Mary Barra — Leadership Style & Principles
For people like myself who write on leadership, there’s no more compelling story right now than Mary Barra’s tenure at General Motors. How to define the leadership style of Mary Barra, who has been ranked #6 in Forbes’ Power Women list 2020? On which leadership principles did she lead General Motors?
Marry Barra embodies the very essence of a 21st century global leader, and she is a leader whom I have come to truly admire.
This is a factShe has been CEO of General Motors for just three years, but already there is a mountain of lessons in how she has managed not only to survive but to thrive in one of the highest-profile positions of any global business leader — not to mention one of the loftiest perches for any female executive.
Leadership certainly knows no gender.
Before and during her helm, General Motors encountered various crises, including the recall of 30 million cars due to faulty ignitions. But with Mary Barra’s outstanding leadership skills, she was able to weather the challenges and steer GM to be one of today’s largest and most successful automobile manufacturers in the world.
Mary Barra embraced the challenges she faced, found solutions, and successfully evaded the glass cliff on her way.
This is a factHer extensive knowledge of GM’s operations and her ability to deal with people positively helped her remove the company out of the crisis. Overcoming the challenge made her gain much respect from the entire GM team.
Mary Barra is a resilient and an exceptional leader, who does whatever it takes to help her company achieve success.
Mary Barra is a role model for many. Her leadership style is an inspiration for industry leaders in every sector. Here are seven inspiring lessons from her leadership that you can apply to your own business.
Don't Turn a Deaf Ear
Mary Barra recommends asking, “Did you get what you needed from this meeting?” Another question Mary Barra suggests asking consistently is, “What’s your opinion?”
She explains that leaders can continue to improve if they collect accurate information about the current reality.
At the same time, they should discern which feedback is worth taking action on. Mary Barra is humble and collaborative, eager to give credit to her team rather than steal the limelight herself. She exudes a sense of quiet confidence that makes you want to trust and admire her.
It’s OK to admit what you don’t know. It’s OK to ask for help. And it’s more than OK to listen to the people you lead.
This is a factIt’s important to surround yourself with people who will challenge you and tell you when and why you are wrong. And the need to listen doesn’t diminish when you become general manager or CEO — it increases.
Good ideas can come from anywhere. Make sure there’s no fear in the organization, and people feel comfortable to speak up.
Build up a diverse team of people from different industries, countries, genders, and backgrounds. Inclusion is crucial: all employees should feel they have a chance to make an impact.
Look for leadership opportunities where you can utilize kinetic energy to exercise some leadership jiu-jitsu and create positive change.
This is a factIf you are willing to address others in a problem-solving manner, when there is doubt or confusion over a decision or direction being taken, then you will experience more collaboration and more positive energy. Reflecting critically on your own behavior can help you identify how you may inadvertently be contributing to your organization’s problems.
📚 Additional reading
Treat People Right
As GM’s Human Resources department head in 2009, Mary Barra changed its bureaucratic image to a human face with emphasis on personal accountability and responsibility.
She believes that leaders should see each worker as a capable human being, not just a part of the assembly line.
This is a factIf employees are treated with dignity and respect, they feel empowered. As a result, they work better, which is beneficial for the company. In addition, we must be willing to improve the communities where we live and work by.
Leadership lessons from Marry Barra teach us how important it is for leaders to act responsibly for people and the society.
Equileap’s 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality noted that GM is one of just two global businesses that have pay equality in top, middle and bottom bands as well as overall no gender pay gap across the company.
Mary Barra comes across as a genuine, caring, and authentic human being.
A great business leader needs to be strong, dedicated, and sincerely care about the company and its employees. A caring leader is intuitive, is aware of the small things. She notices a change in the mood of someone and will enquire after their wellbeing with open, generative questions which recognize the individual and what is happening for them in the moment.
When people feel safe in their work environment, when they feel that it’s safe for them to show up and fully be themselves, they’re more productive.
They know it’s OK for them to bring their concerns, their strengths, their vulnerabilities and their creativity to their job. And it’s exactly why you ought to work hard to show you care. It’s how your people will know that you have their back and that you will stand by them.
📚 Additional reading
Early on in Mary Barra’s career, her mentor ingrained in her the importance of understanding and appealing to both the intellectual and emotional side of her team. In addition to logical reasoning, you need to be attuned to what people care about — their fears and aspirations.
Know Your Business
To be an effective leader, you need to understand every aspect of your business, so you can see how the different parts connect. Mary Barra has had the benefit of taking on many different roles at GM. If you’ve mainly worked in one function, consider trying out another role to expand the breadth of your experience and expertise.
By many accounts, Mary Barra attributes her success at GM to keeping the company’s interests — and not her own career — the focus of her attention.
This is a factIn approaching every GM assignment as if she would be doing it for the rest of her life, she was able to stay focused on the present. And if a solid foundation is being built in the present, then the future will generally take care of itself.
Having the ability to transcend your personal agenda — and to create value for your company and your employees — is a daily challenge.
Leadership itself is both personal and business. Every leader who wants to make a positive difference must reconcile this contradiction. For example, how do you cuts costs and increase revenues? How do you take charge and let go?
Mary Barra’s career is the epitome of a perfectly executed expanding hedgehog play. She came to know her passion for cars at a very early age.
This is a factThroughout her career she expanded the range of what she’s good at, starting with a foundation in engineering, and quickly acquiring skills in quality control, production, human resources, product development, and supply chain management.
An extraordinary example of her leadership skills is how she put GM back on track from filing bankruptcy to regaining its stature of being one of the most important auto companies in the US in just four years.
She did it by bidding farewell to outmoded operations and prioritizing innovation. On her watch, GM invested millions in electric vehicles and self-driving cars to keep the company profitable in today’s agile world. As a result, GM walloped Tesla by rolling out moderately priced, long-range electric vehicle.
📚 Additional reading
Mary Barra’s decision to take time away from her busy job, to attend the Harvard Business School program, is one indication of the importance Barra places on learning and development. In each of her previous roles she learned crucial new skills.
Long before she became CEO, Mary Barra was known to be open and honest when dealing with other staff. When she was the head of Product Development, she let engineers know that she won’t tolerate any more crappy cars. She told them that she was open to listening to all factors that inhibited high-quality cars’ production.
Mary Barra has always wanted employees to speak up and confront all problems directly.
This is a factThe culture of honesty and speaking up allows everyone at the company to take responsibility for their actions and be accountable for the results. During the crisis, this policy helped her get candid responses from employees, which were instrumental in dealing with GM’s problems.
Effective leaders are always willing to bring order into a chaotic world.
GM’s product development process was in disarray when Mary Barra took over as product chief in 2011. There were 30 different platforms, and inefficiency and poor quality ran rampant. She immediately set to work, rationalizing the product line, improving quality and efficiency, and better aligning the product with customer needs.
When things go wrong, Mary Barra says, you can either bemoan the past, or you can say, “What am I going to do about it?”
This is a factShe credits her can-do attitude in part to her engineering background. She approaches problems with what she calls action orientation and the belief that you can find a solution.
Mary Barra uses her energy to find solutions to problems rather than directly fighting them. Rather than dealing with issues in a controlling manner, she always turns them into opportunities.
She also deals with the sources of the problems directly to ensure that there is no repetition of the circumstances. These actions help her promote the culture of accountability, and the staff understands the importance of responsibility at the workplace.
📚 Additional reading
A common problem with business leaders is that they like to pride themselves on their originality, intelligence and problem-solving skills. The thought of deciding on the “simplest” solution or the “too obvious” choice causes otherwise smart decision makers to bypass the right option.
Don't Forget Your Customers
Your company’s success depends on how well you satisfy your customers. When one day you are leading an organization, you should absolutely be concerned about the bottom line.
Mary Barra has developed a new set of core values that reflect the way in which the company’s objectives — and those of their customers — are essentially woven together.
At GM, the goal is to “transform the world one leader at a time.” It is, in fact, its mantra. Mary Barra describes this goal just as succinctly but with a slightly different focus: “This is all about winning customers one at a time.”
GM listens to customers intently, and never compromises on quality and safety.
This is a factAdditionally, Mary Barra believes that the company’s success greatly depends on relationships established internally and outside the company. Under her leadership, the company acts with integrity and encourages staff to be creative.
During Mary Barra’s tenure, GM had to navigate the U.S. market’s historic shift from cars to SUVs and the rise of technologies such as electric vehicles and vehicle sharing.
The answers to those and other questions will be shaped by a data-driven process the company calls customer first. In essence, it aims to end the days when engineers thought they knew what buyers wanted more than the buyers themselves did.
If you provide the customer what they want and deserve, they shall come.
This is a factPutting the customer first means more than giving in to every customer demand. It takes a detailed analysis of the very company structure. It is important to first know who your customer is: understand their questions, needs, and concerns to best market and cater to them.
Learn To Speak
When leading an organization, especially one with more than 180,000 employees, you need to have a clear and simple message. Without one, the front line will not get or understand the message.
If you want to be an effective leader, you need to excel in communication. In fact, the success of your business relies on it.
GM uses “zero crashes, zero emissions” to help all employees understand the focus of the organization. The company leverages the power of storytelling to ensure that the message sticks.
Is your communication clear, honest and unequivocal? Are you using all available tools to convey, support and promote your leadership messages?
Consider making social medias a place where your employees can connect with your thinking. Your associates want to know about you, how you approach a problem, what is important to you. They talk and speculate about you anyway. Like Mary Barra, tell them who you are and what you are thinking.
During the 1998 General Motors strike, Mary Barra was appointed as the internal communications director to bridge the communication gap between union workers and the management.
This is a factHer leadership style involves giving her subordinates and peers the space to express their opinions. With this communication flair, Mary Barra was able to initiate a communications strategy where communication moved both ways on the hierarchy ladder so that meltdowns could be tackled before they materialized.
Be direct, specific and clear.
Clear-cut communication increases the likelihood that people will comprehend and take action on whatever you’re asking from them. It’s better to over-explain something than to leave room for misunderstanding.
Hard Work Pays Off
For Mary Barra, having the talent is great but it isn’t enough if you want to change the world. You have to work hard to accomplish anything that you ever imagine. It may seem cliché, but this is one of the most valuable lessons that she learned from her parents that she is now using to be an exceptional CEO.
She has been the first female CEO in the automobile industry because she did her best according to her purpose.
This is a factNot only does she pull in huge stacks, she also is the first U.S. woman to be elected the CEO of an automobile manufacturing company. This should be inspiring for women everywhere — even in a traditionally male-dominated industry, a woman’s hard work and perseverance can result with her at the helm in a 21st-Century society.
There’s no substitute for hard work. It builds character, contributes to success, and promotes happiness.
In a globalized economy, you are not only facing competition from your neighbors down the block, but from innovators all over the world. For this reason, it’s critical that your business projects be rooted in the purpose of solving a problem that is so personal and dear to your heart that you will sacrifice almost anything to achieve your goal.
Don’t expect to be a boss that sits behind a big desk all day in a comfy chair.
Do you really want to manage a business and become somebody like that? Why wouldn’t you want to have a better role in your business? Throw on your comfortable work shoes and get stuck in in some way!
Tales of climbing the ladder from clerk to CEO aren’t reserved for the plots of Hollywood movies such as 9 to 5 or Jerry Maguire.
This is a factThe real world is filled with leaders who worked their way up from obscurity to earn millions running huge corporations. How did they do it? Their stories, inspiring and instructive, reveal a drive to succeed, a willingness to buck convention and, of course, an unshakable work ethic.
📚 Additional reading
You need to show your employees how the vision you have for your business relates to their everyday tasks. How will your employees relate to you and your vision if they know you’ve never gotten your hands dirty?
In her quest to redesign GM, Mary Barra drawn on her deep understanding of both human and engineering dynamics. From a human perspective, she amplified and directed her people’s energy by modeling authenticity, courage, integrity and resilience. From an engineering perspective, she employed tried-and-true engineering principles — shared and aggressive goals, collaboration and built-in feedback loops.
With a passion for helping others and remarkable business acumen, Mary Barra is a role model for many.
This is a factMary Barra’s expertise, experiences, and leadership skills helped shift GM’s gears to boost profits and continue to become a successful automobile company.
In addition, remember that many workers want a leader who is authentic and has integrity.
They crave for leaders who encourage them to open up, be honest, and always listen to their issues. Additionally, they also want leaders who treat them with respect, empathy, and fairness.
If you truly want to change the world, you need more than talent. You also need to do the work, because hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.
This is a factEducation will open doors. Talent will open worlds. But it is hard work that will enable you to accomplish more than you ever imagined and will help you make a dent in the universe.
In this world of unbounded opportunity, we all have the opportunity to be successful. Maybe it’s your turn?
The crisis, in fact, opened the curtains to the spectacular display of Mary Barra’s leadership skills and a new and better work culture at GM. What leadership skills are most essential for CEOs to have in a crisis? Share your thoughts in the comments below!