Ray Makela was a first-generation Finnish American who worked as a die maker at Pontiac for almost 40 years. A career at one place for this amount of time is like any long-term relationship: it becomes predictable. You start to anticipate the business’s moves, possibly even before the organization makes them. But no matter what future Ray envisioned, he almost certainly never imagined a woman as General Motors’ CEO. During the 1960s, this idea was nothing more than the punchline of a bad joke. However, his daughter Mary Barra would change that.
Breaking the glass ceiling in such a way is impressive, but Barra’s accomplishments go far beyond her gender. She’s not just a powerful female CEO, she’s one of the world’s most effective, successful CEOs in general.
Her top achievements include:
- Becoming the first woman in history to lead one of The Big Three automakers.
- Helping GM achieve status as the world’s top business for gender equality, equity, and inclusion.
- Netting the highest income of any CEO in the auto industry.
- Reviving a dying organization with the hopes of restoring it beyond its former glory.
When thinking about top-ranking corporate CEOs that exemplify what hard work and grit look like, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than her. In this article, learn more about GM’s CEO and what experiences and skills led her to become one of today’s most admired CEOs.
A Quick Drive Through Mary Barra’s Career
Barra joins General Motors’ student co-op program. Her first job after high school was with Pontiac, inspecting fenders and hoods to help pay for her college education.
She graduates college and finishes her education with an electrical engineering degree from the General Motors Institute (the school is now called Kettering University). Barra takes a position as a senior engineer with Pontiac upon graduation.
Quickly showing promise as a leader, GM awards her a fellowship to receive additional education to grow her corporate management skills. She attends Stanford University, where she receives an MBA.
Barra holds a number of positions, including the manager of a manufacturing plant, the CEO’s executive assistant, and the general director of communications.
Putting her management skills to the test, she becomes the plant manager for the ailing Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant.
Impressed by her work, GM names Barra the Executive Director of Vehicle Manufacturing Engineering.
Excelling in her role, she then becomes the Vice President of Global Manufacturing Engineering.
Known as a leader who commits to developing a healthy work culture, Barra accepts a role as the Vice President of Global Human Resources. To demonstrate how ridiculous the bureaucracy at the company was getting, she minimized the multi-paged dress code down to “dress appropriately.”
She tells Business Insider this move forced leaders to step up and have difficult conversations when their definitions of those words didn’t align with their employees’. “I want them to take ownership of the rules and say, ‘You’re accountable to lead your team,'” Barra explains.
Mary Barra moves into one of GM’s most critical roles: Senior Vice President of Global Product Development. This ultimately gave her the say-so when it came to the engineering and design of GM’s products. In addition to this, she became the Executive Vice President for Global Product Development and Vice President of Purchasing and Supply Chain in 2013.
The organization announces Barra will replace GM’s CEO, Dan Akerson.
During her tenure as CEO, her top-ranking accomplishments include:
- Becoming the first woman in history to lead a top automaking company.
- Helping pull GM out of the largest bankruptcy in history and putting it back on track to being a highly profitable business. For instance, as reported by Macrotrends, for the second quarter of 2021, General Motors’ revenue was $34.167B, a 103.64% increase in year-over-year growth measured from 2009.
- Successfully navigating a crisis where Mary Barra and General Motors came under fire by the Senate for safety issues.
- Reshaping company policies that help empower employees to report the mistakes and problems they notice on the ground.
- Transitioning the business over toward becoming fully electric by 2035.
- Being elected as the Chair of the GM Board of Directors in 2016.
- Becoming the world’s highest-paid auto executive.
- Ranking number six on Forbes’ “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.”
Mary Barra’s Top Attributes
So, why Mary Barra? GM employs over 155,000 people—how was this one person able to climb the corporate ladder and reach the top? Find out what personal qualities helped her stand out and rise to the top in a sea of potential CEOs.
1. Communicates a Clear Vision of the Future
One of Mary Barra’s most exceptional skills is vision-casting. As cited on her leadership profile, she “envisions a world with zero crashes, to save lives; zero emissions, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet; and zero congestion, so customers get back a precious commodity—time.”
To be effective, a CEO’s vision must include a just cause worth fighting for—a purpose greater than financial gain. When discussing what her teams at the business think about her vision, Barra tells HBR IdeaCast, “We believe that we need to do the right thing for the environment, and we believe that we now have the technology . . . Our employees are excited about that, and they want to be part of it because they want to make sure they’re not only working for a company that’s doing the right thing, but it’s doing the right thing for the environment for safety, not only for their children but for their children’s children too.”
To align with her vision, GM vows to add 30 new electric vehicles to their fleet by 2025. It’s all a part of a move toward an all-electric future, Barra’s top initiative. This purposeful, bright future is a stark change from the dark times of 2009 when the company faced financial collapse. Barra’s leadership provides a new direction that people can get behind, as it’s leading the automotive industry toward a bright and sustainable future.
2. Leads From Various Perspectives
Throughout her career, Barra played many roles within the company. Because of this, she knows the business and its people like the back of her hand. This gives her a competitive advantage over others who could’ve possibly filled the CEO role, especially those who worked outside the organization.
Whether she’s using her engineering chops, applying her management skills, streamlining the manufacturing process, or growing an organization that employees love working for with her human resources experience, Barra can lead the organization from various perspectives. This allows her to solve problems with a multi-faceted mentality.
In terms of interacting with employees and building a great organizational culture, she also has a tremendous advantage since there’s not a person she can’t relate to. As she explains, “My first job at General Motors was as a quality inspector on the assembly line. I was checking fits between hoods and fenders. I had a little scale and clipboard. At one point, I was probably examining 60 jobs an hour during an eight-hour shift. A job like that teaches you to value all the people who do a job like that.”
From factory worker to manager, director, and top-level executive—she’s done it all. This allows her to make decisions that put people first because she can truly identify with them, knowing how hard they work and what they do to make the company succeed.
3. Serves as an Inspiration
At his 2014 State of the Union address, Barack Obama said Mary Barra demonstrates the “strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.” It’s a sentiment that employees at GM feel. Those within the company admire her because she exemplifies what hard work and dedication get you. Her example proves anything is possible. It also shows the organization provides limitless opportunities for growth for those who step up and show their leadership abilities.
In addition to this, Barra has brought the company back to life. In 2009, when the business filed for bankruptcy, an article from The Economist said it best: “No one believes that GM will ever return to its former glory.” However, in 2021, this statement no longer seems valid, thanks to Barra’s leadership and laser-sharp, all-electric vision.
As reported by CNBC in November 2020, the business announced they were opening 3,000 jobs so GM could make Barra’s vision a reality. Additionally, in 2020, GM held the largest percentage of the automotive industry’s market share in the U.S., indicating just how far they’ve risen since their bailout.
Mary Barra and General Motors: Looking Toward the Future
For those who remained with the organization during its rough years, Barra’s leadership marks a new era. It’s now clear to see exactly where the business is going, which provides the boost of morale and inspiration needed to tackle the ambitious goals set for the coming years.
In October 2021, GM announced two huge business objectives: doubling its revenue by 2030 and surpassing Tesla as the automotive industry’s leader in electric vehicles (EV). They’re both audacious goals, but ones that Barra seems capable of achieving.
If Elon Musk is the king of EVs, Mary Barra is the rebel leader charging toward the castle, ready to dethrone him. She’s got the leadership capabilities, and if she’s proved anything in her career, it’s not to underestimate what she’s capable of.