General Motors

GM's new chief travels far on love for cars

Childhood passion stays with Mary Barra, who encourages collaborative style of leadership

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 1:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 9:31am

General Motors chief executive-elect Mary Barra caught the car bug as a child and still admits a passion for Camaros.

As she rose from intern to the carmaker's global product development chief, Barra (pictured) worked at some point in nearly every aspect of the business, even heading GM's human resources department. When she starts her new job on January 15, she will be arguably the most powerful female executive in America, joining a group of just 23 women currently heading Fortune 500 companies. She is the first woman to head a major carmaker.

As her name surfaced as a possible successor to outgoing chief executive Dan Akerson, the Los Angeles Times sat down with Barra at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this year and asked her about the industry and the way she runs things.


How would you describe your management style?

Collaborative. When we have to make tough decisions, giving direction and setting the strategies for the products of General Motors, there should be constructive tension. We should have vigorous debates.

I try to create an environment where people feel they can voice their concerns, and where we can get the best ideas on the table and then make the right decision. But at the end of the day, the decision has to be made. If we don't have complete unanimity, I have no qualms about making it. But I want that tension in a constructive way to make sure we evaluate things from every angle.


When did you know that you wanted to make the auto industry a career?

My dad was a die-maker for the Pontiac motor division for 39 years. I was exposed to the business. We used to get excited when the new models would roll out. I always had interesting cars. I always had favourite cars - Camaros and Firebirds.

I got the opportunity to go to GMI for my education, and then I started working at the Pontiac Motor Division. I got to work in all parts of it and I just loved the business, from the plant floor to leading global product development, every aspect of the business is just a lot of fun.


What is the hardest management issue when it comes to running this company now, and how is it different from five or six years ago?

The most important thing we have to drive into the business every day is that it all starts and ends with great product.

We have to make sure every aspect of product meets the customer's needs. It has to be a customer-focused value with excitement from design to performance to technology to durability, reliability and quality. At any interaction at any level of the organisation, we need to keep people focused on great products.

Five or six years ago, we maybe didn't have that focus as intense as we needed it to be. It wasn't that we didn't know it wasn't important, but I think there is a shift of really understanding that this is the area where you win or lose. We need to win on every segment. I don't think we had as much focus on that as we should have.