When Trish and I heard about Mary Barra’s promotion to CEO of General Motors, we were ecstatic! Finally! But then, I started to think about her situation. How many people were going to assume she got this position because of some form of Affirmative Action? Or maybe it was a position of title only to gain GM some positive publicity? Right away, I decided I wanted to dig into this story. I knew little about her, and was astounded by what I learned.
Mary Makela was born into a GM family, as her father, Ray, was a die maker in the Pontiac division, retiring after 39 years. She loved checking out the cars parked in the dealer lots, and especially loved the Firebirds, and desired one as her first car. She could only afford a Chevette, however, so the ‘Vette was her first car. She was educated in the public school system in Waterford Twp., MI. She attended GMI (General Motors Institute, now Kettering University) graduating in 1985 and entering corporate life at the lowest GM position, intern. Because GMI is considered to be a part of General Motors, Mary actually started with GM in 1980! Moving through the ranks, Mary literally moved all over the company. She worked in Human Resources, as a Plant Manager, with production as well as in the business side. Mary worked with Fieros. She worked in Flint, Pontiac and Hamtramck with many different projects and people. Unlike GM’s past leaders, Ms Barra is an executive who has come up on the product side of things. She brought diverse people together to create dynamic teams to encourage new results. She actually encourages healthy debate within her teams! Literally ‘climbing the corporate ladder’ this Gal did not have any idea she would become the CEO.
During my research for this story, I watched an old interview of Mary Barra during the INFORUM* (http://vimeo.com/38590869), where this question was asked, “What will happen first, a female President (of the US) or a female CEO of GM?” I loved that she was humble, and stated that she had no idea. She never hinted that she expected the position, or that she thought she was in line. She was already the Senior Vice President of Global Product Development for General Motors. She stated that she had the best job at GM and that she loved working with the team. She appeared to be very happy and content. And to top it off, she was already one of Forbes’ most powerful women.
Because of the research I had done on Mary Barra, there wasn’t much I didn’t already know or that I couldn’t find online. She is a mother of two teenagers, a boy and a girl. She has been married for almost 30 years to the same man whom she met at GM, and knows that her role, as a mother is very important. Mary stated that if there is an important family event, like a volleyball game for her daughter, she is there. It’s a balancing act, and she’s busy all the time, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything. When asked what she does with her free time, she asked, “What free time?” She figures, she’ll have free time when she retires and her kids are grown. For now, she’s living in the moment.
During my interview, I did learn a few interesting, personal tidbits. For example, Mary likes to drive fast! Although she loves all the vehicles on the GM line (great politically correct answer here) she drives a Cadillac CTS, but she has always coveted the sporty Camaros. She’s been known to drive some of General Motor’s hot models during weekends at the track. She also gives back to the community working with charities such as Karmanos in Detroit. Mary’s mother was a two-time breast cancer survivor and Mary feels Karmanos gave her 15 additional years with her mother. This is a personal passion of hers, and she loves giving back.
She gives great credit to her mentors and people who have assisted her along the way, ranging from professors, past managers and co-workers. She doesn’t pretend she ended up where she is all by her self. She is quick to point out the people who have assisted, and trained, mentored and encouraged her.
Mary’s mom was a huge influence in her life. Eva insisted that Mary go to college. No matter what she was interested in, she needed to pursue an education. Because of Mary’s strong background in math and science, she pursued an Electrical Engineering degree. She continued her education at Stanford earning an MBA. Mary’s mom was always there for her, and although she passed in 2004, Mary still remembers her mom as a huge supportive, driving force.
Mary’s motto is, “No More Crappy Cars.” She has been involved in new product development for a few years, and we have noted that GM has taken some huge leaps forward. With the new Stingray winning Car of the Year, and the Silverado winning Truck of the year, it appears Mrs. Barra and her team are on a roll. The new GM vehicles have great lines, and are attractive inside and out. GM is aware that there is a market for cars that are beautiful and powerful, and that some folks (like me) still love that rear wheel drive sports car. They introduced the Chevrolet SS, which fits that bill to a ‘T’. The GMC Acadia was designed by a woman, and I have to admit, I really enjoy driving it. Mary understands that women have the purchasing power of the country, and I personally feel that the new lines of GM vehicles have women’s needs in mind as well as men’s. They seem to realize that there are women ‘car guys’ out there as well. Why should a woman be relegated to a boring, predictable minivan? Although I do like my Montana, it isn’t for the normal reasons. I love that it can hold my whole family and my Harley. And it gets great gas mileage. I suspect we will see more ‘soccer moms’ driving sportier cars that show off their sparky personalities! I am a huge fan of the Holden Commodore, (from the Australian GM family) making the orphaned G8 a family favorite. So, I guess I have to agree; GM appears to be building more appealing cars!
Mary doesn’t take stock of gender when she walks into a room. She recognizes people based on achievements, ability and potential. And when a problem arises? She deals with it. “If you have a problem, you have to solve it. If you don’t deal with it, it will grow bigger and bigger until you don’t exist.”
Engineering requires a strong foundation in math and science. She deeply cares about getting the next generation into engineering and helping young gals get into math and science programs. She feels it’s important to provide initiatives and other programs to assist in learning, starting in middle school.
Why has she made it so far in the business world? She loves what she does!