Mary Barra Leadership Style: Men have dominated the auto industry since the very first vehicles hit the road. Walter Percy Chrysler created the Chrysler Corporation, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company (F), and William Durant launched General Motors (GM).
In the century that followed, every new CEO had something in common with these automaking pioneers – they were all male. That changed on January 15, 2014, when Mary Barra made history as the first woman to achieve the CEO title of a major automaker.
What is Mary Barra Famous For?
Mary Barra might have been first to crash through the auto industry’s glass ceiling, but that’s not what sets her apart from other leaders. Barra started her career at GM when she was 18 years old. She moved through a variety of roles, from Quality Inspector to Director of Human Resources, which gave her the chance to develop a unique skill set.
No one knows more about the inner workings of GM than Mary Barra, and she has a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities that come with enhancing the company’s product line.
Barra expects the auto industry to “change more in the next five to ten years than it has in the past 50 years”, and she plans to position GM as a leader in innovation.
Barra has outlined her goals for GM, and they are bold, daring, and fearless.
Her motto is simply this:
- Zero crashes.
- Zero emissions.
- Zero congestion.
She intends to drive the company – and the industry – to zero emissions, and she wants to completely eliminate the financial and physical devastation of vehicle crashes.
In addition, Barra is focused on creating a world in which traffic congestion is a thing of the past. Drivers will no longer waste precious time sitting in gridlocked traffic. Instead, they can spend those minutes with their loved ones.
Barra has started down a path towards these goals already, investing a fortune in research and development of electric vehicles. GM is also exploring autonomous driving solutions that rely on communication between cars and trucks that are sharing the road.
Barra’s hard work, courageous goals, and industry influence have earned her recognition from leaders in the financial services, media, and auto industries.
Among other accolades, she has been included on both Forbes’ and Fortune’s lists of the world’s most powerful women, and she earned a spot on Fortune’s list of 50 Greatest Leaders.
In 2014, she even made the cover of Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Barra’s success isn’t just luck. She sets goals and stops at nothing to achieve them. However, the most critical component of her winning strategy is her ability to lead in a way that motivates and inspires her entire organization.
What Type of Leader is Mary Barra?
Mary Barra knows that a company isn’t successful because of the buildings and factories it owns. It’s the people who work within an organization that create and innovate, produce high-quality products, and make critical customer connections.
In one interview, Barra said, “I think it’s [about] recognizing that people are the most important asset in the company,” and she lives this each and every day.
Barra often speaks of her first job at GM, when she spent eight hours a day on the factory floor. She knows what goes into doing that sort of job well, and she is committed to creating a workplace in which those employees know they are as valuable to the company as any highly-paid executive.
Characteristics of Mary Barra Leadership Style
Some leaders drive results by flexing their authority. They give detailed instructions and expect team members to produce. While this can be effective under certain circumstances, it is a stark contrast from the characteristics of Mary Barra’s leadership style.
Barra is far more interested in empowering her workforce to make smart decisions, take calculated risks, and use their own judgment to get the job done.
One of the most-talked-about examples of Barra’s focus on empowerment is the stance she took on GM’s dress code policy.
She slashed a 10-page document to just two words, “dress appropriately”, placing responsibility on employees to choose clothing suitable for the day’s activities.
Barra has also distinguished herself as a leader who takes accountability. Less than three months after she became CEO, Barra was called before Congress to explain GM’s failure to manage a deadly fault with the ignition switches on certain vehicles.
Though Barra wasn’t in charge when poor decisions were made by company leaders, she did not pass the buck or try to deflect blame.
Today’s GM will do the right thing. That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends (of those) who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.
Empowerment and accountability aren’t the only characteristics of Mary Barra’s leadership style, but they are the two most critical – the two that guide all other decisions.
Is Mary Barra a Transformational Leader
It’s no secret that General Motors was in trouble when Mary Barra took the helm in January 2014. It had not yet recovered from the disastrous effects of the Great Recession, and it was in the middle of a recall scandal that had consumers, regulators, and lawmakers up in arms.
Barra handled the outstanding issues head-on, then turned her attention to transforming the company culture. She redefined GM’s values and set to work removing obstacles that kept her team from meeting their objectives.
Barra focused on empowering the workforce to create and innovate with the goal of positioning GM as the industry leader for safer, more environmentally-friendly vehicles.
By every definition, Barra is a transformational leader whose influence will permanently reshape General Motors.
Is Mary Barra a Servant Leader?
Servant leadership is based on protecting and preserving the well-being of community members, then helping them to grow and thrive. From every angle, the servant leader philosophy is a fundamental component of Mary Barra’s decision-making.
Barra operates from the perspective that empowering and engaging each member of the workforce is critical to creating innovative, high-quality products.
More importantly, she puts the needs of her employees and customers first by pushing her company to achieve ambitious goals that will ultimately improve the safety and efficiency of vehicles everywhere.
Is Mary Barra a Visionary Leader?
Visionary leaders don’t just have lofty goals – they have a plan to achieve them. More importantly, they are capable of influencing others to see the same mission and vision, and they inspire and empower their team members to move forward towards a common outcome.
Mary Barra has done just that with her simply stated objectives of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.
She has outlined her strategic plan for getting from current state to end state, and she has empowered her team to make that vision a reality.
Mary Barra Leadership Quotes
In her position as one of the most powerful women in the world, Mary Barra is always under scrutiny. The media reports on every remark she makes, and she is held up as an example of the opportunities available to anyone willing to work hard.
Barra is known for being the first woman to lead a major auto company, but she is always careful to note that her success was earned – and that she and her leadership team use the same criteria when evaluating the success of GM employees. She said:
I never want to get a job because I’m female. I want to get it because I earned it and I deserve it… people should be judged on how well they do the job and deliver results and whether they do it the right way.
In another interview, Barra pointed out that her interest in people was a driving force in opening doors to career opportunities.
She said that she credits much of her success to her focus on employees and the consumers they serve. Specifically:
Really focusing on engaging with people, and making sure you do win their hearts and minds … and how you empower them, I think has been key [for me].
Mary Barra Leadership Style Conclusion
CEOs are under an extraordinary amount of pressure, and those of large organizations feel that pressure more acutely than their peers. When that is considered alongside the particular obstacles and challenges facing the auto industry, such as those from competitors, economic volatility, and unexpected disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a wonder that any CEO can stay true to his or her values.
Nonetheless, Mary Barra has done so with courage and grace. She took a stand against racism, kept her workforce safe through the pandemic, and still managed to move forward on her goals to transform the experience of driving. Barra does this by keeping empowerment and accountability top of mind – the two leadership characteristics that set her apart.
The author has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Financhill has a disclosure policy. This post may contain affiliate links or links from our sponsors.