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Mary Barra at GM: First Sure Steps

“Don’t Confuse Progress with Winning”

By Shlomo  Maital      


    I’m following new GM CEO Mary T. Barra closely, after she took over the company on Jan. 15 from Daniel Akerson.  Akerson was appointed by the U.S. Government, which bailed out GM, and saved it from bankruptcy, then sold its GM shares at a profit.  Akerson spent his four years as CEO “cajoling the company to shed its hidebound culture”, according to  Bill Vlasic, New York Times (Jan. 25-26, p. 11).  But Mary Barra has a different message. Speaking to top GM executives at a two-day meeting, her message struck just the right tone. 

   “There is no destination here, this is a continuous improvement journey.  Don’t confuse progress with winning.”

    Barra is a trained engineer and brings shop floor experience to the CEO job.  And she ‘get’s it!’.  The car business is all about building beautiful, sexy, powerful, appealing, attractive, safe, cost-effective fuel-efficient cars and trucks.  It’s not a sport. 

  “Even when you’re leading in a segment, that’s only for the moment,” she cautions.  “You have to continually keep raising the bar for yourself.”

   That’s a powerful message for GM.  It is doing well in the U.S. and China.  U.S. sales rose 7.3 per cent last year, but the car industry itself overall grew by 7.6 per cent.   GM has an 18 per cent market share in the U.S. and has struggled to maintain it.  It lost the global lead to Toyota, which sold 10 m. vehicles last year, more than any other company. 

    Barra is far far less standoffish than her predecessors.  She travels the world, holds small ‘town meetings’ with GM employees, and she is a good listener.  She is also tough.  “If you have a problem you better solve it. Because if you don’t, you won’t be here or the company won’t be here,”  she says.  She has set two ambitious goals for GM – 10 per cent net pre-tax profit margin in North America and breakeven in GM’s losing European operations,  both by 2015. 

     My parents once bought a beautiful coral Oldsmobile with a white vinyl hardtop. It was a beautiful car that not only a mother could love.  GM lost its way when it was led by a series of beancounters who cared nothing about cars.  Can it reinvent itself, and its culture, under Barra?   Could be.  It’s fun to watch her in action.   The future may indeed belong to women managers… see how Marissa Mayer has turned around Yahoo’s fortunes!  And Janet Yellen, who will decide the fate of the dollar, and the U.S. economy.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital