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Barra's historic rise challenges notions of what's possible

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DETROIT -- It's safe to say there are female plant managers inside General Motors thinking differently about their career paths than they might have a couple of years ago.
A decade before Mary Barra's historic appointment as CEO of GM in December 2013, she was manager of GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant, where Buick LeSabres and Pontiac Bonnevilles rolled off the line. It was one of several points along a decidedly unconventional career arc, one that's now inspiring women in a range of jobs, spanning from rank-and-file engineer to car dealer, to think big.
Call it the Mary Effect.

"That was one thing I didn't understand early on. I think people ... want to see other people like them, ahead of them, to just validate that it is possible."
Mary Barra

"The day that I heard that she was announced as the new CEO, it just changed everything for me," says Lisa Copeland, managing partner at Fiat-Alfa Romeo of Austin in Texas. "I think she has shown the industry that you can be a woman and you can have those attributes -- to be authentic, transparent." 
Barra didn't truly grasp the magnitude of it until about six months into her job as CEO. At an event in Washington, she was approached by an attendee who told her that his daughters decided to become engineers because of her. 
"I was like -- wow!" Barra said during an interview last month. "That was one thing I didn't understand early on. I think people ... want to see other people like them, ahead of them, to just validate that it is possible." 
Barra's background as an electrical engineer in itself makes her arrival in the CEO suite unlikely. Beyond that, it's her varied resume -- including roles in manufacturing, communications and human resources -- that really stands out, says Gregg McDonald, managing partner and head of the automotive practice at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. 
Since Barra's appointment, McDonald has seen a subtle shift with clients from across automotive sectors considering women for roles that they might not have before. 
"The market is clearly responding," McDonald said. 

"She's become a bit of an icon, which is cool. We need those kinds of role models, because a lot of women would not even think of the auto industry."
Grace Lieblein

Grace Lieblein, GM's vice president of global quality, hopes that Barra's rock-star-like rise -- she has landed on the covers of Time, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Forbes -- will change the perception of the auto industry as a clubby man's world. 
"She's become a bit of an icon, which is cool," Lieblein says. "We need those kinds of role models, because a lot of women would not even think of the auto industry." 
Barra spent the first 15 years of her career in various engineering roles inside GM's factories. Then in 1996, she was picked to be the executive assistant to then-CEO Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, a three-year stint that put Barra on the map inside GM as an up-and-comer. 
One who noticed was Gary Cowger, a former GM executive and Barra mentor. In late 1998, Cowger left his post running Opel in Europe to help back in Detroit following a crippling 56-day strike at the automaker's stamping operations in Flint, Mich. Cowger needed someone to handle internal communications to repair relations between union officials and the company. He picked Barra, who had exactly zero experience in communications. 
Barra was able to strike an easy rapport in the plants because she could talk the talk from her manufacturing background, Cowger said. She went on to work for Cowger in a variety of roles of increasing importance. 
"It wasn't just that Mary was good at every one of these new jobs she went on to," Cowger said. "It's that she has always shown excellent judgment. The higher you go in an organization, that's one of the biggest things people watch for." 
Barra says her career ascent at that time was helped by an internal GM program called the Affinity Group for Women, a networking group started in the mid-1990s that still exists today. 
The group "wasn't asking senior leaders for anything," Barra said. "It was asking, 'What can we do for ourselves? How can we mentor and network and put the skills in the hands of women earlier in their careers so they understand what it takes to be successful?'" 
That's still a work in progress. 
Sheri Hickok, chief engineer on GM's next-generation full-size truck program, says GM has a well-deserved reputation as a flexible workplace for female executives trying to balance family life. But she worries that younger women -- maybe even some future Mary Barras -- might not see that. 
"I have a lot of young women, let's say five years into their career, who are getting ready to start a family and are very nervous to take a promotion or move to the next level because they're not sure how they'll balance that," Hickok says. 
"We need to showcase that flexibility more."