The major challenge facing the 52-year-old electrical engineer and Stanford MBA: How to continue breaking down silos and walls within the U.S. automaker’s historically dysfunctional and disconnected corporate culture and remake GM into a more collaborative and customer-centric enterprise.
When she takes the reins from Dan Akerson on Wednesday, Barra, a Detroit-area native and GM “lifer” who started as an 18-year-old intern in 1980, also will be expected to tackle some unfinished business. Among her tasks: Overhauling GM’s global brands, reviving and returning to profitability the company’s battered European operations, and fattening up profit margins, which lag those of major competitors.
GM under Barra is aiming to shift more vehicles to a handful of core platforms that will offer a greater degree of flexibility and parts interchangeability, thus reducing engineering and production costs. But that shift appears to be at least several years from completion. Barra has demonstrated her technical and financial chops in a variety of key jobs over the past 15 years.
Following a three-year stint as an executive assistant to then-Chairman Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, she was tapped in 1999 to head internal communications, a role in which she helped GM repair relations with the United Auto Workers after a crippling strike in Michigan.
She then spent two years as an executive director in GM’s North American vehicle operations before being assigned in 2003 to oversee the launch of the Cadillac DTS and Buick LeSabre as manager of the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.
One criticism of Barra, according to a former GM executive who worked with her, is that “she was never in a job long enough to have much of an impact.” Several of the people interviewed asked not to be named because they still do business with GM.
Although she has not run a GM operating unit — a traditional stepping stone to the corner office — Barra in the past 10 years has headed three critical areas: Manufacturing engineering, human resources and, most recently, product development. She has made significant contributions in each job.
Her selection as GM’s next CEO could be “the most important decision that Dan Akerson has made,” said analyst and longtime GM-watcher Maryann Keller. “But you won’t know until she actually gets the job and appoints the people that she wants around her to help her finish a job that’s only partly done.”