Barra is the first woman to lead one of the big three automakers in the U.S., General Motors. She has done many notable acts during her career, including investing billions in electric vehicles, self-driving cars and a ride-share service called Maven. During the pandemic in 2020, she shifted G.M.’s production lines to make critically-needed ventilators to help Ventec Life System. Barra has the highest compensation of a Detroit Big Three automaker leader. G.M. has consistently scored highly in gender equity reports; in 2018, it was one of only two global businesses with no gender pay gap.
Barra was born to be a part of G.M. Her father was a die-maker at a Pontiac plant at General Motors for almost 40 years, Fortune reports. She was always captivated by cars. Barra was 10 when she first fell in love with a car. It was a red Chevy Camaro convertible, late-’60s vintage, driven by her older cousin. When Barra recalled in an interview with Stanford, “It was just a beautiful, beautiful vehicle. The first vehicle where I went, ‘Wow, that is cool.'”
When it was time for her to buy her car, she had a hard time picking but finally settled for a Chevrolet Chevette, an affordable, boxy hatchback. She got her first job at G.M. at 18 when she participated in a G.M. program that gave her a college scholarship. She spent six months working for the company, initially inspecting fender and hood panels at a Pontiac plant.
Since graduating from Kettering University, Barra has been with the company, called the General Motors Institute, in 1985 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. According to Fortune, after graduation, she began work as a Senior Engineer at a Pontiac Fiero plant. She was soon recognized as someone with management potential, and G.M. sent her to Stanford Business School.
After getting her MBA, she immediately got her first job as a G.M. manager, running the manufacturing planning. Then she moved on to a series of demanding roles that she dealt with grace and panache. Starting with being the Executive Assistant to G.M.’s CEO in the mid-’90s, she fixed a challenging internal communications department, turned around a crucial and troubled Detroit plant, and brought data and efficiency to the company’s complicated human resources department, which soon earned her a spot on G.M.’s executive committee. She made her mark on the all-important product development side when she revamped a complicated management structure with three executives in charge of every car model.
In 2011 came her biggest test: She was appointed Senior Vice President for Global Product Development, determining the look, feel, and engineering of G.M.’s most essential products, despite having minimal experience designing or developing vehicles. Her manufacturing and quality background came through, resulting in a noticeable uptick in G.M.’s vehicles’ quality and perception.
Barra does not like to dwell on the dark days before and after the company filed Chapter 11. During that time, she worked for days at a time, with little to no sleep. “It was a very difficult, and very humbling, time,” Barra says. But she said she never doubted the company would survive. “We’re going to get through,” she says she kept thinking. “We’re going to make it through.”
In 2014, she was given the position of CEO and was named the First Female CEO in the Automobile industry. Being too close to a situation can sometimes become a handicap but in Barra’s case, it would seem she turned her closeness into a strategic advantage. For instance, when asked why she reduced GM’s corporate dress-code from 10 pages to ‘dress appropriately’ while she was running human resources, Barra told an interviewer: “It really became a window into the change that we needed to make at General Motors…I can trust you with $10 million of budget and supervising 20 people, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately? It was kind of a step in empowering…so this really encouraged people to step up.”
Barra took her understanding of the specific environment at GM and was able to capture the kinetic energy within the system to create positive movement and change. G.M. executives and outside analysts say Barra’s approach is diametrically different, one that relies on team-building and seeks consensus. She holds ‘hall meetings’ to solicit advice on project direction. She challenges engineers and designers to rethink their assumptions.
“My job is to keep with the technology advancement so that the consumers are able to choose,” she said. “I want them to be able to choose what they drive because there’s such a connection of how people pick vehicles, of what they like. So if we as a company have the right technology that allows us to deliver the fuel economy that is, I think, where the world is going, yet still offer a range of size and products to meet people’s needs and wants, that’s how we win.”
In her quest to redesign the company, Barra draws on her deep understanding of human and engineering dynamics. From a human perspective, she directs her energy by encouraging authenticity, courage, integrity, and resilience while also actively involving her team members in conflict resolution to identify and solve the problem faster. From an engineering perspective, she employs tried-and-true engineering principles – shared and aggressive goals, collaboration across functions and built-in feedback loops.
Her leadership philosophy is a straightforward and important one. She said, “At the end of the day, all businesses are about people first — because the only way we can build genuinely successful businesses is to build lasting relationships inside and outside the company.”