Featured Business Leader: Mary Barra

Featured Business Leader: Mary Barra


There are many stories of great leaders who created companies from scratch, but there are also plenty of stories of business leaders across the world who began their careers in the entry-level positions at the base of the organisations that they now run. Mary Barra is just one example of a woman who beat the odds, and rose to the top of major multi-national automotive company General Motors – she was named the Chief Executive of the company in late 2013.

Born and raised in Michigan, widely recognised as the home of automotive manufacturing in the USA, her relationship to GM began throughout her childhood – her father was employed by GM brand Pontiac as a die maker for 39 years. Mary Barra followed her father’s footsteps into the GM fold in 1980, choosing to study a Bachelor of Science with a specialisation in Electrical Engineering through what was then known as the General Motors Institute.

Slowly rising through the ranks, in 1988 her leadership and management potential was recognised by the company, and she was awarded a GM Fellowship to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Business and undertake a Masters of Business Administration – which she was awarded in 1990.

From there, Mary Barra escalated through a wide variety of engineering, administrative, managerial and executive positions across the company’s many divisions and brands. General Motors encompasses several well-known automotive brands including Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. General Motors also have a huge worldwide presence – they are also the company behind brands like Holden in Australia, Opel in Europe, and many other car-makers across the globe.

Prior to being awarded the role of Chief Executive, Mary Barra held another in-demand executive position in the business, as the Executive Vice President of Global Product Development. It was in this role that she started to be recognised as a leading businesswoman. In 2013, she was named on Forbes’ “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list – at spot number 35. This rose to number 7 in 2014 after her appointment to the role of Chief Executive for GM.

Her rise to power has not been without problems. When she was elected to the role, there were many naysayers second-guessing her ability to lead a company that is so traditionally male-dominated. Of her selection to the coveted position, she said that she had “worked for a lot of really great leaders and mentors that provided me opportunities” – regardless of her gender or the natural industry bias.

The other major issue in Mary Barra’s short reign at GM was a crisis of international proportions – a giant product recall of over 28 million cars worldwide occurred after a series of faulty ignition switches were found in certain makes of their produced cars. Though the crisis began well before her tenure as Chief Executive, with the first serious issues noted as early as 2004, she was called to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to face questioning from the US Government over the faults.

Though a crisis is usually considered damaging for a Chief Executive, the general consensus appears to be that she portrayed herself incredibly well throughout the investigation – Fortune praised her for being “truly contrite, and as honest as possible, from the start – rather than showing any sort of scorn or hiding in the shadows and not speaking to the press and the public”. The crisis is ongoing, but Mary Barra’s reputation as Chief Executive, and the reputation of the GM brand, appears to have survived the crisis well due to the transparent nature of the recall.

I see Mary Barra as a woman who worked hard to gain the knowledge and understanding of an industry she was passionate about. Her drive, loyalty and determination have led to her changing the face of management in a global organisation, which is something to be admired. As she said herself, “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.” I believe she has done, and continues to do that, every day.

Do you have aspirations of becoming a CEO for a well-known global brand? How would you manage the rise from entry-level to executive? I’d love to hear what you would do in such a situation. Let me know in the comments!

This article was written by Simone Ball on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources have been used to prepare this article: New York TimesForbesWikipediaGMUSA TodayFortuneNPR and BrainyQuote. Image sourced from Forbes.

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