues at GM that they were extraordinarily fortunate to get to do the work of building cars. "We get the opportunity to work on products that are either the most important, or the second most important purchase, in a person’s life," she would often say to motivate her team in product development. And it wasn’t talk, because she believed every word of it.
"My dad was a die maker at Pontiac motor division for 30 years," she told me, adding that her family "lived GM" through his work. "And when I was in high school I loved science and math, so engineering or a math-type major seemed to be where I was headed." Soon after high school she entered what was then called General Motors Institute, which is now called Kettering University. "I started working here at 18, at one of our assembly plants. I was on the line. I was a quality person on the line, all day long."
It was through that process—the co-op work with GM all through college as she earned an engineering degree—that proved so formative.
From then on, the die was cast (to borrow one last gambling metaphor). At that point, she said, GM "became part of me."