One of the most successful CEOs of a carmaker recently made big news. Perhaps you know who — they head a car company worth over $50 billion that’s helping trailblaze a new era by offering a fully electric vehicle with an estimated range of over 200 miles, and anyone ready to plop down about $35,000 can go buy one right now.
It’s General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who promoted Dhivya Suryadevara to the C-suite on June 13, making her the first female chief financial officer in the company’s 100-plus-year history.
But if Barra isn’t a name immediately familiar to you, it should be. After taking over a company in crisis amid a devastating recall scandal and just five years removed from bankruptcy and a $50 billion bailout from the federal government, Barra has steered the massive corporation back to profitability and on the path to a sustainable future.
Here’s a look at some important lessons about business and life anyone can take from Barra’s work at one of the world’s largest carmakers.
Keep Calm and Carry On
After taking over as CEO in January 2014, Barra was forced to immediately go into crisis mode when GM had to recall over 2.5 million cars due to a faulty ignition switch that would ultimately cost the lives of at least 124 people. Less than half a year into her tenure, Barra was traveling to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress and apologize to the American people for the deadly mistake.
However, Barra didn’t let her unfortunate start color her future work. Nor did she run away from taking ownership of the issue despite the fact that she inherited the crisis. By the end of her first year as CEO, she had been named the crisis manager of the year by Fortune’s Ben Geier.
Own Mistakes and Learn From Them
One of the things that impressed Geier about Barra’s handling of the crisis was how she insisted that GM take complete ownership of what had happened and would use it to change the company culture to one where GM would do the right thing.
Fortune reports that Barra told GM employees at a town hall that she didn’t want to put the scandal behind them but rather keep it as a permanent, painful memory that would remake their culture to prevent it from ever happening again.
Barra visited the families of victims and set up a compensation fund well before the terms of the $900 million settlement were hammered out, ultimately impressing federal prosecutors with how candid and cooperative the company was throughout the process.
Success Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Barra’s willingness to own up to the ignition switch scandal despite the terrible consequences for the company could be due to a long-term perspective on the company. After all, Barra first started working there when she was just 18 years old.
And there’s reason to believe that it’s just what GM needed. Looking at the company’s share price — something some people consider to be the only meaningful yardstick of a CEO’s performance — Barra has made up some serious ground. Both 2014 and 2015 saw declines as the company continued recovering from the recall, but shares are up nearly 50 percent since hitting a low point in early 2016.
Innovation might get more headlines — just look at Tesla CEO Elon Musk — but in business, it’s the execution that really counts.
Only time will tell how the Bolt and Tesla’s more affordable version of its electric car, the Model 3, stack up in the eyes of consumers, but the early reviews appear to indicate that however trailblazing Tesla might be, GM is doing a lot more to bring electric cars to the masses.
Not only is the Chevy Bolt already available at dealerships today, but it also was named Consumer Reports’ top Compact Green Car for 2018, as well as making the storied publication’s Top Picks of 2018.
And GM appears ready to keep up with demand in a way Tesla simply can’t. Tesla managed just over 100,000 deliveries last year, but GM had just under 400,000 — in Brazil alone. Worldwide, GM sold almost 10 million cars, about 100 for every one that Tesla managed.
Embrace Change Before It Envelopes You
Detroit automakers developed a reputation for being dinosaurs over the years as their market share eroded in the face of competition from Asian carmakers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Barra, though, has taken the reins on building a GM that’s geared toward where the car market is headed, not where it’s been. In addition to the Bolt, GM announced plans in late 2017 for 20 new fully electric car models by 2023, including two by mid-2019.
Barra has also made other deals to take advantage of the future of the car industry, investing $500 million in Lyft, buying up Sidecar, launching its own peer-to-peer car-sharing service called Maven and investing heavily in producing self-driving cars — including plans to have a mass-produced car without any internal controls by 2019.
Make Your Opportunities Everyone’s
Barra might have been named the most powerful woman of 2017 by Fortune, but she doesn’t seem content to simply bask in her own success. She also appears intent on making an effort to help mold a future where more women get opportunities like hers.
The promotion of Dhivya Duryadevara to CFO probably had little to do with anything other than her own qualifications — she’s been at the company for 14 years — but it’s hard not to notice that she’s the first female CFO in the company’s 110-year history and that GM is now only the second Fortune 500 company with two females in its C-suite.
Barra has also been vocal about how the business world can do more to create opportunities for a broader subset of the country, including moving donations from GM to a number of major nonprofits geared toward guiding more women into STEM fields.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
The dress code at GM is just two words: “dress appropriately.” And that’s directly from Barra, who pushed to simplify the dress code while she was the vice president of global human resources back in 2009. She wanted to make it easier for workers of all stripes to come to work ready to focus on making the best cars they can and selling as many of them as possible.
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Believe in Your People
Of course, the deeper meaning behind that simplified dress code is about empowering managers at various levels to make their own decisions about various types of policy. In offering up just a two-word dress code and leaving the interpretation of “appropriate” up to each manager, she showed faith in the people working under her to make smart decisions without micromanagement or excessively detailed guidance from their higher-ups.
Or, as she put it to Quartz earlier this year: “I have a fundamental belief that everyone wants to contribute and do a good job.”
Click through to read more about CEOS who have saved or sunk major corporations.
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