Mary Barra, 58
CEO, General Motors
Education: B.S., electrical engineering, Kettering University; MBA, Stanford University
What drew you to the auto industry? Cars were a big part of my life growing up. My dad worked for General Motors for nearly 40 years.
First automotive job: I began working as a co-op student at the Pontiac Motor Division in 1980 through General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). Like all GM brands back then, Pontiac was essentially a standalone company within the larger global organization. It had its own assembly, stamping, powertrain, product development, purchasing, HR and planning departments, among others. This was a tremendous benefit because as a co-op student, I rotated through the different functions on six- to 12-week assignments. It was amazing to see the entire enterprise from both granular and holistic points of view. It opened my eyes to the many different careers that someone could pursue within a large company like GM.
Big break: Every role I had brought increasing responsibilities and new challenges. Having the opportunity to earn my MBA and take on tough assignments, such as managing an assembly plant, opened even more doors for me. I was also given the kind of candid advice and feedback that helped me grow.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? The ignition switch recall and COVID-19 stand out because both caused tragic losses. Both have forever changed General Motors. In the midst of this pandemic, the General Motors team has rallied and is doing what it takes to come out stronger on the other end. In such a short time frame, we came together with Ventec to produce 30,000 critical-care ventilators, and our employees all over the world continue to produce personal protective equipment. I’m very proud of our team’s agility and commitment to serve the greater good.
You’ve been in the industry 40 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? We’ve made a number of changes over the years. At every turn, we’ve cited the need to be more agile, customer-focused and ambidextrous. I don’t think there’s any better embodiment of those three traits than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What work achievement are you most proud of? Our commitment to a future with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. We have a responsibility to make the world a better place for future generations. That future will be all-electric. With our Ultium battery platform and multibrand, multisegment strategy, we are working to put everyone in an EV as quickly as possible. I am also proud of General Motors’ commitment to inclusion. At GM, we are guided by a set of behaviors and this year we added a new one: Be Inclusive. We define it as: “I live moments every day that value backgrounds, opinions and ideas that may be different from my own.” We aspire to be the most inclusive company in the world, where every employee can bring their true self to work.
Describe your leadership style. Inclusive and collaborative. I always seek many different points of view and challenge the team to see multiple perspectives when it comes to making decisions. I work hard to ensure everyone feels comfortable speaking up and bringing their best selves to work so they can fully contribute to our success.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? The General Motors team always rises to the occasion, time and time again! The COVID-19 crisis is empowering our people, reducing bureaucracy and allowing us to move quickly for the greater good. The sense of pride and can-do attitude from this team has been energizing.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? STEM fields provide some of the most rewarding careers in the world today. As engineers, scientists and inventors, we get to imagine what’s next, and then make it happen. Many GM employees generously volunteer their time to support various STEM programs in schools — presenting, teaching, mentoring — and just getting involved. If we want to cultivate young women to be part of our future, we need to invest in theirs.
How do you bring your best self to work? I have always done every job as if I was going to do it forever. When you bring that passion and energy, you accomplish more and that has a positive impact on your career. I also actively try to talk less and listen more. We learn a lot when we ask probing questions, and when we listen to what others have to say. This has taught me that success is always a team effort, and it’s more than OK to listen to the people you lead — in fact, it’s essential.
— Hannah Lutz