Since starting out as a co-op student at GM in 1980 at the age of 18, Mary Barra has become the highest paid, and arguably most successful, CEO in the automotive industry. Unlike many of her counterparts, her educational and professional background are centered around engineering, and her approach to leadership has reflected that of an engineer. Since assuming her position as the CEO of General Motors, Barra has been named the 5th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes, received an honorary doctorate from Duke University, and was featured on the cover of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World”.
Her career is an inspiration to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, and has a lot to teach us about the value of efficiency, integrity, and a willingness to drive change in creating a successful and influential business of any size.
Barra began her career at GM as a co-op student to help her pay her tuition at Kettering University, where she studied electrical engineering. After graduation, she joined the company full time, and later earned a Master’s degree in business administration at Stanford University. In the following years she moved through a number of engineering and administrative jobs at GM, slowly working her way up the ranks.
After holding several high level positions, including Vice President of Global Manufacturing Engineering, Vice President of Global Human Resources, and Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, she was appointed as GM’s chief executive in 2014. This made her the first female CEO not just at General Motors, but in the entire automotive industry.
Immediately after her appointment, GM and Barra were faced with an enormous challenge. Faulty ignition switches in GM vehicles were causing fatal accidents, and Barra needed to act quickly to save lives, resolve the situation, and protect her company. Recalling the crisis in an interview with Stanford Business, Barra said: “We were guided by three principles: doing the right thing for the customer, being transparent, and doing everything in our power to make sure it never happened again.”
Barra reacted swiftly and comprehensively, creating a compensation package for crash victims. GM issued 83 safety recalls that involved over 30 million cars, and took action to prevent future issues, manage its reputation, and pave the way for the future of the company. Barra then moved on to simplify GM’s bureaucracy, and to modify the business’ company culture to better enable workers to come forward about potential problems.
Driving innovation forward
In working to create a stronger company culture, Barra wasn’t just pursuing better communication, transparency, and product safety. She was also aiming to turn the century-old company toward the future and to breathe new life into a large and relatively conservative enterprise. She believes that employees come to work every day aiming to do a good job, and a good leader’s task is to ensure that their environment promotes their success rather than getting in their way.
Unsurprisingly, her leadership has, in fact, promoted innovation and new development at General Motors. In 2017, she successfully pushed for the creation of the Chevy Bolt EV, finally beating Tesla in developing the first electric car with a range of over 200 miles. The development of self-driving cars, while still relatively early, has also thrived under her leadership.
What we can learn
Unlike many of the most successful business leaders we discuss, Barra hasn’t founded any businesses, didn’t come up with any disruptive new innovations, and hasn’t gone out of her way to cultivate the kind of entrepreneurial celebrity that many others such as Mark Zuckerberg or Richard Branson have. Instead, through her understanding of her industry and her company, and in representing her own values, she’s become one of the world’s most successful business leaders.
When examined, Barra’s actions boil down to a few simple values that mostly reflect her background as an engineer. Throughout her career, she has strived to make GM more efficient, to create an innovative work environment, and to bring a higher level of integrity to the company. Her success in pursuit of these goals are key to her success as a leader, and show us that developing and representing our values is an important part of leading a business. It also shows us that excellent innovators can come from anywhere.
While Barra isn’t trying to personally transform the world like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, she is an important driver of progress and innovation in her industry. For entrepreneurs who primarily look up to Silicon Valley tech startups, this can feel surprising, even though it makes perfect sense considering her background. Just as tech entrepreneurs innovate by inventing entire new industries and developing unexpected products, innovators like Mary Barra transform existing industries and update the technologies we already know.