General Motor’s announcement that Mary Barra will take over for
Dan Akersonnext year, becoming the automaker’s first female CEO, is an important step forward for an industry
that has been, and remains, dominated by men.
It also follows a highly successful 33-year career at GM. Here’s a look back at how Barra, 51, went from inspecting fender panels as a teen to the auto industry’s first female chief.
Barra is a GM lifer in every sense. Her father was a die-maker at a Pontiac plant for almost 40 years, Fortune reports. Her first car was a Chevy. And her very first job at GM came at age 18, when she participated in a GM program that helped pay her college tuition. She spent half the year working for the company, initially inspecting fender and hood panels at a Pontiac plant.
Barra has been with the company since graduating from Kettering University, then called the General Motors Institute, in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering. She started as a senior engineer at a Pontiac Fiero plant, according to Fortune. She was quickly recognised as someone with management potential, and GM sent her to Stanford Business School.
Immediately after getting her MBA, she got her first job as a GM manager, running manufacturing planning. Then came a series of increasingly visible jobs, including executive assistant to GM’s CEO in the mid ’90s, fixing a troubled internal communications department, turning around an important and troubled Detroit plant, and bringing data and efficiency to the company’s messy human resources department, which earned her a spot on GM’s executive committee.
Throughout that time, Barra managed to avoid the toxic politics that had come to define GM’s internal culture. Instead, her career at GM has been defined by a drive toward efficiency, agility, and better quality, things that the company sorely lacked as it fell behind other automakers.
But there was a lot of dysfunction to cut through, she said in an interview with Forbes.
“I think I lost six months of my life being sent to meetings to argue about a communications protocol,” said Barra. “The problem is the engineers in the room could have made a decision, but they weren’t empowered to. Frankly, if we’d just picked one, it didn’t matter.”
Part of the confusion came from the manufacturing side. In that first job in a Pontiac factory, Barra saw defect after defect in hood and fender panels.
Barra tackled the inefficient internal organisation and poor manufacturing processes as head of HR. She also made her mark on the all-important product development side when she revamped a complicated management structure that had 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 GM’s most important products, despite having very little experience in designing or developing vehicles. Her manufacturing and quality background came through, resulting in a noticeable uptick in the quality and perception of GM’s vehicles.
Barra is a historic choice to lead the company, and a highly qualified one. And although GM is free of its ties to the U.S. government, it still has a great deal of ground to make up, and she has her work cut out for her.
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