From A Co-op Student Employee To Gm’s Ceo, Mary Barra Made History As The First Female Ceo Of An International Automaker



Mary Barra has become one of the most-watched executives in the world since she was appointed CEO of General Motors. Large-scale corporations still don’t often have female CEOs, especially in the manufacturing and technology sectors.


When Mary Barra was around ten, she became obsessed with her cousin’s vehicle. The red Chevy Camaro convertible from the late 1960s was the coolest thing for her.


When the time came for Barra to have a set of wheels for herself, she was on a tight budget and decided to purchase a Chevrolet Chevette, an economical boxy hatchback that the carmaker marketed by highlighting its spacious trunk and legroom but struggled to move on its wheels.


In 1980, when Barra was 18, she worked for General Motors as a co-op student to help pay for her college expenses.


She was a lifelong employee of GM, steadily moving up the ranks thanks to her tenacity. Thirty-eight years later, she is now the Chairwoman and CEO of GM. She hopes to lead the corporation into the driverless car industry and sees an all-electric future for the business.


The young woman who grew up idolizing Firebirds and other sports cars is now in charge of producing them for the entire world, and she intends to leave quite a legacy. Here’s the life history of Mary Barra.




On December 24, 1961, Mary Teresa Barra was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, in the United States. Ray and Eva, her parents, are of Finnish heritage. Mary’s grandfather, Viktor Makela, immigrated to the United States and settled in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, a small mining town.


Ray, Mary’s father, was one of Viktor’s three children. The family had relocated to Michigan when Mary was born, and Ray was employed at the Detroit-based Pontiac auto plant.


Barra graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the General Motors Institute (presently Kettering University) in 1985.


While attending Kettering University, Barra was inducted into the engineering honor societies Tau Beta Pi (MI Zeta class of 1985) and IEEE-Eta Kappa Nu (Theta Epsilon chapter 1983). A GM fellowship allowed her to continue her education at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she earned a Master of Business Administration in 1990.




She has been a “lifer,” dedicating her entire professional life to one business. She started working for the company as a co-op student at the age of 18 verifying fender panels and examining hoods. She put the cash toward her college expenses.


Barra worked her way through several engineering and managerial positions at GM after earning her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, including directing the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly facility.


She was named global manufacturing engineering vice president in February 2008. She moved up to vice president of global human resources in July 2009, and she kept that post until February 2011, when she was promoted to executive vice president of global product development.


She strove to reduce the number of automotive platforms at GM in her latter post, which included design responsibility. In August2013, her vice president responsibilities were expanded to include Global Purchasing and Supply Chain.


In 2014, Barra was chosen to lead GM as its CEO, making history as the country’s first female CEO of an automobile company.


Her appointment earned her a place in Time’s 2014 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2015, she was ranked first among the most powerful women.




Scams characterize a company, which may be unfortunate, and the top management bears the bulk of the blame. Barra was certain to be the company’s highest-ranking executive, given her decades of experience at GM, however, a major crisis was waiting for her.


She confronted significant challenges in her first year as CEO because the GM ignition switch crisis, one of the biggest in the American auto industry, involved the corporation. General Motors recalled nearly 30 million vehicles due to faulty ignition switches.


Unfortunately, the defective switches caused 124 fatalities and 275 injuries, leading the Senate to launch an investigation. Barra testified in Congress several times, sparking a public outrage against GM.


Even though no charges were brought against Barra or GM executives, the firm paid $120 million in settlement claims and gave $595 million to victims and families harmed by the tragedy.


Barra also fired 15 employees, eight of whom were executives, for failing to respond swiftly to the faulty ignition switches.


Following the GM crisis in 2014, Barra oversaw the implementation of new policies centered on technology and employee openness.


She spearheaded the company’s transition to driverless and electric vehicles, which includes the debut of the Chevrolet Bolt EV. The Bolt is the first 200-mile-range electric vehicle with a price under $40,000.


With a total compensation of $21.96 million, Barra earned more than any other executive of the Detroit Three in 2017.


Barra announced that five North American plants will be closing and 14,000 employees would be laid off in November 2018. President Donald Trump slammed her decision, threatening to withdraw the company’s federal subsidies in reprisal.


In response to a query about resuming dividends at GM in June 2022, Barra stated that the company’s “obvious priority” is to “accelerate our EV ambitions” and to only provide EVs by 2035.




Mary Barra is an engineer by training, thus she always seeks to make things better and overcome obstacles.


Imagine what’s next and then seize those possibilities that come naturally to her, almost in the same way that bettering people’s lives and fostering a better world do. It’s as if she was born with a crystal ball built into her own DNA.


Barra uses her in-depth knowledge of both technical and human dynamics in her mission to rebuild GM. She humanly influences her people’s energy by exemplifying authenticity, courage, integrity, and perseverance.


From an engineering standpoint, she applies tried-and-true engineering approaches such as shared and aggressive goals, cross-functional cooperation, and built-in feedback loops.


The roller coaster journey of a lifetime surely began when Barra accepted the myriad challenges that the CEO position provided, marshaled her team and resources, and avoided any potential glass cliffs. She ignited and channeled her people’s energization via her jiu-jitsu leadership.


Her leadership style and problem-solving abilities are consistently commended. Here’s what we can take away from her.


Be straightforward and sincere


Barra had a reputation for being extraordinarily open-minded and truthful with the GM workers even before she became CEO. Her principal instruction to engineers and designers as the head of Product Development was straightforward: “No more crappy cars.”


Barra seemed to demand some truthfulness in exchange for her honesty. She encourages GM staff members to speak up when something is wrong and to deal with issues head-on. She is using social media to help with her attempt. She updates on Facebook frequently, tweets, and blogs once a month on LinkedIn Pulse.


Consider the client’s needs and the company’s response


Many people credit Barra’s success at GM to her ability to focus her attention on the company’s interests rather than her own. She handled each GM assignment as if she would be doing it for the rest of her life, which helped her maintain her attention on the here and now. And if a good foundation is laid today, the future will generally take care of itself.


Barra’s career path may not be typical in today’s society, but her apparent message to leaders is crucial: We must manage the conflicting forces in our complicated environment because it is full of paradoxes and contradictions.


A daily challenge is being able to put aside your personal agenda and produce value for your business and employees. Leadership is a personal and professional endeavor. Every leader who wishes to make a good difference must balance this dichotomy.


Motivating people rather than forcing


Jiu-jitsu is a Japanese martial art. In Chinese, ‘Jiu’ signifies pliable and flexible. ‘Jitsu’ refers to channeling a challenger’s own energy onto himself or herself rather than directly pushing back. Barra taps on and effectively redirects extraneous stimuli.


People expect their leaders to be truthful and real. Leaders may disagree, but should they also provide blunt “no/wrong” responses? Or Should they answer without putting the other person on the defensive by asking a question or making a statement emphasizing your shared concern?


You will feel greater teamwork and positive energy if you are willing to face others in a problem-solving manner when there is a question or confusion about a decision or direction being taken.


By critically analyzing your own behavior, you may discover how you are inadvertently contributing to the problems in your organization.


Instead of using force to break down barriers, she is using the art of leadership jiu-jitsu to transform difficulties into opportunities and disagreement into a source of solutions to revolutionize the organization.


In doing so, she serves as both an inspiration and a champion for the new GM accountability culture.


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