Mary Barra: What Every B-School Graduate Should Know

The CEO of General Motors shares leadership lessons she’s learned along the way.

June 30, 2016

| by Shana Lynch

General Motors CEO Mary Barra spoke to the GSB graduating class. | Saul Bromberger

In today’s job-hopping culture, Mary Barra is an outlier. The 54-year-old Stanford GSB graduate started at General Motors at age 18, rose in rank and responsibility, and became the automobile giant’s chief executive in 2014.

Under her tenure, GM has excelled. It posted a profit of $9.7 billion in 2015, the highest since its 2009 bankruptcy restructuring. It also beat nearly every carmaker to the first mass-marketed all-electric car and invested heavily in car-sharing and self-driving startups.

Barra has also weathered challenges in her leadership role, including the recall of 30 million cars with faulty ignitions.

Returning to campus for this year’s Stanford Graduate School of Business graduation, Barra shared four leadership lessons with the graduating class. In her words (excerpted from her speech):

Leaders Listen

It’s OK to admit what you don’t know. It’s OK to ask for help. And it’s more than OK to listen to the people you lead. In fact, it’s essential.

It’s important to surround yourself with people who will challenge you and tell you when and why you are wrong.

And the need to listen doesn’t diminish when you become general manager or CEO — it increases.

Leaders Care

I was a student here in the late 1980s, when MBAs were frequently compared to Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall Street. Gordon Gekko’s mantra was simple: “Greed is good.”

Today, many people continue to view the business world with considerable disdain. Gallup’s latest update on confidence in U.S. institutions reports that more than three-quarters of U.S. adults don’t trust “big business.”

As leaders in business, government, nonprofits, NGOs, or wherever your career takes you, you have a responsibility to help change the relationship and the reputation our institutions have with society.

For me, at GM, that starts with customers. And no matter what business you go into, you only win when your customer says you win.

Leaders Inspire

Your company’s success depends on how well you satisfy your customers. When one day you are leading an organization, you should absolutely be concerned about the bottom line.

But as a visionary leader, you should be thinking about more than just the next quarter. You should also be thinking about the next decade, and what your company’s reputation and place in the world will be after 40 quarterly results.

More and more, today’s employees want to be connected to a broader purpose. They want their companies and institutions to make the world a better place.

I believe we can do both. I believe we are required to do both. And I believe it’s up to leaders to set the tone, create the vision, and inspire the behaviors that allow our organizations to best serve society.

If you truly want to ‘change the world,’ you need more than talent.
Mary Barra

It means creating workplaces where employees are empowered to contribute to their full potential. It means working to improve the communities where we live and work by supporting and improving STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education.

It means changing the way we build our products — using renewable energy, creating landfill-free facilities, and working to address climate change. At GM, it means working to reduce and, one day, eliminate the effect our cars have on the environment.

At the end of the day, all businesses are about people first — because the only way we can build genuinely successful businesses is to build lasting relationships inside and outside the company. We do that by holding ourselves accountable, by doing what we say we are going to do, and by inspiring others to strive for something bigger than themselves.

Leaders Work

If you truly want to “change the world,” you need more than talent. You also need to do the work, because hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.

I think about my mom and dad. My parents grew up during the Great Depression. My mom grew up on a farm in Northern Michigan. My dad grew up in an iron-mining area of upper Minnesota. They didn’t have many advantages. They each had only high school degrees. But they believed in the American dream, and they worked hard to achieve it.

They taught my brother and me that there is no substitute for hard work and that work comes before play. They displayed the kind of passion and grit that allowed them not just to raise a family, but to build a foundation from which we could reach even higher.

Education will open doors. Talent will open worlds. But it is hard work that will enable you to accomplish more than you ever imagined.

This is excerpted from Barra’s Stanford GSB commencement speech.

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