New GM CEO Barra Is More Than a Symbol

The real reason Mary Barra was just named the next CEO of General Motors is reflected in another Motor City news development this week: GM vehicles scored three of the six finalist spots that were announced in the prestigious North American Car and Truck-Utility of the Year awards given at the Detroit auto show next month.

While each was hatched before her time, Barra played an important role in the new versions of the Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Corvette and Chevrolet Silverado that set the pace for best new products in the entire U.S. auto industry this year. And that accomplishment helps explain the most important reason the 51-year-old GM product-development chief will become the company’s next CEO in January.

Sure, there are cries of “girl power” ringing around the country and in Detroit after CEO Dan Akerson tabbed Barra to become the first female head of a major global automaker – and one of the highest-profile women leaders in the world – when he retires in January, somewhat ahead of schedule because of his wife’s grave illness.

But Barra won out over three highly qualified internal male candidates because she was the best choice to lead GM regardless of gender. The breadth of her responsibilities, her accomplishments in each, and her skill at introducing a more-collaborative management style everywhere she went qualified her more highly. And the company will need great leadership to confront post-bailout realities ranging from slowing global economies to its own profit margins to a bevy of best-ever competitors.

“One of my concerns was that someone who knows the business would take over from Akerson, and that has happened,” said David Cole, former head of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., a veteran observer of the industry and son of a former GM president. “It’s really crucial.”

In the hype over Barra’s ascension, in fact, Cole said that it may be as notable that another “manufacturing guy,” former Cummins CEO Theodore Solso, is taking over as chairman from Akerson, who came to GM from a career largely spent in telecom. And two of the men that Barra beat out – GM North America chief Mark Reuss and CFO Dan Ammann – are being redeployed in roles that will make the organization even stronger.

Which brings us to the second reason more important to Barra’s appointment than her gender: Akerson was able to make his last major decision arguably his best one. Cole said that Akerson has made some big mistakes in his tenure – such as pushing the plug-in-hybrid Chevrolet Volt on an American public that obviously wasn’t ready for it – but that he helped redeem himself by plucking Barra out of relative obscurity three years ago and giving her the product-development purview, one of the most important in the company.

“He realized that his most important legacy is to leave behind an organization that is well prepared to deal with the future,” Cole said of Akerson, and “with all of these moves, he has.”

But of course there also is great symbolic value in Barra’s appointment — shattering one of the thickest glass ceilings in business, lending GM a new patina of industrial progressiveness, and no doubt inspiring ranks of new women managers in the years to come that they can succeed even in a traditionally male discipline.









Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.