GM: CEO-elect Barra chosen for talent, not gender

General Motors Executive Vice President, Global Product Development & Global Purchasing & Supply Chain Mary Barra (R) is pictured with Chairman and CE...
General Motors Executive Vice President, Global Product Development & Global Purchasing & Supply Chain Mary Barra (R) is pictured with Chairman and CEO Daniel Akerson in Detroit, Michigan in this January 10, 2012 handout photo. HANDOUT

If "Lean In" is the new watchword for women and their careers, then the one for GM's new CEO, Mary Barra, may be "drive forward." 

Barra is used to proving women belong in a man’s world. The daughter of a long-time GM die maker, Barra has punched the clock at a variety of different jobs during her 33-year career, often as the only woman, starting with time on the floor of GM's old Pontiac Fiero plant when she was 18.

Three years ago, Barra, an engineer, was named the first female to head the maker’s global product development team. And starting next month, Barra will shatter the glass ceiling entirely, becoming CEO of GM – and one of just two dozen women to head Fortune 500 companies.

Watching her win unanimous approval for the job from the GM Board of Directors was a little like, “watching your daughter graduate from college,” proclaimed Dan Akerson, Barra’s mentor and the man she will replace in the CEO job in January.

Ackerson was quick to point out that Barra's ascension wasn't a nod to political correctness. “She is one of the most gifted execs I’ve met in my career. She was picked for her talent, not for her gender,” Akerson, 65, said.

At a recent conference on women in business, Barra, 51, summed up her goal in the product development role by declaring GM would build “no more crappy cars.”

If the latest results are any indication, it’s on the right path. Hours after the GM management shake-up was announced, three of the maker’s new products were named as finalists for the annual North American Car and Truck of the Year awards – filling half of the available slots.

The new Chevrolet Impala was recently named the best sedan that Consumer Reports magazine said it ever tested. And J.D. Power listed GM as the number one manufacturer in terms of initial quality, quite a turnaround for a company that did, indeed, long have a reputation for building "crappy cars."

As CEO for the last four years, Akerson had a reputation as a tough manager, one who was quick to replace senior executives who didn’t fit his vision or deliver the results he expected. The 51-year-old Barra can be equally demanding, those who know her suggest. But the most frequent word used to describe her was that of a “coach,” with an emphasis on team-building rather than top-down management.

“It’s about finding the right person for the job, giving them the resources to do what they need,” said Stephanie Brinley, a veteran automotive analyst with IHS Automotive, who expects Barra to be “very inclusive, very open.”

In describing Barra, Akerson suggested her EQ – or emotional quotient – was as much a strength as her readily apparent IQ. It is something that could play very well for the new chief executive, agrees Tita Gray, a professor at San Diego State University and a recognized expert in management style.

“As an executive coach, one of the thing most men I’ve coached have problems with is empathy – and vulnerability – something women don’t necessarily have a problem with,” says Gray, though she cautions that in many organizations, women don’t really show this side of their personality because it can be seen as a weakness.

And for years, that was the case at General Motors which – like the rest of the auto industry – tended to relegate the few women who made it to senior management levels into so-called “soft” jobs like public relations and human resources.

Indeed, former GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre planted Barra in the HR spot, though he also had high hopes for her future, observing that she was “a smart lady” who “pick(s) up quite quickly … what she doesn’t know.”

The image of a senior exec was perhaps best personified with men like cigar smoking Bob Lutz, a former Marine fighter pilot who preceded Barra in the global product development job before retiring from GM as its vice chairman several years ago.

But during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Akerson insisted “that perception is quite dated,” noting that the maker now has five women on its powerful executive committee, while a full quarter of its plant managers are now women. A woman also runs the increasingly important electric vehicle program.

“The culture has shifted to be one that can embrace a Mary Barra,” contends analyst Brinley. “It couldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” and likely not even before GM went through a consciousness-altering bankruptcy in 2009.

All that said, Barra remains proud to be thought of as a classic “car guy.” She currently drives a Cadillac CTS sedan, one of those three finalists for North American Car of the Year. And she and her husband are big fans of the sporty Chevy Camaro coupe.

How much of a difference Barra will make remains to be seen, but while quite a lot has been accomplished during Akerson’s tenure, he cautioned that “as far as we’ve come, we’ve got to go that far again.”

GM still is losing billions in Europe. And it is struggling to regain some of the market share it lost in the U.S. following its run through bankruptcy. The maker may have to deal with a slowdown in China, today its largest market. And there are all manner of new regulatory issues facing GM – and the rest of the auto industry.

“This company,” Akerson concluded, “has to be fundamentally changed to be a 21st Century company,” and GM will be counting on its first woman CEO to move it forward.

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