CEO & Chair / General Motors
The great NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt once said: “It’s a never-ending battle of making your cars better and also trying to be better yourself. You’ve got to be closer to the edge than ever to win. That means sometimes you go over the edge, and I don’t mean driving, either.”
When a then-47-year-old Mary Barra was first named CEO of General Motors back in January of 2014, she had her fair share of detractors. And not just because she was the first female to head up one of the Big Three of the testosterone-dominated auto industry – which she was – or because she was considered by many to be too young for the post and thus not seasoned enough to handle the job. She was even faulted by some of her critics for her ample experience within the largest automaker in the United States, having begun her career with GM more than a quarter of a century earlier as an intern.
The Christian Science Monitor, for example, said that her “lifer status” with the company raised “red flags about her ability to evoke change” at a time when GM was desperately in need of a revamp. Like other critics, the CSM wasn’t convinced that Barra had the capability to self-examine and envision a radical new business model, ominously warning that her history with GM could be more of a hinderance than an asset.
But Barra was undeterred and plowed ahead with the same determination and commitment that have become her trademark traits.
“My parents were both born and raised in the Depression. They instilled great values about integrity and the importance of hard work, and I’ve taken that with me to every job,” she said. “What I always say is: Do every job you’re in like you’re going to do it for the rest of your life, and demonstrate that ownership of it.”
“We have the ambition, the talent and the technology to create a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”
To make matters worse, Barra took the position at a time when General Motors was in dire straits, both financially and image-wise, reeling from not only a drop in its U.S. market share (down to just above 17 percent, compared to a beefy 28 percent two decades earlier), but also from a major safety scandal involving a faulty ignition switch that could stall while the engine was moving.
Baptism by Fire
Just weeks into her new job, Barra had to appear before the U.S. Congress and take corporate responsibility for the defective switches that resulted in the deaths of 124 people and a recall of some 2.6 million vehicles.
It was during that brutal congressional hearing that the staid, soft-spoken Barra first showed the world – and, particularly, her naysayers – that she had the “right stuff,” firmly standing her ground under a barrage of senatorial accusations and finger-pointings that went so far as to suggest that the maker of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac should face criminal charges for corporate negligence.
Unrattled and unrelenting, a stone-faced Barra calmly but confidently dismissed a scathing senatorial claim that GM had “a culture of coverup” and had intentionally hidden the dangers of the defective ignition switch.
She promised to release all information from an internal company investigation and to take “appropriate action” to make sure that there would be a top-to-bottom climate of transparency and accountability within the company going forward.
Not a Powerhouse, but an Empowerer
Barra kept her word to the senators and immediately implemented an inhouse if-you-see-something-say-something program called “Speak up for Safety,” which encouraged GM workers at all levels to report concerns about product safety, allowing every employee to be a corporate watchdog against any potential dangers. She also established a special investigation team to identify and remedy safety issues quickly before they ballooned into potential dangers.
Not only did her “Speak up for Safety” platform help reduce future mechanical flaws in GM vehicles, but it also instilled a sense of solidarity and inclusion into the entire company mindset.
Inclusivity is both Barra’s mantra and her secret weapon for revitalizing a staunch and steady firm that has been around since 1908.
“Even while I was with General Motors before I was in the CEO role, I understood and discussed the importance of inclusion,” said Barra, who has made it her goal to transform GM into the “most inclusive company” in the world. “We believe inclusivity will lead us to better business. At General Motors, we really do understand the power of diversity.”
From the onset, Barra pushed for GM’s recruitment process to be more inclusive and for decision-making to be a more collaborate process. She empowered her workers by listening to them and was always open to their suggestions.
But when push came to shove, it was Barra herself who made the final call.
“We are in the midst of a transportation revolution. Our vehicles — and how we interact with them — are fundamentally changing because of new technologies and the evolving demands of our customers.”
“I want a constructive, tension-filled environment, to make sure all options are evaluated from all angles,” she was quoted as saying at the time. “At the end of the day, a decision has to be reached. If we can’t get a consensus, then I have no problem in making the decision.”
It was that “everybody-in” attitude that allowed Barra to gain the trust and confidence of her employees and that helped pave a way of least resistance for her more pressing objective at the time of her assent to the CEO position: the seismic transition of GM away from internal combustion vehicles to an all-electric automaker.
GM Goes Electric
The decision to drive General Motors out of the fossil-based fuel-engine dark ages and catapult it into the 21st century of sustainability was not an easy one for Barra to make, but evidence shows it was the right one.
Barra was determined to make GM the industry leader in electric vehicle production, and by the end of 2016, the company was rolling out the Chevrolet Bolt, the first affordable mass-market electric car, ahead of Elon Musk and his pricey Tesla Model 3.
“When we looked at our plans and we looked at the regulatory environment, we thought the right thing to do was to get our entire portfolio from a light-duty perspective to be all electric by 2035,” she said. “We mainly did it because we needed to get everybody internally in the company to stop debating when and start working on how, to make sure we get it done. And so, it was a very important announcement because it stopped the debate.”
Despite a recent glut of pandemic-based problems ranging from supply-chain shortages to delivery logistics issues, Barra never flinched when it came to getting the job done.
That determination has paid off. As of July 2023, GM was still the only full-line manufacturer with all its brands having made the commitment to convert exclusively to all-electric vehicles.
In the first quarter of 2023, General Motors registered 10.9-percent EBIT-adjusted margins and was the U.S. leader in retail and fleet sales, including commercial sales. The company also marked the largest year-on-year increase in its U.S. market share of any automaker. In the first three months of 2023, GM sold more than 20,000 EVs in the United States, jettisoning the company into the second market position and increasing its EV market share by 800 basis points.
GM’s second quarter figures were even more impressive: In July, it reported unprecedented sales of 691,978 new vehicles between April and June, a 19-percent year-on-year increase and the company’s highest quarterly total in more than two years.
“We want cleaner air to preserve our planet for future generations, which is why today’s cars are more efficient and why more of us embrace environmentally conscious options.”
Not Always a Smooth Ride
Still, Barra’s race to EV success has had some serious bumps along the road.
To begin with, her relationship with the United Auto Workers has been wobbly at best. In 2019, the UAW ordered a six-week strike against the company after Barra announced the shutdown of four U.S. factories to move jobs overseas, a decision that went over with workers like a lead Hummer. The union finally reached a compromise with GM to only close three of those factories.
Labor-management tensions flared again in April 2021 when GM announced that it would invest $1 billion to build EVs in its Mexico plant.
Barra has bent over backwards to court the disgruntled workers and regain their trust, finally putting to rest some of their fears with a combination of job reassurances and educational scholarships.
Another glaring issue that has plagued Barra in her quest to electrify GM was the global recall of Chevy Bolts and Bolt EVS in 2021 because the batteries (which were made by LG Energy Solution, not General Motors) were found to be combustible. To preempt a repetition of that problem, Barra decided to have every component of GM’s electric vehicles – including their battery cells – manufactured on its Ultium platform.
The Race Is On
For now, GM is ahead of the pack in the EV race, but Barra knows that if she wants the company to stay there, she can’t afford to let her guard down.
To help keep General Motors’ lead and to ensure that there will be no surprise supply-chain shortages in years ahead, Barra decided to invest in the self-driving taxi company Cruise, in which GM now holds an 80-percent share.
And then there was her June about-face deal with GM corporate enemy Number One, Tesla, on EV chargers. To the shock of many industry watchers, both GM and Ford agreed to grant their EV owners access to Tesla Superchargers and integrate Tesla charging technology into their vehicles.
It was a compromise that many of her critics found disheartening, but when asked about the sudden turnabout, Barra shrugged it off as inevitable. “For General Motors, it allowed us to be in one agreement,” she said. “Starting next year, instead of having 13,000 available chargers across the country, we will have 25,000. I think it’s going to be better for the consumer.”
Barra added that cooperation is always a plus is moving forward on technology. “I think in a lot of spaces now in many industries, you compete and you partner,” she said. “I think the industry would benefit from doing more partnerships.”
Looking ahead, Barra clearly recognizes that there will be more obstacles along the road to transforming GM and electrifying its vehicles. But both she and GM are confident that her determination and patience will guide them through whatever the future brings as she transitions the company to an all-electric, zero-emissions portfolio.
“The most significant transformation before this was when people moved from horse and buggy to the internal combustion vehicle,” she admitted. “That took 50 years. I think this will be a shorter transformation. But I also think these next 10 years are going to be critical.”