She is the first woman to head a Detroit automaker, and her naming as GM’s new CEO came to many as a surprise. This is mainly because until two years ago she was little known outside the automaker. But her rapid rise inside the company, including a 2011 promotion to senior vice president, was signaled more than a decade ago.
Anyways, GM’s decision to name her – trained as an engineer – extends the ranks of women with prowess in science and technology at the highest levels of corporate America. Barra, 51, joins about 20 women, a third with science backgrounds, who now run U.S. companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
“It’s not too late to buy your daughter a truck for the holidays,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied CEOs. “It’s going to inspire and motivate women and girls. There are a lot of women who have been steered away from engineering and science.”
Barra, who started her career at GM as a plant engineer at the Pontiac Motor Division, will succeed in January Dan Akerson, who turned 65 in October and whose wife was recently diagnosed with cancer. She’s a 33-year GM veteran who turns 52 on Christmas Eve and was marked for future success in the company’s “Progression and Succession” reviews, annual surveys designed to identify young high-potential employees, former GM executives said.
“She was always at the top of that list” in the late 1990s, said Don Hackworth, who retired as head of GM’s North American Car Group in 2001.
Barra’s early identification as a “high-pot” executive led to a job in the corporate suite, as Vice Chairman Harry Pearce’s assistant, when she was still in her 30s.
“It was a great opportunity to get an overview of how the corporation works,” said Michael Losh, GM’s former chief financial officer.
Barra’s long tenure at GM – the Michigan native started as an 18-year-old engineering intern at Pontiac, where her father was a die maker for nearly four decades – might have raised suspicions that she was too much a part of the old regime, which was forced to seek bankruptcy protection and a U.S. government bailout in 2009.
But “she wasn’t part of the established order that destroyed the company,” said a Wall Street investment banker who has worked with GM for decades. “She’s the best of the ‘old GM’ and she’s a pretty modern thinker in terms of how to compete in today’s world.”
Former GM executive Lynn Myers, one of the first women in Detroit to run a car division before her 2004 retirement, said: “This is not business as usual at GM. It’s not like the past. Mary is not afraid to shake the bushes.”
Executives cite Barra’s “radical” restructuring over the past two years of GM’s sprawling and often dysfunctional global product development organization. Barra, mother of a teenage son and daughter, is described by those who know her as approachable, unflappable and inclusive.
The issue of Barra’s gender, she is the first woman CEO in a century-old industry that has been dominated by men, is mentioned frequently, but usually dismissed as the deciding factor in her promotion to GM’s top job.
Via Reuters, Bloomberg