MBA Alumni Spotlight: General Motors CEO Mary Barra

Stanford MBA, GM CEO Mary Barra

General Motors CEO and Stanford MBA, Mary Barra, is a testament to passion and commitment. Though many profiles on Barra focus on her role as the world’s first female automaker CEO, it is perhaps more telling that, according to Forbes, Barra is lauded as having “… accomplished more in three years than most CEOs do in 30 years.”

A Lifetime of Cars

Barra began working for GM as an intern when she was just 18-years old. Her father worked as a die maker at Pontiac for 39 years, helping cultivate an immense passion for the automotive industry. Over nearly four decades, what started as a teenager’s internship has led Barra to one of the most powerful business positions in the country.

During her time at GM, Barra has worked in a variety of departments and positions, familiarizing herself with the inner workings of every facet of the company. The company eventually sent Barra to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, graduating with an MBA in 1990. Her most notable contributions before she took on the role of CEO in 2014 were in GM’s global development, wherein, at different points, she acted as Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing Engineering and Vice President of Global Human Resources.

A Big Setback

Just days after Barra took on the role of CEO, millions of GM vehicles were recalled due to a faulty ignition switch that led to at least twelve deaths. GM was in the center of a serious controversy, and since Barra had been with the company for over 30 years, she faced significant scrutiny. By many accounts, Barra’s handling of this tragedy and subsequent scandal was exemplary. Barra quickly brought in an expert in victim compensation to run a program that pays claims of victims and victims’ families. She also made it clear that GM does not intend to hide from or forget about the crisis, but rather to learn from the mistakes that led to the situation.

Through this setback, Barra continued to accrue praise, even from those who criticized GM’s practices. Fortune attributes Barra’s intact reputation to a “… simple combination of honesty, humbleness and a seemingly sincere desire to fundamentally change the errors that led to the problems …”

Advancing Her Mission

Since becoming CEO, Barra has worked to create an atmosphere of trust, accountability and transparency. According to Barra, her main instruction to engineers and designers was essentially just, “No more crappy cars.” Barra expounded on this directive, saying that there were, “… so many boundaries put on them that we didn’t give them a recipe for success. So now we’re saying no excuses. If it’s budget, if it’s resources, we have to do great cars, trucks and crossovers and it’s our job to enable you to do that.”

Barra also revised the dress code, which, when she was appointed CEO, was ten pages long. The newly-appointed CEO trimmed the dress code to just two words: “Dress appropriately.” Though this change seems to be about attire, Barra believes it has contributed to setting the tone for a new culture at GM, one in which management puts more trust in employees.

Giving Back

The University of Michigan asked Barra to deliver their 2014 commencement address, and she imparted her leadership philosophy to the graduating class. Barra advised students to pursue their dreams with passion and integrity, to focus on building relationships, and to remember the value of hard work. She encouraged students to value those around them and assured them that, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Barra insisted that it was these lessons that led her to where she is today.


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