In the aftermath of the UAW's bruising 56-day strike in 1998 of General Motors' stamping operations in Flint, Mich., GM dispatched a former executive assistant to repair the lines of communication between the company and union workers.
Mary Barra was assigned the job of internal communications director in 1999, ahead of crucial labor negotiations that year. Her job: Work with union leaders and workers in dozens of GM plants to forge new ties after the strike that shut every GM factory in North America and cost the company $2.8 billion.
"It had been a pretty devastating thing. There was a commitment from the highest level of GM to improve communication and our working relationship with the UAW," says Gary Cowger, a former GM executive who in late 1998 was summoned back to Detroit from running Opel in Europe to handle the fallout from the crisis.
It was Barra's first and only communications job. Cowger plucked Barra from her position as executive assistant to then-CEO Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce. Before that she had spent most of her career inside GM's plants.
"It was clear she had the intellect and the interpersonal skills that we needed during a pretty tense time," says Cow-ger, a Barra mentor who was her boss for nearly a decade while he ran GM manufacturing.
Barra's manufacturing background turned out to be invaluable in the role, says Edd Snyder, who worked alongside her as head of media relations on labor issues. During plant visits, Barra quickly achieved rapport with workers because talking shop with them came naturally, Snyder says.
"Mary could jump into conversations on the line or in the break room, and there would be an instant bond, because she knew how their jobs worked," Snyder says. "Once she established that credibility, it sort of washed away their skepticism."
Today, colleagues who work with Barra say she has used that same knack for connecting with people during her three years as GM's global product chief. Insiders say she has an inclusive but cut-to-the-chase style that she has used at times to push through contentious reforms, including a restructuring of GM's vehicle development teams that sent 20 senior engineering executives into early retirement or to new roles.
Barra, 51, will need to lean on her communication skills as she lays out her vision to GM's 213,000 employees when she succeeds Dan Akerson next month as CEO. The effort to change GM's plodding corporate culture is a work in progress, insiders and analysts say.
Akerson cited Barra's "ability to work with people" as a key attribute.
"Mary was not picked because of her gender," Akerson said. "Mary is one of the most gifted executives I've met in my career."