Despite being one of the largest automakers in the world, General Motors (GM), the makers of Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, and Wuling, is no stranger to large-scale scandals.
Although it may be unfortunate, scandals define a company and most of the responsibility falls upon the company’s top brass. GM CEO Mary Barra guided the company through its darkest times, a testament to not only her leadership abilities but also her strong will and determination.
Mary Teresa Barra was born in Royal Oak in the state of Michigan, United States on December 24, 1961. Her mother and father Ray and Eva are of Finnish descent. Mary’s grandfather Viktor Makela moved to the US and lived in the small mining metropolis of Mountain Iron, Minnesota.
Viktor had 3 children, along with Mary’s father Ray. When Mary was born, the family had moved to Michigan and Ray was operating on the Pontiac car factory in Detroit.
Barra graduated from Waterford Mott High School and later enrolled in General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in which she received a bachelor’s diploma in electrical engineering in 1985. She later attended Stanford Graduate School of Business and acquired her MBA degree in 1990 through a GM fellowship.
Founded as The School of Automotive Trades in 1919, it was received by General Motors in 1926 and was later renamed to General Motors Institute (GMI). GMI’s primary aim was to develop business and industry leaders via its unique business-academe partnership. The company and the university split in 1982 and the college was renamed Kettering University in honor of former GM studies head Charles Kettering.
Mary Barra is married to engineering consultant Anthony Barra. The two met while studying at Kettering University. They reside in Northville, Detroit together with their two children Nicholas and Rachel Barra. Although born to a Finnish family, Mary is not fluent in the language.
Whether Mary Barra stays with GM or ventures on another career path, there is no denying the achievements she has done as the head of the Detroit-based auto manufacturing giant; truly one of the most inspirational female leaders of her time.
General Motors VP and CEO
Even as a young adult, Barra was already involved with General Motors. She began working with the company at the age of 18 as a co-op student checking fender panels and inspecting hoods. She used the money to pay for her college tuition. After obtaining her college and post-graduate degrees, Barra worked her way through multiple engineering and administrative positions at GM, including managing the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant. By 2009, she had already held three executive positions including vice president of global manufacturing engineering, vice president of global human resources, and vice president of global purchasing and supply chain.
In 2014, Barra was appointed as the chief executive officer of GM, becoming the first female head of an automobile manufacturer in the United States. Her appointment earned her a spot in Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World of 2014 and was being listed first in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in 2015. With her decades-long experience at GM, Barra was bound to hold the company’s highest-ranking position. But she would face great struggles during her first year as CEO as the company would be involved in one of the worst scandals in the U.S. auto industry: the GM ignition switch scandal.
General Motors recalled over 30 million units due to the vehicles having defective ignition switches. Unfortunately, the faulty switches resulted in 124 deaths and 275 injuries which prompted the Senate to conduct an investigation. Barra appeared multiple times in Congress which led to a public outcry against GM. Although no charges were pressed against Barra and GM executives, the company paid $120 million in settlement claims and offered $595 million to the victims and families affected by the incident. Barra also fired 15 employees, including eight executives for failing to respond quickly to the defective ignition switches.
“We’re going to be transparent and we’re going to make sure we do everything in our power to make sure this never happens again,” according to Barra in a recent interview at the Wharton People Analytics Conference. Immediately after the 2014 GM scandal, Barra led policy changes that revolved around employee transparency and technology. Particularly, she initiated the company’s move to driverless and electric-powered cars which included the release of the Chevrolet Bolt EV. The Bolt is the first electric car with a range of 200 miles to be priced under $40,000. What allowed Barra to achieve corporate and entrepreneurial success at GM is her ability to communicate well with peers and colleagues.
According to GM executives, she is known to have a “consensus approach”, conducting town hall meetings to seek input from a majority of people and not just top management. The consensus approach has allowed GM to become an inclusive environment where all employees can voice their opinions. The Mary Barra leadership style also revolves around maximizing the use of technology to fuel innovation. Since cars always incorporate the latest tech, most particularly GM, it’s not surprising that Barra also focuses on technology to deliver high-end and more efficient vehicles in the market. “GM wins by having the right technology to create products that meet the people’s needs and wants,” Barra said.