Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Mary Barra: A New Driver at GM

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marybarraSome of you know that my first speech writing work was at General Motors in the 1980s. Don Runkle, then the Chief Engineer at the CPC Division (Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada) was trying to start a revolution of the car guys there and help Chevrolet get it’s brand mojo back. So I’ve been a close follower (and often a critic) of the leadership at GM over the years.

With yesterday’s announcement that Mary Barra will take the top job at GM, I’ve got reason to be enthusiastic about GM. Although I haven’t worked with her, here are three reasons why I think Ms. Barra may be a great choice at GM.

She’s a woman.

Women make 60% of car buying decisions in the U.S. and have an influential voice in 80% of the buying decisions. So a woman CEO at a car company makes sense. She may have a better connection to the way the majority of her customers think than did any of her predecessors. Even the supposedly macho Hummer 2 attracted female buyers in large numbers and, for once, GM got the message, aiming most of their advertising at mothers. Remember the ad featuring the families with their Hummers circled around a campfire, or the one with the mom dropping her middle school son off at school in front of a tough looking gang of boys, who gave him respect for him mom’s Hummer? The message was clear: driving a Hummer will make you and your family more secure. They even tried a battle-of-the-sexes tagline on: “Threaten men in a whole new way.”

But Barra doesn’t have to threaten anybody. She needs to lead a lean and customer focused organization that truly understands the customer base. When I started out in sales back in the Sixties and Seventies, the language of sales training and management was all round conquest and domination of the customer. When the young women of my generation started entering the workforce, one important door that opened for them was in sales, and they changed the conversation. Out went sales assault and in came a culture of collaborative, consultative selling.

We’re now in an era where the same sense of collaboration and consultation is paying off at the highest levels of leadership and we need more women in top roles to help refine that model. Like Ginny Rometti at IBM, Mary Barra will be ideally placed to do that at GM.

She’s an HR leader.

She ran GM’s global HR organization from 2009 to 2011, after having held a long string of leadership positions (including a plant manager post). In the last decade, the HR track has moved to the front of great ways to get the top job. In an industry that has been plagued for decades with people problems, having a strong understanding of what the people of GM need is a plus. GM has made fantastic progress in the past few years as it emerged from bankruptcy but she’s going to need the commitment of every single employee to keep that progress going and turn GM into a company that can compete with Toyota or VW Group to take back the leading position in the auto industry.

She’s lived through the insanity of employees sabotaging production, of plant management sabotaging process improvement and of top management focusing on internal issues instead of customers. Now that GM’s been taken to the woodshed, maybe there’s an opening for a collaborative culture that puts employees first so that they, in turn, will get excited about putting customers first.

She’s an engineer.

Barra started at GM as co-op student at the General Motors Institute and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Her most recent job was as head of Global Product Development and Global Purchasing and Supply Chain. I’m hoping she’s a genius at process innovation because GM needs her to be brilliant at bringing innovation to the product design and development processes and bringing innovation to the production processes. She’ll need to build a culture of quick-to-market thinking with products that customers really crave.

Until the last few years, with a very few exceptions, the products coming out of GM since the 1960s have been monuments to mediocrity. And even then, GM had a great deal of trouble producing even mediocre vehicles to minimum levels of acceptable quality. Thus the loss of half their market share. If GM is to succeed, they have to stop competing on mediocrity and start competing and winning at the highest levels of product innovation and quality. Cadillac has to be able to out-design and out-engineer Bentley, Mercedes, BMW, Range Rover and Audi and out-sell them in Europe and China. Buick needs to establish a mid-market quality and performance niche that competes against similar products from Jaguar, VW Group and Nissan. Chevrolet needs to grab the old Pontiac tag line and build some excitement into the lower end of the market with, again, an unwavering focus on quality and innovation. And GMC needs to build trucks and utility vehicles that are truly “professional grade” and the first choice of the “git ‘er done” crowd and not just badge-engineered Chevy trucks. Anything less than playing to be the very best spells disaster for GM. They’ve got a lot of serious brand building to do and a lot of bridges to mend with customers around the world, and with employees, too.

That takes us back to the first point: she’s a woman. And not, let me stress, a woman in a man’s world. She’s a woman in the world and she has a chance to show us not what she can do, but what the men and women of GM can do. They just paid off their government bailout money yesterday and they have an open road ahead of them. If she can build a culture of collaboration and quality at General Motors, she can lead a global resurgence of American manufacturing.

Let’s wish her luck.

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3 Comments

  1. Bernard La Borie says:

    December 11th, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    cool perspective, good article

  2. david Ralph says:

    December 17th, 2013 at 4:24 am

    Agree totally!

  3. Roger Conant says:

    March 17th, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Best take on Barra I’ve seen.

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