A Day in the Life of GM CEO Mary Barra – Wall Street Journal
ON THE WALL of General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s office, a bright space that overlooks the Detroit River, a sign reads “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It’s no wonder she keeps the saying nearby. In February 2014, two weeks after Barra assumed the top position of the third-largest carmaker in the world, the company became engulfed in a serious crisis, a massive recall due to a faulty ignition switch linked to 124 deaths. In the coming months, as the scale of the recall grew from 800,000 to 2.6 million cars, Barra faced both relatives of the victims and a withering congressional panel demanding to know why the company had put fatally dangerous vehicles on the road.
As a longtime veteran of GM,
Barra—who at 54 is the first woman to run a Big 3 automaker—recognized the flaws in the company’s corporate culture. After hiring a former U.S. attorney to conduct an internal probe, she fired 15 employees, instituted an “if you see something, say something” policy and restructured engineering operations to enable quicker responses to potential safety violations. To date, GM has paid more than $900 million in penalties and nearly $600 million to settle death and injury suits, though critics have argued the company still hasn’t been held fully accountable. Barra herself has not minimized the crisis, at one point telling employees, “I never want to put this behind us.”
Raised in Waterford, Michigan, a feeder town for GM, Barra began working for the company at 18. Her lifer status, with roles at nearly every level of the business, from managing a plant to directing HR after the bailout crisis, has afforded her a vast network of in-house contacts, aiding her quest for greater transparency. With her technical knowledge of a car’s inner workings, she has an engineer’s dogged belief in the human power to fix things. “If we can be candid and transparent, there’s nothing we can’t solve,” she says.
This year, GM introduced the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV, beating rival Tesla in the contest to engineer the first affordable electric car with a range of 200 miles. GM is also investing in the ride-sharing economy and in self-driving vehicles—it plans to have a fleet of autonomous vehicles operating on its own campus by the end of the year. Another less-visible sign in Barra’s office features something Sheryl Sandberg said after her husband’s death, a quote that captures both the losses and failures of the past and a desire to push onward: “Let’s kick the s— out of option B.”
Barra by the Numbers
34 model cars scattered throughout Barra’s office, including a mini version of one of her favorites, a Chevrolet Corvette C7.
10 Red Wing games attended, on average, by Barra each year. She’s a season ticket holder.
$16.2 million Barra’s pay package in 2014—80% higher than that of her predecessor, Dan Akerson.
No. 1 Barra’s rank on Fortune’s 2015 list of the Most Powerful Women.
7 seconds Zero to 60 mph acceleration time for the new Chevy Bolt EV.
$500 million Amount GM invested in the ride-sharing service Lyft earlier this year. Under a new program, Lyft drivers in Chicago who give 65 rides a week will be eligible for free use of a GM car.
39 Number of years Barra’s father, Ray Makela, a member of the United Automobile Workers union, worked as a die maker at GM’s Pontiac factory.
10 years old Age at which Barra first fell in love with a car: a red Chevy Camaro convertible.
2 dogs—both Coton de Tulears—owned by Barra with her husband and two kids.