Visionary women in business: Mary Barra (Chairman & CEO, GM)

If someone were to make a movie out of Mary Barra’s life, they would have enough material to deal with. For one thing, the story arc of a woman who began working for General Motors(GM) at 18 and went on to become the company’s present Chairman and CEO is nothing short of dramatic. The fact that Barra’s first stint with GM was in a simple role that had her inspecting the fender panels and hoods of the Pontiac Grand Prix adds even more drama to the story.

Today, Mary Barra is the first woman to lead any of the Big Three automobile manufacturers in America- Fiat Chrysler, Ford and GM.

Women hold immense potential right from the start. Transforming that potential to leadership ability is a goal worth pursuing.

Leading with Uniqueness

The 56 year old has proven herself savvy in this age of young tech entrepreneurs, in a business landscape which continually gets rearranged with disruption. For under Barra’s leadership, GM has pushed Tesla behind in the electric vehicle business race, by bringing to the market Chevrolet Bolt EV- the battery of which lasts longer than that of Tesla’s super-hyped Model 3.

Now, the Bolt EV is the biggest selling car in the American non-luxury electric car segment. In the last twelve months, the stock for GM has gone up by an impressive 25 percent. Also, in 2016, GM’s revenue shot up 9 percent- the company’s biggest sales growth in years.

This ability of a company that started operations in 1908 to surpass one of the hottest tech firms of the new century points to its leader’s Uniqueness. Uniqueness is a force by which a change agent could see things afresh, so that new possibilities could be seized upon. It’s a force that brilliant leaders like Barra wield with formidable poise, driving their organizations to even greater heights.

Creating vision

Impressive as the accounts figures GM has clocked in under Barra, the CEO’s vision for the company comes from a different angle.

GM faced one of its worst scandals in history when faulty ignition switches in their cars led to 124 deaths. This happened soon after Barra took charge. Barra made the decision to recall 2.6 million GM cars because of the issue. Instead of trying to savoid associating the problem with the firm, she decided that the company should take responsibility for what happened. The future trajectory she charted for GM was based on ‘transparency.’ Policies were introduced by which workers should flag any problems- no matter how minor. This brought about a sea shift in the company culture. The vision which Barra pursues for GM now is simple yet significant: No crashes, no emissions.

The brilliance of stepping up to face a difficult situation, and creating a vision which not only resonates on an emotional level, but also makes for a sustainable business model couldn’t be overstated. Barra stresses that an organization’s decisions should resonate well with both the employees’ logical and emotional selves. This ethos is well-reflected in the vision she created for the company.

Knowing the context

Over the decades, Mary Barra has worked in different roles across hierarchy levels in GM. In an interview, she says how important it is to know your business inside out. She is talking about Context, of which we have written elsewhere in this blog.

Context is made of multiple factors within the container or organization in which you function- encompassing both the past and the present. The deeper your understanding of the context, the better you would be able to manage and lead the container. Barra certainly seems to benefit from this.

Balancing personal and professional selves is not an impossibility

On women at the workplace

Barra has sage advice for women who seek for, or try to excel in professional careers. She urges women not to exit a career branch too early in their professional lives. Such exits are not uncommon- driven mostly by the fear of possible future failure. Barra says you shouldn’t be hasty in cutting yourself away just because of what you think might happen in the future.

Such fears and apprehensions are all too human. But that’s not to say that they don’t pull you back as a change agent in your organization. If overcoming such mental blocks is proving to be a problem, you could benefit from the Clean Slate session, which forms part of Temenos Vision Lab or TVL. Clean Slate is designed to help you lose apprehensions and fears and move ahead with confidence, while TVL helps you discover your True Personal Vision and your team a Compelling Shared Vision.

Another value Barra exhorts is in balancing personal and professional selves, never to dismiss that particular balancing act as an impossibility.

Speaking about women at the workplace, GM also recently announced their first Chief Financial Officer who would report to Barra. The new CFO, Dhivya Suryadevara was born in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. She will take charge on September 1. That’s more empowerment for women, especially women hailing from the non-European nations.

An upcoming TVL exclusively for women

On the blind spot of not taking feedback

A key business lesson Barra likes to impress upon change agents is that they should get meaningful feedback from their employees.

After a meeting with your employees, it’s important to know whether they  got what they needed from the meeting. Also, you shouldn’t be wary of asking employees for their opinions on your ideas and prospective policy decisions. According to Barra, by always understanding the present reality, leaders could improve continually. You can learn more about common leadership blind spots here.

Mary Barra(Source: Wikimedia commons)

A short video below, to help you understand more on women’s TVL:

Banner image credits: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For change agents and leaders, not to benefit from meaningful events and gatherings is a missed opportunity! We invite you to indulge in some of the most transformational events from Temenos; designed with hard-earned understanding, organized just for you.

Temenos Vision Lab- Online ( June 29, 2018)

We invite you to this special gathering, which brings together a group of wonderful people who fill workplaces with joy and energy. By connecting with each other, you embark on a journey that leads to better clarity about the changes you seek, gain collaboration opportunities and leave with a concrete action plan.

Temenos Vision Lab- Amsterdam, Netherlands( Nov 2, 2018)

Another venue to take an exquisite inner journey, to find your true Vision.

Temenos Effect Gathering 2018- Bengaluru, India(Dec 8 to Dec 9, 2018)

An event dedicated to the idea of personal mastery, for nurturing your beautiful self, for change agents and leaders to become their true selves.

Women In Tech Regatta 2018- Amsterdam, Netherlands(Oct 22 to Nov 2, 2018)

A week-long event aimed to help women in the technology sector connect with peers, resources and mentors.

For more details, visit our website -

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