Final Inspection

Mary Barra's Leadership Not for Faint of Heart

GM’s faulty-ignition crisis, though unfortunate, presents Barra with a teachable moment, as all eyes focus on the new CEO to see if she has the right stuff to lead the automaker through this crucial time.

Hillary Clinton was among the many voices in January hailing Mary Barra’s rise to power as the first female to be appointed CEO of General Motors.

“You could say she broke the steel ceiling, not the glass ceiling,” the former First Lady, U.S. senator and likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee told more than 4,000 auto dealers during a speech at the annual National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention in New Orleans.

Two months later, Barra, 52, faces her first leadership crisis as GM recalls 1.62 million older cars linked to 12 deaths and 31 crashes. Among them was a teenager who in 2005 lost control of her Chevy Cobalt, and died after hitting a tree.

At issue are defective ignition switches dating back to 2001 that, when jostled, slip out of drive mode and into “accessory,” disabling the engine, power steering, brakes and airbags.

GM admits it knew about the problem and made some design adjustments but never conducted a recall, continuing to sell cars with the faulty part. Rather, it alerted dealers to notify customers to remove unessential items from their key chains, according to a Bloomberg News report.

Such a scenario is every top executive’s nightmare. But it also presents Barra with a teachable moment, as all eyes focus on the new CEO to see if she has the right stuff to lead the automaker through this crucial time. Is she the woman of steel?

It’s a fair question. Referring to her electrical engineering background, Barra has said she hoped her executive appointment would inspire young women, and men, to pursue careers in science. Now she has the opportunity to inspire them to embrace leadership skills as well.

She also singles out her gender when reminding she too is a mom in media interviews and a recent TV spot, as she apologizes for those injured and killed in accidents related to the faulty ignitions and takes responsibility for an internal investigation she believes will help change the way GM responds to vehicle-safety issues.

Her candor is refreshing among top-level executives, and politicians for that matter, who tend to hide behind spokespersons so as not to be associated with failure.

In stepping up, Barra must convince consumers the sins of the fathers are part of the “Old GM” and that the new company has changed. She also must testify before a hostile U.S. House subcommittee April 1, which we know from GM’s financial bailout hearings, holds little affection for the auto industry. All the while keeping the company focused on the competitive road ahead.

But Barra faces a bumpy road if Toyota is any example. The Japanese automaker has been hit with $1.2 billion penalty announced this month resulting from a 4-year criminal probe into its delay in handling potential “sticking” accelerator pedals and floor-mat entrapment, which led to the recall of 10 million vehicles in the U.S.

Barra, who ordered the recall of GM’s defective cars, has made clear her leadership is one of transparency that puts the customer first, noting she has appointed a company veteran to oversee the automaker’s global safety. She already has in place a talented executive team and strong new products supported by more than 200,000 employees worldwide.

Barra has been praised by those who know her as being intelligent yet humble, collaborative but someone who takes charge. All are traits she will call upon as she is challenged to explain why, with her background in manufacturing, she was not aware of the faulty-ignition problem before December.

“To say she is handling the crisis well would be an understatement,” says Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley in a recent commentary about Barra. “But if nobody else will say it, I will: It’s a danged shame this production pileup landed at the feet of the first woman in charge.”

Perhaps we’re making too much of Barra’s gender, but there are a lot of women who feel her pain. I find solace in what she is quoted as saying last year at Inforum, a professional women’s alliance, in addressing the subject of being a female in a male-dominated industry.

“We all come to the table, we all work hard, we all bring our skills, and that’s the way I’ve always thought of it,” Barra says. “I never went and said, ‘That happened to me because I’m a woman.’ I just don’t go there.”

Right on, sister.

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WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.

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David E. Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into WardsAuto.com, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

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