GM Puts a Woman in the Driver’s Seat

GM Puts a Woman in the Driver’s Seat

Boys love their cars. Going back as far as I can remember so many of them loved naming their cars, trucks and tractors after women. Heck, even Grandpa fondly called his ride Old Betty, Betsy, Bess or Bertha. Stephen King named a car possessed by supernatural powers Christine in one of his novels and guys of all ages couldn’t resist adopting that killer female name, too. However, there’s one thing we wouldn’t necessarily  associate a woman’s name with – the automotive industry.

That all changed recently when General Motors announced that Mary Barra would be their next CEO. Let’s face it, it’s no secret that Motown is good ol’ boy town. So that makes Mary Barra’s appointment a shift that’s not so standard in the industry…


What’s so special about Mary Barra?

For starters, she’s the 23rd female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Why are there so few Mary Barra’s? Defying even greater odds, Barra is the first female chief executive chosen to run a major U.S. automaker. Why did it take so long to put a woman behind the wheel?

But hold on, let’s give GM credit. They did hire from within and had the guts to shift gears and go with Mary Barra. Barra not only earned the CEO title, she deserved it. As the daughter of a GM die maker she started at the bottom as a factory floor intern, working her way up the chain for 33 years while climbing to EVP of Global Product Development, Global Purchasing and Supply Chain. At 51, Barra now gets to steer the largest women-led Fortune 500 company of all. Not bad…considering that so many talented women have had their careers stalled well before they reached the C-suite.


Did the car guys miss the right turn?

It sure appeared that way in 2008 when the CEOs of the big 3 automakers flew separately — in private luxurious corporate jets — to Washington to plead for massive government help in an attempt to avoid bankruptcy. They make cars, yet they flew like royalty, and the joke was on the taxpayers who were the ones really taken for a ride. Ironically, the announcement of Barra as CEO came one day after the Federal Government sold off the last of its GM bailout shares. Could it be that all those GMen got together and decided that it takes change to drive change? Like 2 X chromosomes and a whole lot of talent?


So, what kind of leader is Mary Barra?

In this Fortune Magazine video, she describes one of her most critical leadership breakthrough moments. “…And it’s when I realized it was not just about how hard I worked, but it was also about unifying the team, making sure we were working in a common direction and then really communicating it to the 2,000 people that were a part of the General Motors assembly team at that site.” What Barra really understands — and has proven — is that change happens in the conversation. That’s how you also evolve culture to achieve growth and transformation, which she also demonstrated a strong grasp of as GM’s Vice President of Global Human Resources.

As Head of Product Development, Barra’s mantra was, “No more crappy cars.” With recent multiple Car of the Year award wins and finalist nominations, her message appears to have been heard. When that starts to happen at any company, stockholders and customers also get the message. It will be interesting to see what direction Mary Barra’s leadership takes GM — and many other women — from here.


Additional Source Material:


Bio_rose2Rose is the CEO at fassforward consulting group. She blogs about Leadership, Change, Culture and Chocolate Conversations at

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