I never thought there was a glass ceiling
Like a phoenix arising stronger and more powerful than ever from the ashes of disaster, ‘Firebird’ Mary T Barra has lifted General Motors out of the slough of despondency of the bankruptcy of 2009 and she continues to raise it to an ever more visionary future, where the development of electric cars, driverless cars and engagement of intriguing undisclosed technology, there will be ‘zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion’.
Barra began her meteoric career at General Motors, which now employs over 25,000 people worldwide, when she was 18 years old, inspecting hoods and fender panels of the Pontiac Grand Prix and she went on to become CEO in 2014 at the age of 53. She used this early work to fund her degree in electrical engineering from the General Motors Institute and equipped with an MBA from Stanford she was started as a management trainee.
Barra has had an illustrious career with General Motors, having served as Executive Vice President of Global Product Development and Vice President of Global Human Resources and Vice President Global Manufacturing Engineering. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Economic Club and as a member of The Business Council. Barra is also co-chair of the Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation.
In both 2015 and 2016 Barra was ranked in first place on the Fortune ’50 most powerful women in business’. In 2016 she was elected Chairman of the Board of Governors of GM and in 2017 she was elected to the Board of Disney, bringing the total number of Board members to 12. They were keen to tap into her renowned ability to adapt to a fast-changing technological know-how and her skills at navigating a consumer-focused landscape, where the customer is always firmly at the centre.
Barra is a clear-sighted leader and a simplifier, her motto is ‘identify what’s necessary and cut everything else’. She famously changed the company’s complicated dress code to simply ‘dress appropriately’ and when queried about how to apply this she encouraged her managers to become ‘leaders not rule enforcers’ to take ownership of their teams, as exemplified when took ownership of her own role. Shortly after she took over her new role there as a recall of 2.5 million cars for which she personally accepted responsibility. She says that she was going to make sure there were ‘no more crappy cars’. Her philosophy is that the customer wants you to ‘care, to listen and to fix it’ and she often takes the trouble to respond to customer complaints by telephoning the customer and doing those things. She accounts her success to having been taught by ‘great leaders’ who challenged her. She preaches that ‘how you get things done is just as important as getting them done’ and suggests the example to us all to ‘conduct yourself with integrity at all times, be honest, be fair and keep your promises.’
Although Barra is undoubtedly a feminist icon and a shining beacon of what CAN be achieved, she has a broadly inclusive attitude exemplified in that she ‘would like to be a champion of PEOPLE in the work place (yet if she is) if role model for young women … that makes me extremely happy’. She considers that ‘when you solve issues for women you solve issues for everyone’ and she has ‘never thought there was a glass ceiling’ (the invisible barrier to the advancement of women and minorities in the workplace). She was notably very proud when a mother told her ‘because of you my daughter has chosen to study engineering.’ She commands loyalty from her workers, expecting and believing that ‘people want to do their best.’ In 2014, a work colleague reported, ‘she engenders loyalty through example and kindness.’