Mary Barra – the first female CEO at a global Automaker, or simply an amazing leader?

by Ana Ramirez, International Head of Automotive Research

I was asked recently which leaders in the Automotive Industry I would recommend following on Twitter. Thinking about the individuals who I admire, one name, which many might not consider most obvious, came to mind; Mary Barra. She was appointed CEO of General Motors in January 2014, making her the first female CEO of a major automaker. Now, you may be thinking that the reason that I admire her is that she is female … I am not saying that is not significant in itself, and I will come to talk about that later. But no, that is not really the main reason for my choice.

I worked many years for General Motors Europe, and had first-hand experience of all the struggles to make the company profitable, shake the old-fashioned image and streamline its operations. This culminated in its bankruptcy following the global crisis in 2008, resulting in closures and an attempt at selling its European operations. None of these measures seemed to make GM the profitable company it needed to be following the bankruptcy. Were they simply not bold enough?

Barra took the role at quite a tough time for the company, having to handle a very serious recall – not the easiest of starts. It is also true to say that this is one of the most interesting times for the auto industry, but also arguably a very challenging one. Barra handled the recall extremely well, publishing an opinion piece on her plan to increase safety, and since then she made inroads towards creating a profitable, future-proof company. She has taken some bold steps to maximize the ROI; steps that others shied away from before her.

Under her leadership, GM has shut down money-losing operations, including exiting the Russian market, closing down Chevrolet operations in Europe in 2017 and shutting down Holden production in Australia in 2017. In that same year, Barra also completed the deal that was dropped in 2009; selling Opel/Vauxhall to the PSA Group. In parallel, Barra has aggressively pursued a strategy to adapt to the changing industry, with investments in ride sharing, mobility solutions, autonomy, connectivity and electrification. In short, she has made this giant company modern, agile and profitable, a company people are proud to work for again – this is what I find very impressive.

Now, regarding Mary Barra being the first female CEO at a global automaker. On June 13 this year, the press published articles focusing on the fact that GM had appointed a female CFO to join the female CEO, and this created quite some controversy in social media. Understandably, many people commented that it should not be gender turning this into a big story. Unfortunately, in spite of the rapid changes in the auto industry in recent years, it is still very much a male-dominated arena. In all the years working for OEMs, I became used to being the only female in the room. At one point in my career, following an international HR meeting, I was told that they were looking for a high potential female for a role, and that it meant me. Should I have been proud to be offered the role? It felt mostly discriminating, as if I was just a ‘quota’. I should be offered a role because of my talent or experience, not because I am female.

So, as much as I admire Mary Barra for what she has achieved, not for being female, I have to admit that having risen from within GM, and achieving all she has achieved, being a woman in a male world does make it all the more impressive. It is not surprising then that she is No. 1 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list for the third consecutive year.