From Intern to CEO: Mary Barra Named GM’s First Female Chief

Published: Dec 11, 2013

 Finance       Workplace Issues       
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I grew up in the 1980s a few miles north of Detroit, and during that time in the area it seemed like every third classmate of mine came from a household whose father worked for one of the Big Three automakers—GM, Ford, or Chrysler. I also remember quite a few fathers working for auto part manufacturers. However, I don’t recall any of my classmates’ mothers working in the automotive industry. In fact, few of my classmates’ mothers worked full-time jobs at all.

In 1980 I was eight years old. That’s the year I began the fourth grade. That was also the year an eighteen-year-old woman named Mary Barra, whose father worked as a machinist in GM’s Pontiac division, began interning at General Motors. Mary was then an engineering student at General Motors Institute (a respected college located in Flint, Michigan, that’s since been renamed Kettering University). At the time, little did anyone suspect at GM or GMI (or elsewhere) that young Mary would work her way up the male-dominated GM ladder after her internship and, thirty-three years later, become the first female CEO of a Big Three automaker—not to mention one of the most powerful executives (male or female) on the planet.

When I saw the news that Barra had been named GM CEO yesterday, I was first and foremost surprised. Had I read correctly? A woman was chosen to run GM? And then when I realized I had read correctly, I felt pleased to learn that yet another gender barrier in the world of business had been broken, further opening C-suite doors to future generations of women. And I was very pleased to learn that this barrier came crashing down in one of the most historically male-dominated industries in the country. Perhaps only Wall Street and the NFL are more testosterone-charged than the automotive industry. 

Like many people who don’t closely follow the automotive industry, I knew little about Barra before yesterday’s announcement. But from what I’ve learned since, it seems clear that Barra was named GM CEO for no other reason than she’s proven to be an effective leader and manager, with a deep knowledge and love of GM’s history and product line. Barra, according to Dan Akerson, GM’s retiring CEO, is “highly experienced both in management and product skills,” has “an ability with people,” has “brought order to chaos” at GM, and “drove change in how GM conceived new vehicles and brought them to market efficiently and at lower cost.”

Barra has also been described as an “early riser,” “consensus builder,” and quite the car enthusiast. Several articles about her appointment note that she likes to test-drive GM prototypes, that she led the development of the new Corvette, and that she and her husband have owned several Chevrolet Camaros, the iconic GM muscle cars.

Along with being impressed with Barra’s rise to CEO—and the fact that she did so while married with two children—I’m also impressed with General Motors itself. In particular, I’m impressed that the firm so quickly chose Barra, hiring within its organization, giving someone with the most experience and most qualifications the CEO nod, rather than going outside the firm to hire someone with less direct industry and company knowledge, as many firms often do these days.

“There was brief consideration of going outside for a new chief executive,” according to Akerson, “but the directors decided to focus on internal candidates and unanimously chose [Mary].”

I’m also impressed with how GM allowed Barra so many opportunities along her rise to CEO. GM sponsored Barra’s MBA at Stanford and allowed her to move within various departments at the firm; over the years, Barra worked as plant manager, executive engineer, head of HR, and head of product development.

There’s another impressive piece to this story as well. And it has less to do with GM’s new CEO than with its soon to be former CEO, Dan Akerson. Specifically, it has to do with the reason Akerson’s stepping down as GM’s chief: to attend to his wife, who was recently diagnosed with advanced stage cancer.

Here’s Akerson speaking about his early retirement during a conference call yesterday: “I need to spend all of my time and energy in fighting this disease with my wife. It was not my intention for my days at General Motors to end this way, but I think when you think about life's priorities, my family and my wife rank No. 1.”

Which perhaps underlines another shift that’s occurred in American big business in the past three decades: the shift from allegiance to employer to allegiance to family.

Follow me @VaultFinance.

Read more:
Changing of the Guard in a Traditionally Male Industry (NYT)
Mary Barra, G.M.’s New Chief, Speaking Her Mind (NYT)
Vault's Working Parent Survey: Do Women Even Want It All?
Can Sheryl Sandberg Break Up the Old Boys' Club?
Destination Detroit: Finance Jobs in the 313