Lessons from Mary Barra, CEO at GM, on leadership

Mary Barra is GM current CEO. She was appointed in January 2014 and she is the first female CEO of a major auto manufacturer. At the time of her appointment, she had been with GM for 33 years, making her a veteran of the company. Barra started working on the assembly line, inspecting fender and hood panels, to help pay her college fees as an 18 years old. She completed her degree in electrical engineering at the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) and then started worked as an engineer at a Pontiac Fiero plant. She was subsequently identified as a potential manager and GM sponsored her MBA at Stanford. After Stanford, Barra rotated through several jobs within GM achieving success in several areas along the way.

Following her appointment in January 2014, GM's recovery from the financial crisis was shaken with an other crisis around quality issues. Starting in February 2014, GM recalled millions of cars with faulty-ignition switches. The faulty-ignition switches caused vehicles to shut off and air bags to fail during an accident which caused over fifty deaths. The problem is that GM knew about the deadly defects for over ten years and as such were subject to fines, criminal investigation and numerous lawsuits. GM needed transformational change and Mary Barra was well positioned to get GM through this crisis because of her work ethics, industry technical knowledge and her credibility.

1. On how she saw the crisis and setting the example as a leader: "I never want to put this behind us, I want to put this painful experience permanently in our collective memories."

2. On her leadership style where she engenders loyalty through example and kindness: "I have a fundamental belief that everyone wants to contribute and do a good job and I am always action-oriented because there’s always a way to move forward."

3. On how to change a culture: "To change a culture, you have to change behaviors. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do."

4. When is it the best time to solve a problem: "The easiest time to solve a problem is when it’s small, we talk to everybody about that: Raise issues (early) so you can get the help to solve them."

5. On how volume and market share can be pervasive: "GM used to be all about sales volume and market share," Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. "Now, if they don’t see a path to profitability and leadership, they get out. The goal is to sell fewer vehicles and make more money. It’s a new GM."

6. On progress vs results: "Don't confuse progress with winning, if the world is improving at 10 percent and you're improving at 2 percent, you might be improving, but you're losing."

7. On her turnaround strategy and taking from the Steve Jobs playbook: "First, stabilize cash flow so we would have the resources to put toward innovation. Second, was to make sure we had the right team in place around ourselves and the right culture upon which to build."

8. On top-down changes and using role models: "Mary believes that if we change the behaviors [of top managers], people who work for us will see that and emulate it."

9. On bottom-up changes and getting help from younger generations: "The skills and assets they bring, their expertise in social media, all these things are having a real impact throughout the company. In some cases, there’s reverse mentoring going on."

10. On her role as CEO: "creating strategy, managing risk, empowering people to execute, and making sure we hold people accountable."

11. On ethical decision making and skin in the game: "There's no decision you should ever make that would embarrass you if it became public."