Mary Barra power walks down a long corridor in the Research and Development building at General Motors' Global Technical Center in Warren.
It's a rainy day in early May and Barra's on her way to check in with technicians working on GM's electric vehicle battery cells. Her sharp pace reflects the high-stakes race she's in to transform a company steeped in more than a century of gas-powered engine manufacturing into a more nimble software company that will lead the world in sales of vehicles with electric motors.
In her signature black-leather jacket, a white top, black pants and chunky-heeled boots (no stilettos this time), GM's chair and CEO is stylish, thanks to her shopping buddy and "stylist" daughter, Rachel.
Make no mistake, Barra, 60, has unwavering gravitas. She is one of the most important CEOs GM's had in a long time, a historical figure occupying the job held once by such noted CEOs as Alfred Sloan in the 1920s and Roger Smith in the 1980s.
Like all leaders trying to do something transformational, Barra's burden is monumental, time is of the essence and her legacy is riding on her pulling off the seismic transformation of a 113-year-old car company.
"The competition has only increased because now there are startups and tech companies that want to be in this business, so I do feel the pressure," Barra told the Detroit Free Press. "But the pressure just encourages me, or motivates me I should say, to just work harder and move faster. People ask me, 'what do you worry about?' It’s speed."
Barra's big job
It would be an understatement to describe Barra's job as merely "big."
Her decisions impact the lives of the 157,000 people GM employs worldwide. Then there are the ancillary jobs at the auto suppliers and other players in the industry that are tied to GM, a company valued at about $52.50 billion as of the close of business on May 25. It has facilities in 62 countries and its lineup includes about 100 different models of vehicles globally. Barra also manages the tens of billions of dollars GM invests to build or upgrade its factories around the world.
Yet as Barra (pronounced BAR-uh) steps in to GM's battery cell laboratory that May day, she wears an easy smile because she enjoys checking in with employees. Several technicians look up from their work a bit awestruck at their guest. She quickly disarms them with light conversation.
"I was nervous," Nicole Ellison, supervisor of the team that runs the battery cell lab, said later, noting it was her first time meeting Barra. "But she's very personable and kind. She's also taller than I expected."
Barra, who stands 5 feet, 5 inches, is a lot of things people don't expect once she lets down her guard.
After dinners, she watches TV with her husband. She likes to decompress with "retail therapy." She is allergic to dogs, yet has two pups, and she often reads several books at a time.
She's always articulate until you ask what her favorite vehicle is in GM's lineup. She nearly comes to a standstill in her walk. She is genuine in her inability to choose one, then she finally picks the 2022 GMC Hummer EV pickup because "it's so fun. But ask me that in two months and it might be the (Cadillac) Lyriq."
A man's world
The pressure to succeed is made more intense for Barra by the fact that on Jan. 15, 2014, she became the first woman to run a car company. She remains the only one doing it today. On Jan. 4, 2016, she became GM's chair too.
Her gender means more eyes on her, magnifying her successes and failures in an industry that remains male dominated.
As of January, women comprised just under 25% of the entire auto industry workforce, down two percentage points from 2018, said Jason Miller, associate professor of logistics at Michigan State University. He used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics program for 2022.
Yet for Barra, being a woman in GM's top job does not faze her.
"Even as I started at 18 and the first time I entered an assembly plant, I didn’t say, 'Oh wow, there’s not very many women, do I belong here?’ " Barra said. "My mother raised me to believe, of course I belong here, I had this seat at the table."
She has shown that confidence with impressive sangfroid under scrutiny since Day One, whether it was testifying before Congress during GM's ignition switch crisis in 2014 or keeping GM's upcoming EVs on schedule or reporting several quarters of profit gains amid a global shortage of semiconductor chips over the past 18 months.
Although GM is rolling out its new EVs behind those of Ford Motor Co., the GM-owned Cruise won approval Thursday to launch a commercial fleet of all electric completely self-driving taxis in San Francisco. It's the first-ever in the world to operate in a major city and it is a business that Barra predicts will add $50 billion in revenue by 2030.
The pivotal moment
Yet Barra becomes visibly uncomfortable at any mention she is a historical figure, even though Time Magazine called her "an agent of change" when it named her to last year's Time100 annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. It was her second time on the list.
As for being called a visionary, Barra says, “I think that’s a big title," then she credits others. "What we talk about at General Motors is, 'Looking over the horizon.' I think we looked over the horizon to see there was technology-enabling-change and we wanted to lead it. We benefited from the senior leadership team ... debating it, testing it and bringing their experiences. Then we validated it."
Yet she can recall the pivotal moment when she recognized that driver-assisted technology had evolved enough to spark an epiphany: GM would need to reinvent itself to last another 100 years.
"I remember very vividly," she said. "It was at the end of 2014 and early 2015. I said, 'It’s great that we’re running the business well and we’re making these decisions and we’re rationalizing it, but the game’s changing and we’ve got to lead the game change.' "
'A lonely job'
To manage the pressure, Barra relies on family, free time and books.
When she starts talking family, her voice and body language shift. She leans back, relaxes, there's more laughter, and suddenly, the CEO has left the room. It's just Mary.
It's rare to see that lighter side of her given she is prone to follow a personal mantra daily that keeps her focused on the prize: “Don’t confuse progress with winning.”
Acutely aware that GM has not yet executed her full vision of having every vehicle GM makes be electric by 2035, Barra strives to become a wiser leader and achieve goals faster. Right now she's reading three books, each related to the theme of leadership and transformation:
- "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" by Bill Gates.
- "Let Them Lead: Unexpected Lessons in Leadership from America's Worst High School Hockey Team" by John U. Bacon
- "How to Lead" by David Rubenstein
"I kind of pick different books up at different times," Barra said.
But there's one book she regularly pulls off her shelf: Bob Iger's "Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company."
“It's like he’s sitting across the table from you telling you this story, so it’s captivating," Barra said. "At the end, he has his leadership lessons and learnings. Every now and then, I take the book out and I reread them.”
The lessons that resonate most, she said, are the power of the team and "what people will do if they understand what you want to do and you empower them."
Barra relies on books and sometimes other CEOs for guidance because being a CEO "can be a lonely job," she said. Until she took the top job, she said, "You have someone you worked for. As the CEO you work for your board and you work for your shareholders, but you’re the one who’s living it 24/7."
Catalyst of change
To understand who Barra is today and her task at hand, one must look to her first few months in the biggest job of her life.
Newly minted as GM's CEO, she was thrust on a national stage when she went before Congress to answer for the ignition switch crisis that she inherited. GM had to recall 2.6 million small cars because of a defective ignition switch that could shut off the engine while a car was moving. It resulted in 124 deaths.
Many observers said Barra handled it masterfully by being transparent and contrite.
"She handled it in a way that signaled that GM is going to be different under the new CEO," said Erik Gordon, business professor at Ross School of Business at University of Michigan. "She recognized the human and the humane aspects of it."
GM paid $120 million to settle claims from dozens of states and it paid penalties and settlements of an estimated $2.5 billion, including $900 million to settle a U.S. Department of Justice criminal case. Barra fired several employees and, in April 2014, she started the "Speak up for Safety" program at GM, to rid the automaker of a "don't tell" culture and encourage employees to report vehicle safety concerns. Since inception, there have been 35,842 submissions to the "Speak up for Safety" program, according to GM's 2021 Sustainability Report.
The ignition switch scandal served as a catalyst. It pushed GM toward a crossroads where Barra and her team would improve safety and technology and lay the groundwork for GM's transformation to EVs. It also would lead to dramatic cultural change at GM.
"Everybody was like, 'The culture’s bad, the culture’s bad, it needs to change,' " Barra said. "I was like, 'how do I change the culture?' It made me really impatient because I knew GM was better."
She has been credited with creating a more nimble, less bureaucratic company that's better positioned to compete with EV startups. One example of how she cut through a massive machine's lack of focus and direction was by famously simplifying GM's multipage dress code to two words: Dress Appropriately.
That's led to Work Appropriately, which allows some salaried workers more flexibility to work remotely.
Barra, who has an office in GM's world headquarters on the 38th floor of the Renaissance Center on Detroit's waterfront, practices Work Appropriately saying, "This week, I travel Friday and Monday, I will be at the tech center Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There are some weeks when I might work from home one, two or three days. It varies by week."
Goodbye Old Boys' Club
The GM transformation will require further cultural change.
Two years ago, Barra outlined her plan to make GM, as she put it, the most inclusive company in the world, saying employees who feel they can be themselves at work will do their best work. To help get there, she created the Inclusion Advisory Board, then later launched Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
"Culture is really the stories people tell when they deal with us or are living in the company," Barra said. "To change the stories, it had to change the behavior so people experience something different. We can all change our behavior. Every day, I can work to demonstrate the behaviors the senior leaders, the top 300 leaders in the company," are doing.
Change under Barra is evident to longtime GM insiders such as U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who said GM's transformation started the day it chose a woman as CEO.
Dingell worked at GM from 1976 to August 2009 and has known Barra for many years. Dingell was president of the GM Foundation and executive director of public affairs and community relations when she retired from GM.
“When I was interviewed for my job at GM, I was asked, 'Why would a woman want to work for GM?' " Dingell told the Free Press. "I was sexually harassed, really bad. In those days, I went to a manager and said, ‘This guy is stalking me.’ People I worked with tried to make sure I wasn’t alone. But I was told, 'The 14th floor likes him, so put up with him or leave.' ”
The 14th floor was the executive offices in the old GM headquarters on West Grand Boulevard.
Over the years, Dingell said, many women who worked at GM felt they were competing with each other, not lifting each other up. But Barra was different.
"I would help her and she would help me and we would count on each other. She was nice, not vicious," Dingell said. "I knew, the GM I had known, had changed the day she was named CEO.”
GM isn't the only automaker looking to transform a company. GM's rivals, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis, seek to dominate EV sales too.
All three are in various stages of transformation and the leadership couldn't be more different.
Take Ford CEO Jim Farley who is, in many ways, Barra's polar opposite in terms of personality.
Farley is known to take to Twitter to promote Ford products. He is gregarious, a showman with a knack for generating excitement. He has been an accessible, open book when it comes to talking about his life, including his famous cousin, the late comedian Chris Farley.
Barra is more reserved and understated, though look closely and small peculiarities provide a peek at her personality. Her cellphone sits in a bright cherry-red case, no boring brown or black like many executives might select. And, the phone's alerts are typically turned off to most people except her family.
"I’ll always answer the phone, but I get so many emails, I can’t have every email alert or I’d go crazy," Barra said. "So the only thing that makes noise is either a phone call or when my children or husband text me."
She is most comfortable sticking to GM's business talking points versus her life.
Despite their differences, Farley is full of respect for her, having told the Free Press in a message, "Mary is an amazing leader. Along with her team, they have reinvented GM."
Part of the reinvention included making bold moves, said Morningstar Auto Analyst David Whiston, noting Barra's controversial decision to sell GM's German Opel and United Kingdom Vauxhall brands in 2017.
In hindsight, especially with the war in Ukraine, Whiston calls it "a good move," noting that Europe is "such a crowded mass market" that GM was not likely to sell a big number of cars there.
But, ever evolving, Barra recently said GM will be getting back into Europe, this time to sell EVs.
GM's expansion back into Europe makes sense. It has prioritized electric and autonomous technology development in its capital investments, saying it will spend $35 billion through 2025 to develop the technology. It's funding that on the sales of gasoline-powered big pickups and SUVs, which deliver fat profits.
GM is on schedule to sell 30 new EVs globally by 2025, including the 2023 Cadillac Lyriq SUV. Barra has a target to sell 1 million EVs in North America by mid-decade.
GM market share
There are Barra skeptics.
Some blame her for GM's loss of U.S. market share even though GM’s market share had been declining for years before Barra was named CEO.
Since she took the helm, the company's market share has declined by 3.2 percentage points, according to data from Cox Automotive. It fell to a low of 13.2% in the fourth quarter last year. It rose to 15.5% in the first quarter this year, but that is still below the 16.3% a year earlier and far from the 17% to 18% it was last decade.
"General Motors' decline in market share is significant, but CEO Mary Barra has made clear her focus is on profitability, not volume or market share," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Cox Automotive.
Last year, Toyota Motor North America stole the U.S. sales crown from GM after GM held it for decades. Toyota outsold GM again in the first quarter this year. But Barra points to the global shortage of chips, which Toyota managed better.
"With the plan that we have — that we’re executing this year — if there isn’t dramatic disruptions, you’ll see us be back in a leadership position," Barra told the Free Press.
GM's stock price, which partly determines GM's value, keeps the automaker undervalued in comparison with some rivals. Barra has openly expressed frustration about this.
Blindsiding the UAW
Then there is the union. For change to happen across all of GM, Barra must have the support of the UAW International and the hourly workforce.
But relations have been rocky at times.
The UAW ordered a six-week strike against GM in 2019 after Barra said GM would shut down four U.S. factories. In the end, GM closed three factories.
Then, in April 2021, GM declared it would invest $1 billion to build EVs in its plant in Ramos Arizpe, Coahuila, Mexico. The UAW declared that move, "a slap in the face."
Congresswoman Dingell phoned Barra, saying that no one at GM had warned then-UAW President Rory Gamble of the move to invest in Mexico.
" 'You had blindsided him,' ” Dingell said she told Barra. Since then, Barra has worked to build the relationship and regularly checks in with key union and community leaders, Dingell said.
"Mary has made me promise that I would always call her directly when I see a problem," Dingell said. "I do it.”
As the Free Press reported earlier, Barra and Gamble did improve their relationship before he retired in June 2021. He did not reply to Free Press requests for comment for this article.
The UAW declined to comment on current President Ray Curry's relationship with Barra. But Barra said of it, "We have a very open, productive relationship. We meet on a regular basis and we know how to connect with each other any time if necessary. We talk openly about opportunities and challenges.”
Ford's image machine
There have been some other missteps on the path to electrification.
Last year, GM issued a global recall of all 2017-22 model year Chevrolet Bolts and Bolt EUVs because the batteries could catch fire. The batteries were made by LG Energy Solution, still it was a "black eye" for an automaker that wants to eventually sell all EVs, Gordon said.
To avoid that happening again, GM plans to build every part of its EVs, including the battery cells and manufacturing of the battery packs, on its Ultium platform. And GM has said Ultium will allow it to build a variety of EVs more cheaply, which Barra said is crucial to GM succeeding as an EV player.
But GM also must repair its image, Gordon said. In the past, Ford had been perceived to be behind GM in EV development, but now it is viewed as ahead of GM.
Ford is bringing the F-150 Lightning EV pickup to market now, for example, and GM's Silverado EV pickup won't come to market until spring next year. Likewise, Ford had the Mustang Mach-E out well before GM brought out the 2022 GMC Hummer EV and the Cadillac Lyriq SUV, which is in production now.
"She’s lost the public image battle. If a new lightbulb is installed in an office at Ford, Ford somehow gets credit for its electrification efforts," Gordon said. "It’s image-shaping machine is working superbly, GM’s not so much.”
But Barra does not get enough credit for her decision to invest in Cruise — of which GM now owns an 80% stake — and make GM a leading player in self-driving technology, Whiston said. Still, he, too, would "like to see more battery electric vehicles from GM already out."
So would Barra as she ponders GM's speed to market.
Her 12-hour days
Barra, already, is living the life of an EV owner.
Last fall, her daily ride was one of the Bolts that was under recall. But her husband and son are Camaro and Firebird enthusiasts. Barra has said the family also owns a Corvette and a Hummer EV.
Barra started her career at GM in 1980 as a co-op student checking fender panels and inspecting hoods at Pontiac Motor Division in Pontiac. Her father also had worked there as a diemaker for 40 years.
She graduated from Kettering (then called General Motors Institute) in 1985 with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and started full-time at the company. In 1990, she earned an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
She married Tony Barra just after graduating from college. He's a retired consultant and their children — Rachel Barra, 23, and Nicholas Barra, 25 — both graduated from Duke University and live out of state.
As empty nesters, Barra and her husband share their Northville Township home with two Coton de Tuléar dogs named Marcy and Hunter, Barra said. She said that breed is hypoallergenic.
It's not unusual for Barra to start the day at 7 a.m. with back-to-back meetings lasting until noon, but she said she doesn't keep track of how many hours a week she works, only that the days are long.
"My husband and I will be sitting on the couch watching TV after dinner and I’m catching up on emails or looking at things to be prepared for the next day," Barra said. "That’s when it kind of stretches into a 12-hour day.”
Barra tries to take most Saturdays off to recharge, and her favorite way to do that is with "retail therapy" at Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue department stores.
At this, Barra suddenly breaks into a smile and reveals that her daughter is her "stylist." In fact, Rachel Barra is probably the one person on the planet with the power to send a CEO back upstairs to change.
"I came down one day and she was eating breakfast — she might have been in middle school or early high school — she looked at me and said, ‘Make this the last day you wear that suit,' " Barra said, laughing.
That was before Barra was CEO, but the gray suit was "a little out of style," Barra said, adding, "I literally ran upstairs and changed because I was like, 'I just can’t have it in my head all day that this is the last day I’m going to wear this suit.' "
Her daughter still has the power to veto an outfit Barra selects and she encourages Barra to try new styles.
“She’s like my yay/nay ... occasionally shops with me," Barra said of her daughter. "But I’ll be in a store and take a picture and I’ll be like, 'What do you think?' It happened on Saturday (April 30). She gave me an A."
Rachel was the influence behind Barra's iconic black leather 'power' jacket, which other female executives have adopted, including GM CMO Deborah Wahl.
Fortune magazine did a 2019 article on "How leather jackets became the new power blazer" and credited Barra for introducing the look, wearing it to shareholder meetings, media interviews and a host of other events.
"I work to find my own style," Barra said. "I don’t know, I just had a style that worked for me.”
Listening to 'Aunt Eva'
One of Barra's biggest influences in her life was her mother, Eva Makela.
Barra and her older brother, Paul Makela, were the first in her immediate family to graduate from college largely due to Eva's prodding. Paul Makela is a gynecologist in Livonia.
Her mother was raised on a farm in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, with seven siblings. She was poor as a child so young Mary's and Paul's cousins knew the drill when it came to conversations with "Aunt Eva."
"Everyone knew if you talked to Aunt Eva, you were going to be told, 'You have to go to college,' " Barra said. "She didn’t care what you studied, she just believed that was a gateway to a better life."
Barra's father, Ray Makela, grew up in northern Minnesota and earned a Gold Star and a Purple Heart serving in World War II, Barra said.
When she started at GM, Barra's competence was apparent, but her confidence was not, said some who watched her come up the ranks.
Bob Lutz, 90, who retired as GM's vice chairman in 2010, said he first met Barra in the early 2000s. She was plant manager of Detroit Hamtramck Assembly plant in 2003, now called Factory Zero. In 2004 through 2008, she was executive director of Vehicle Manufacturing Engineering. Lutz remembers her in some meetings.
He described Barra as, "Very attentive and never said very much, seemed like a smart woman who got the job done. But I never had her pegged for a future CEO, not ever. She was too quiet and not assertive enough. Rarely, if ever, spoke up. Usually, those kind of people don’t have leadership personality."
It was an observation Barra's mentors noted too.
"I’ve had so many people along the way invest in my career and give me great advice. Like, as a woman, stop saying 'I’m sorry' all the time," Barra said. "Or, 'Have a point of view, Mary. Make sure your voice is heard. Share what you’re thinking.' "
Most importantly, leaders gave her a shot. Barra said she was "not the obvious choice" for plant manager at Detroit-Hamtramck, "but they gave me an opportunity."
Lutz said, in terms of profitability and positioning GM for the future, "She’s the best CEO GM ever has had, far better than any of the males I remember. The job that she is doing for shareholders is good."
But Lutz said he sees challenges with GM's speed, the same issue that worries Barra.
Lutz noted that GM moved fast to launch BrightDrop, its new electric commercial delivery van and software business. GM developed the BrightDrop Zevo 600 commercial delivery van in just 20 months.
"BrightDrop has been brought to market with absolutely astonishing speed, totally unlike the General Motors I know and love," Lutz said. "On the other hand, if you look at electric vehicles in general, Ford is ahead of GM. So with all that speed, how did that happen?”
The global gasp?
Barra is acutely aware of GM's progress and its potential pitfalls, but if anyone can execute, it is Barra, said Mary Henige, who owns Magnetica Communications consulting firm in Beverly Hills, Michigan.
Henige retired from a 29-year career at GM in 2015, last serving as communications director for the Global Connected Customer Experience.
She first met Barra in the 1990s when Barra was director of internal communications. Barra was the first female GM executive that Henige saw who was pregnant.
"So that in a way was somewhat barrier breaking," Henige said, adding that Barra also championed other GM female executives.
"I think the women at GM looked up to her because of how her career would go, but to her it wasn’t a big deal," Henige said. "She was just doing her job. But she was always smart, kind and approachable. She made clear decisions too.”
The day of Dec. 10, 2013, is when GM announced Barra would be the new CEO. It is seared into Henige's memory.
The news was highly guarded. So Henige set up a "war room" to manage the news and waited.
GM leaders announced Barra's appointment live. Henige and her team heard it for the first time with the rest of the world.
"For a second, it was silent," Henige said of the war room. "Then there was the gasp! It was the most exciting and exhilarating day for us because social media went crazy. Within three hours, Mary Barra was trending globally."
Barra, who had been mentally preparing for how she would lead if she got the job, had learned the news just days prior and was reeling.
"I remember I was called in and (then CEO) Dan Akerson told me and then I was pulled into the boardroom and I didn’t even have time to text my husband," Barra said. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God! This is like incredible' and all I wanted to do was text him."
The two went out to dinner to celebrate alone since the news would not be given to the rest of the world for a few days.
The part about being the first female CEO, "didn’t really hit me," Barra said.
But it hit the rest of the world. Business leaders and movie stars, such as Bette Midler, were tweeting about GM's new female CEO, Henige recalled. Barra had about 100 followers on Twitter at the time, Henige said. Today, she has nearly 62,000.
"This was a great sign of hope. She earned that job," Henige said. "We want to be different and we want change and we’ll have this great leader who knows employees and cares. I was really proud. People sent me notes congratulating me for working at a company that has a woman CEO.”
Pride of family
Back in the Tech Center's R&D building that rainy May day, Barra speaks during the interview of her life path and the journey ahead with moments of laughter, passion and pragmatism.
Her mother and father, powerful influences, died in 2004 and 2006, respectively. They never saw her become CEO. But her older cousins are always there to remind her, " 'Your mom and dad are so proud.’ ”
Barra's pride comes in being a mother herself. No matter what job she was in at GM, even as CEO, she always made her kids her priority.
"One of the things I know is sometimes the most urgent, is not the most important," Barra said.
She wants to continue to create a corporate culture where GM employees can find a work-life balance like she did.
"I’ve always tried to make sure, when my kids were home, that I was home for dinner, even if that meant I was going to work later or if dinner was at 8:30 because they were coming home from their sporting practices at that time," Barra said. "I tried to go to every game, because I knew that was a time I’d never get back."
Leaving a legacy
There's been no public talk of a succession plan if Barra were to leave her job. She is in good health.
But a CEO job can, in many cases, be short-lived. It also can be a long haul, depending on the job they do. GM's Sloan served nearly 34 years as GM's leader, the last 20 as chairman, according to his obituary in the New York Times in 1966.
Rick Wagoner became GM's CEO in 2000 and was ousted in 2009 after the company filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection. Then GM had a series of short-lived CEOs before Barra got the job.
In Barra's case, she is far from the finish line with her vision for GM.
"Nobody asks this question, but it’s a crazy good question," said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for Leadership Studies at Yale School of Management. "In 2014, the people who could have gotten her job are still there. No one thought those passed-over stars would stay, but they did.”
GM spokesman Pat Morrissey said it is not a topic Barra would discuss publicly.
So, then ask her what she wants as her legacy. She won't give you a direct answer. She will give you a good-natured, but firm retort, "Don’t write me off; I plan on being here for a while."
And with that, Mary fades and Barra the CEO is back, ready to power walk GM's R&D halls to keep everyone on schedule.
This story has been updated to state Barra's first job was at the Pontiac Motor Division in Pontiac and to clarify that Cruise is the first company to have a self-driving taxi in a major city