Lessons from Leaders: Mary Barra from the CEO


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When the General Motors Company was founded by William C. Durant in 1908, gasoline cars had recently overtaken steam cars in popularity. The company clashed with Ford – offering a range of vehicles wider than the Model T – and in the 1930s, and for several decades thereafter, General Motors (GM) was the most successful automaker in the world.

Arguably a symbol of the American dream, and certainly a product of the booming American economy in the second half of the 20th century, GM has played a central but not unblemished role in American history. This includes the development of some of the most iconic luxury cars of all time (including the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac Eldorado); providing Allied forces with billions of dollars in airplanes, trucks and tanks during WWII; and pioneering innovations such as independent front wheel suspension, unleaded gasoline engines and airbags.

The auto conglomerate’s success came to a halt in the early 2000s. After years of failing to compete with Japanese companies like Toyota, GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, struggling with more than $ 100 billion in debt and a controversial federal bailout.

More recently, a downsized and restructured General Motors has turned to driverless and electric vehicles, beating Tesla to launch the first mainstream electric car. CEO Mary Barra said: “We are all involved in electrification and our commitment to create a world with zero accidents, zero emissions and zero traffic jams. ”

Who is Marie Barra?

Appointed CEO of General Motors in early 2015, Barra was the first female CEO of an automaker “the big three” (the three largest automakers in a country). In 2018, she was ranked fourth on Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list, down from 35th in 2013; most recently, she made Time’s Top 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list.

Barra was born in Michigan and graduated from the General Motors Institute – now called Kettering University – with a BS in Electrical Engineering in 1985. She received an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990.

Prior to her most senior role at GM, she was Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. In fact, she has spent her entire career in the company, like her father before her. From 1980 at just 18, her job as a line inspector helped her pay for her school fees.

When Barra took the helm, she faced a major safety recall scandal – a faulty ignition switch linked to dozens of deaths – while gearing the auto company against global warming and rising prices fuel.

6 lessons on transforming a business model from Mary Barra

1. Get behind a clear and ambitious vision

In early 2021, Barra made an important announcement. By 2035, GM will be completely carbon neutral and vehicles using internal combustion engines will be phased out completely. The century-old automaker is in transition: it wants to be known more as a tech company than an auto company, with an increasing emphasis on software rather than hardware.

GM has pledged to invest $ 27 billion in electric vehicles and range to launch more than 30 vehicles worldwide by 2025. At least two-thirds of them will be available in North America.

“We have to set big goals because we believe in science, we think we have to do the right thing for the environment,” Barra told the Harvard Business Review, adding that we now have the technology to make this vision a reality.

2. Keep consumers at the heart of your vision

Barra believes success is not just in keeping up with technological advancements, but also in providing a full line of products so people can choose the vehicles that are best for them.

Many people make emotional connections with their cars, and Barra wants to make cars that customers love to own. Much like in the beginning, when GM competed with the Ford Model T, the auto conglomerate’s plan is to offer a wide selection of electric vehicles in a range of prices.

3. Work on your reaction times

During the Covid-19 pandemic, General Motors drew people from across the company, and within 30 days they were making ventilators to help fill the global shortage.

“It was really a point of proof – when you know you have to do something, how fast you can do it and how everyone is just responding to the cry for help,” Barra said in a video. produced by GM and Time. “And now, as we go into different projects, we say, ‘We have to go at fan speed’ because we know we have the capacity to do it.”

She wants to use this experience to push GM to shorten the time spent in the overall vehicle development process.

4. Develop a consensual leadership style

Barra is described by her colleagues as methodical, logical and fair; a good listener who can challenge the status quo. She places great importance on the value of communication, believing that explaining to employees why they are asked to do something is the key to unleashing creativity and innovation. She is a team builder and regularly seeks expert advice on leading projects from a range of sources.

When she was named CEO, she gathered GM’s top executives together and asked them how they were going to change the culture of the company. From this process, GM identified and introduced a handful of ‘behaviors’ – for example, being customer-centric and inclusive – and aligned its processes with these, including employee compensation and recognition systems. .

5. Adapt to changing employee needs

The pandemic has permanently changed the way people work, and Barra recognizes the need to adapt. GM has refined its recruiting methods and introduced specially designed remote roles. The company has also taken a “work appropriately,” approach, Barra told CNN. This implies prioritizing flexibility for workers, as well as greater accountability.

The CEO is also aware of the importance of sustaining her workforce, given General Motors’ aspirations. A fully electric future requires the company to upgrade the skills of its current workforce, as well as invest in training and education for the pipeline of future employees.

6. Valuing diversity and inclusion

As one of the most successful businesswomen in the world, Barra believes in the need for inclusion in the workplace. The wider the range of voices, the greater your pool of innovative ideas.

“We really want General Motors to be the most inclusive company in the world. It starts with our foundation. We want our culture at General Motors to allow all of our employees to feel valued, to belong and to be a place where they can be themselves, ”said Barra.

The lack of gender diversity has been plaguing the auto industry for some time, but Barra is telling women to hold on. His advice to those whose voices are stifled by the interruption is to say, politely but forcefully, “Let me finish.”

How to lead like Mary Barra

Mary Barra is clearly not one to back down from a tall order, even when it comes to overcoming a century-old way of working, a male-dominated industry and even global disasters.

When it comes to leading a business through a significant transformation under demanding circumstances, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I know exactly what I’m aiming for? Do I really believe in my vision?
  2. Do I plan to provide something that people will aspire to?
  3. Is the business changing fast enough to adapt to the challenges?
  4. Have I sought advice from all stakeholders? Do I keep people constantly updated?
  5. Do I know what employees expect from the company? Do I have a pipeline of future talents?
  6. How to improve diversity and inclusion?

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Image Credit: Steve Lagreca / Shutterstock.com

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