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Here she shares her life lessons of leadership, including how she's navigating the opportunities and challenges of driving change at a 100-year-old company with 200,000 global employees. "I'm not in a startup, but a start-over."
Her father was a die-maker at a Pontiac plant for almost 40 years. Her first car was a Chevy. And her very first job at GM came at age 18 when she participated in a GM program that helped pay her college tuition. She spent half the year working for the company, initially inspecting fender and hood panels at a Pontiac plant.
"My first job at General Motors was as a quality inspector on the assembly line. I was checking fits between hoods and fenders. I had a little scale and clipboard. At one point, I was probably examining 60 jobs an hour during an eight-hour shift. A job like that teaches you to value all the people who do a job like that."
"My mother worked part-time, but she arranged her schedule so that she was at home when my dad left in the morning and when he returned from work. Before he got home, she would make coffee and some cookies, cake, banana bread, or pie, some kind of sweet. They'd sit at the table and talk about their day. Often, people from the neighborhood would come over.
All of a sudden, it was dinnertime, and she'd put something on the table. Sometimes there wasn't enough for everybody, so she'd make tuna-fish sandwiches. There was a point in my life where I was embarrassed by those tuna-fish sandwiches. Oh, God, Mom's making another…
... and then, at my mother's funeral, my cousin, who is a deaconess, did the eulogy. She started out by asking, "How many people have had a tuna-fish sandwich made by Aunt Eva?" Hands shot up all around the room … and I realized it had nothing to do with tuna fish. When you were at my house, you were going to be fed. You were going to talk. You were going to laugh. It was a very welcoming place."
Barra has been with the company since graduating from Kettering University, then called the General Motors Institute, in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering. She started as a senior engineer at a Pontiac Fiero plant. She was quickly recognized as someone with management potential, and GM sent her to Stanford Business School.
"My husband and I got married right out of college. The only thing we had was our student debt. My husband always says we were a start-up, not a merger."
Immediately after getting her MBA, she got her first job as a GM manager, running manufacturing planning. Then came a series of increasingly visible jobs, including executive assistant to GM's CEO in the mid '90s, fixing a troubled internal communications department, turning around an important and troubled Detroit plant, and bringing data and efficiency to the company's messy human resources department, which earned her a spot on GM's executive committee.
Corporate culture doesn't change quickly, says Barra, but it's critical to have a strong culture to motivate employees and to cultivate an environment that breeds success.
"It distinguishes great companies that last over years and decades from companies that are average, or here and gone the next day," she said.
"But it's not what you say, it's what you do," she says. "If you put some words on a banner, you put them on a poster, you email them, but you don't live them, your people will know, and they won't be all in."
"I'm getting to demonstrate in a very visible way to all 200,000 employees around the globe that we really mean it," says Barra, referring to GM's values and the company's response to high-profile safety recalls announced earlier this year. If your employees and stakeholders know that you're living your values, and you have a unified leadership team that understands the mission and helps drive change, then you can succeed in changing the culture, she says.
Barra is a historic choice to lead the company and a highly qualified one. And although GM is free of its ties to the U.S. government, it still has a great deal of ground to make up, and she has her work cut out for her.
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