Mary Barra – Transforming General Motors Through Powerful Leadership

Mary Barra

Some people, so it seems, are born to follow a specific path – to fulfill a purpose. Mary Makela may just be such a person. She was born into a hard-working blue-collar family in Waterford, Michigan on Christmas Eve 1961. Her parents were of Finnish heritage – he a die maker at General Motors’ (GM) Pontiac division, she a stay-at-home mom and part time bookkeeper. Raised during the Great Depression, they taught their children to believe in the American Dream – that they could become whatever they put their minds to.

Both Mary and her brother, Paul, excelled in the areas of science and math. Upon graduating high school, Mary became a co-op student attending the General Motors Institute – now the Kettering University – and working in the Pontiac plant inspecting hood and fender panels. By 1985, she’d earned an electrical engineering degree. It was at Kettering that she met, and subsequently married, Tony Barra.

After graduating, Mary began full time employment at GM, working in part, on the Pontiac Fiero. Over the next three years she established herself as a ‘high potential’ candidate, as evidenced by her earning a GM sponsored grant to attend Stanford University. There, she earned an MBA, before returning to work full time at General Motors.

For the next decade, Mary continued to advance in her career, working in a variety of positions in both engineering and manufacturing roles. In 1999, she was named General Director, Internal Communications for GM North America. Through her knowledge, experience, leadership skills, Mary continued to distinguish herself and advance within GM’s management structure. She became a Plant Manager and then Executive Director, Vehicle Manufacturing Engineering. She then held several Global Vice President positions including Manufacturing Engineering, Human Resources and Product Development before being named Executive Vice President for Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply chain in 2013.

In 23 years, she’d gone from inspecting fenders to being in charge of worldwide product development. What could be next? For Mary, it was a groundbreaking move. She was named the CEO of General Motors, assuming that position on January 15, 2014 – making her the first ever female to head a major automobile manufacturing company. But there would be no time for celebration.

GM had just emerged from the largest industrial bankruptcy in the history – filed in 2009. It had been complicated and largely misunderstood, but successful in saving GM. The ship had been steadied, but the storms were far from ended. Mary’s first major challenge was to face ‘Switchgate’ – an ignition issue which had resulted in as many as 100 deaths, yet had been ‘swept under the rug’ for the better part of a decade. For Mary, there was only one course of action.

She immediately acknowledged the problem. She initiated a full investigation, admitting that there had been efforts to cover-up the issue within GM. In a unique move for a corporation, she committed that GM would make full restitution – prior to knowing the financial impact. It was a defining moment for Mary and for General Motors. Mary’s actions marked a distinct change in how GM would do business – one that would require a major shift of the corporate culture.

Mary realized that ‘changing the corporate culture’ was a necessity. She also knew that to do so, the focus had to be on changed behavior – beginning with her own. Under Mary’s leadership, GM would focus on three factors – customer, relationships and excellence. Customer satisfaction would be at the center of everything. There would be transparency within the company. Employees not only were safe from negative reaction for reporting issues – they would be rewarded. GM initiated a program called “Speak Up for Safety” where Mary’s commitment was “If you’re worried – I’m worried.”

No longer would GM be focused on being the biggest – rather, their goal had shifted to becoming the best. Quality was stressed at every level. Profitability would outweigh number of units. By 2015, Mary had pulled GM from major markets including Europe, Russia, India, South Africa. Low-margin fleet sales have been greatly reduced. Heading into 2017, the company’s stock price remained low. Revenue had been flat but margins were growing.

General Motors is transforming – slowly – into a corporation best suited for the coming changes to the automotive industry. Sales in the world’s greatest volume potential market – China – are on the rise. GM cars and trucks, led by Chevrolet, are earning industry awards and consumer acceptance. This performance is the result of the leadership of a truly fearless brand – Mary Barra.

Fearless brands lead by example, building on experience and vision

Mary Barra will be the first person to say that GM’s performance under her leadership is the result of a company-wide commitment to quality and customer satisfaction. It is her vision, however, that is setting the stage for change. Barra believes that this is the most exciting time in the history of the automobile industry, citing the personal connection customers have with their cars and trucks along with the changes certain to result from new technology. Her simple goal for GM? Put the safest, highest-quality cars on the road.

Barra has never thought of herself as a woman in the auto industry, just a talented, hard-working and dedicated employee who capitalized on opportunities as they were presented. Mary Barra has earned a widespread reputation for honesty, integrity and talent. Several top business people from both inside and outside of GM, have stated that she is one of the most talented executives they’ve ever encountered.

It’s her talent, knowledge and reputation that are allowing her to do business differently than GM has done in the past. It’s her leadership that sets the tone for the company’s new path and modified corporate culture. Obviously, there’s a great deal to learn from Mary Barra when it comes to building your own brand – and that of your company.

Put in the time – do the work – Mary Barra is certainly a ‘lifer’ at GM. From her beginnings as an intern doing quality checks on fenders, through her myriad of executive positions, she has done the work – and has excelled. There truly are not any overnight success stories – at least not any that have longevity. Want to build a fearless brand? Do the work.

It’s about the customer – Truly fearless brands continuously provide value. Value is determined by your customers. Mary Barra certainly recognizes this fact and has made the customer the central focus for all of General Motors. Whether your company is on the Fortune 100 list or local business, place your emphasis on your customer, provide value, exceed their expectations.

Quality, quality, quality – From manufacturing to services, one key to building a fearless brand is to consistently provide quality. You cannot fake quality. Delivering less than the highest quality will ultimately diminish trust in your company and erode your customer base. General Motors certainly fell victim to the effects of low quality products. Mary Barra is committed to reversing that issue. The same holds true for your business – for your brand. There’s just no substitute for quality.

Perhaps Mary Barra truly was destined to become the CEO of General Motors. Perhaps she attained that position through hard work and talent. Either way, she is the consummate fearless brand. She is an ideal role model to follow as you build both your company and personal brands.


Friday's Fearless Brand Personal Branding

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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