Career & Success

The Quotable Mary Barra

The new head of General Motors discusses cars, leadership, and the best advice she ever received.

February 25, 2014

| by Loren Mooney



GM CEO Mary Barra (MBA ‘90)

On her management style:

“Collaborative. When we have to make tough decisions, giving direction and setting the strategies for the products of General Motors, there should be constructive tension. We should have vigorous debates … At the end of the day, when the decision has to be made, if we don’t have complete unanimity, I have no qualms about making it. But I want that tension in a constructive way to make sure we evaluate things from every angle. I am pretty hands-on as well. I will call a chief engineer when I am driving a vehicle.” (Interview with the Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2013)

On management:

“If we win the hearts and minds of employees, we’re going to have better business success.” (Fortune video conversation, October 16, 2013)

On the best advice she ever received:

“It probably goes back to my mother, and just the advice of hard work — and there’s no substitute for it.” (ABC News interview, January 2014)

On taking GM’s corporate dress code from 10 pages to “dress appropriately” as head of HR:

“It really became a window into the change that we needed to make at General Motors, because I’d have managers sending me emails or calling me saying, ‘I need you to write it down.’ So I would take them through and say, ‘OK, what do you do?’ You know, ‘I run a group of 20 people. I’m responsible for $10 million of budget, etc.’ And I said, ‘I can trust you with $10 million of budget and supervising 20 people, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ It was kind of a step in empowering. Because we found that sometimes people hid behind the rules and didn’t like them, but didn’t necessarily step up. So this really encouraged people to step up.” (Fortune video conversation)

On the auto bailout and transition:

“The biggest lesson I learned, and I take it to everything I tackle now, large or small, inside of work and outside: If you have a problem, you’ve got to solve it. Because that problem is going to get bigger in six months. It could get bigger in two years. But it’s not going to get smaller with time.” (Inforum, women’s professional development organization interview, March 14, 2012)

On being a woman in leadership:

“I think there are more women in more senior roles than in 1980 when I started. But from my career perspective, I don’t go into a room and take count. I want to be recognized for my contribution and for what I do. Yeah, there were probably times it was to my benefit, and there were probably times when it was not to my benefit. But that is true for everyone. There are always things that potentially impact how you are received. And I just don’t focus on it. I don’t focus on what you can’t control.” (The New York Times, December 10, 2013)

On mentorship:

“You get to a new position, you work really hard and you earn people who are willing to support you, because they see how hard you’re working and they’re willing to extend a bit of their personal capital to say, ‘Yes, I know so-and-so is going to do a great job in this new role.’” (Inforum interview)

On being results-oriented:

“I’m reminded of a plant manager who asked his lead engineer to explain her hiring process. She said, ‘Well, we fill a bathtub with water and we offer the applicant a teaspoon, a teacup, or a bucket. Then we ask him or her to empty the tub.’ ‘I get it,’ the manager said. ‘A go-getter would use the bucket because it’s faster.’ ‘No,’ the engineer said, ‘a go-getter will pull the drain plug.’” (Kettering University commencement address, 2013)

On replacing traditional business executives with leaders who have technical expertise:

“We went back to really empowering the individual who knows every aspect of that vehicle and knows every trade-off they’ve made to get a great vehicle on the road … So every vehicle has its own chief engineer, and it’s single-point accountability … I have seen a real transformation in just the short few months since we’ve made that change, in the sense of ownership and the commitment. Before we had some confusion as to who was really accountable and who was making the call. There’s no confusion now.” (Autoline This Week interview, October 12, 2012)

On failure:

“As Charles Kettering said … ‘The only time you don’t fail is the last time you try something and it actually works.’” (Kettering University commencement address)

On change:

“Not everything needs changing. Some things need protecting. And that can be just as important, challenging and rewarding as changing the world.” (Kettering University commencement address)

On fostering a culture of work/life balance:

“Everybody does a better job when they’re able to balance. It might mean on a certain day I’ve got to leave a little early because I want to see my daughter play volleyball. That doesn’t mean that after we go home, and after we’ve eaten dinner and the kids go to bed, I’m not going to take out the computer and catch up on what I missed. We need to provide that environment. In a world now with our BlackBerrys and our smartphones, we’re always on. We need to find the opportunity not to do everything, but to do the important things.” (Inforum interview)

On strategic innovation in a large company:

“If anyone could predict exactly where we’re going to be in five to 10 years, they’d be very popular. That’s why we’ve got to be prepared. For many years now, General Motors has had an energy diversity policy. We have work going on with CNG [compressed natural gas] vehicles. We have continued work with fuel cell vehicles, with batteries, with improving the internal combustion engine, with hybrids, etc. I really believe it’s not going to be one silver bullet, but it’s going to be many things.” (Autoline This Week interview)

On people’s relationship with their cars:

“There’s days when, after a long day of work you get into your car, and you’re like, this is fun. I get to drive this home.” (Stanford magazine, September/October 2011)

Mary Barra received her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1990.

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