At Fifty-Nine years old, it is curious to find that Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors (GM), has only ever worked at one company. Hers is a very unique career path, meandering through functions like Operations, Human Resource and Management at various levels. She has earned her spot in several leadership classes as a reference point for young upcoming global leaders and is an encouragement to current industry leaders. The big question at this point is, what exactly makes her stand out and why does she keep going?
Mary joined General Motors as a co-operative education student in 1980 at Eighteen years old. Five years after finishing her degree in electrical engineering, she received her MBA from Stanford University in 1990. She then went on to hold positions such as: Vice President of Global Manufacturing Engineering; Executive Vice President of Global Product Development and Vice President of Global Human Resources. It may seem that she kept gaining skills that would be helpful, even critical in her current position, but that is only in hindsight.
In every position Barra found herself in, her drive was being thoroughly accountable for what she was entrusted with. Healthy work environments were fostered wherever she went and her ability to easily adapt enabled her to make necessary adjustments when it came to it. As the head of HR, she reduced the long dress code to two words: ‘Dress Appropriately’! She would also allow junior managers and co-workers to make independent decisions as pertaining their responsibilities. In this way, she believed that she was empowering and allowing them to be responsible.
One might say that Barra’s leadership abilities have been tested in crisis. In 1998, there was a GM strike, and Barra was appointed the Internal Communications Director. With her leadership style, there was a forum where information could flow up and down the hierarchy and situations could be dealt with up-front. After her appointment as CEO, disaster struck again. A faulty ignition switch led to deaths and recalls of over 30 million cars. She faced the situation head-on, admitting errors made, laying off workers, appearing before the senate and adjusting policies to enable early reporting of problems. Instead of drowning in chaos, she was able to rise by putting lives first and by her own motto, being accountable enough.
We, alongside millions of people, will continue watching and learning as Mary Barra revolutionizes leadership globally.
Purity Buyanzi | The writer is an aspiring Financial Analyst, passionate about leadership and mentorship | email@example.com