Mary Barra: Simplify Bureaucracy, and Don’t Be Afraid To Job Hop

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Mary Barra: Simplify Bureaucracy, and Don’t Be Afraid To Job Hop

The CEO of GM discusses leadership lessons and the future of self-driving cars.
Mary Barra. | ToniBird Photography
The product-development cycle at GM used to be measured in years; these days it works at “startup speed,” CEO Mary Barra says. | ToniBird Photography

Running a 109-year-old automobile company in the age of software, ride sharing, and self-driving cars is the challenge faced by General Motors CEO and Chairwoman Mary Barra. In the three-and-a-half years she’s steered the iconic carmaker, GM’s work force has entered a period of radical change. Nearly 40% of its salaried employees have been with the company fewer than five years, she says.

Barra’s company used to measure product development cycles in four- or five-year increments; now it’s learning to make changes in areas like its car-sharing program on a weekly basis, she says. Buying Cruise Automation — a developer of autonomous vehicle technology — last year adds more than new technology to GM; it also drives the whole company “to work at startup speed,” she recently told a group of Stanford Graduate School of Business students.

Life is too short to work for a company or be in a position that you don't love.
Mary Barra

Although she’s one of the most powerful women in the business world and believes that diversity is critical to the success of GM, Barra sees herself as a champion of both men and women. “When you solve issues for women, you solve issues for everyone, because a lot of the time men have the same issues,” she says.

During a View From The Top appearance on May 4, Barra, who earned her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1990, spoke about the future of the auto business and her thoughts on managing a global organization in a period of rapid technological and social change.

How To Handle a Crisis

Shortly after becoming CEO, Barra was faced with a major crisis: Faulty ignition switches in some GM cars were causing serious, even fatal, accidents. In managing the situation, Barra says, “We were guided by three principles: doing the right thing for the customer, being transparent, and doing everything in our power to make sure it never happened again.” Although it’s important to answer questions as soon as possible, “you can’t answer questions you don’t know the answer to,” says Barra.

Enabling a Turnaround

Before she became CEO, Barra was part of GM’s senior leadership team and had been working to bring the company, founded in 1908, into the digital age. Her priorities included simplifying the company and eliminating bureaucracy. “If you believe that most people come to work every day and want to do a good job, then what's getting in their way? Do we have an environment, a collaborative environment, and the tools that are necessary so they can do their best work? Or is it painful to get the most simple task done?” she says.

Job-Hopping Is OK

Barra has worked at GM for 37 years, but she doesn’t believe that a long tenure at a company necessarily makes a potential hire a good one, nor does she think job-hopping is necessarily a negative.

People often leave jobs for good reasons, she says. “Life is too short to work for a company or be in a position that you don't love.” But if someone has held numerous positions in a short period of time, Barra says she might want to drill down to see if there’s an underlying issue that prompted the departures. Ultimately though, Barra adds, the issue isn’t long tenure versus short tenure. “It's really about the skills and abilities and experiences that they bring and the leadership that they bring.”

Learn How To Be Negative

Giving positive feedback is easy, but managers must learn how to be critical as well, Barra says. At GM, the senior leadership team has several off-sites a year where they learn how to give each other negative feedback that is also constructive. They can have a direct conversation where “I don’t agree with you and it’s not personal,” Barra says.

Self-Driving Cars Will Remain Rare for Years

An autonomous vehicle needs to be aware of exactly where it is, what’s happening around it, and what is the safest and most efficient route to take, says Barra. A key enabling factor is vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Although some of that capability can be added to existing cars — replacing the nation’s entire fleet of some 240 million conventional vehicles adds up to “a long journey” since only about 17.5 million new cars are sold in the U.S. each year, she says.

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