It is now official. Girls like cars. And car companies know how to be driven by women.
The appointment of Mary Barra as CEO-to-be of General Motors is a signal to car-lovers everywhere that the company is serious about its products and vehicle innovation. An engineer with a diemaker father who worked in a Pontiac plant, Barra is a 33-year company veteran. In her current job as executive vice president of global product development, she is responsible for the lineup of the future and the components that will make cars greener, safer, more user-friendly. The centrality of innovation to the future — electric cars, hybrids, self-driving cars, and beyond — makes her experience pivotal. This is a new GM.
Barra began her career at the old GM as a young student engineer. Around the same time, I first visited GM executive floors and factory floors throughout Michigan as a young professor and consultant. My book Men and Women of the Corporation, which looked inside an anonymous industrial corporation (not GM) had recently been published, and I was in demand to explain to executives why their corporate structures and cultures set some people on a path to success (generally men who resembled the other men in power) and systematically ignored others equally talented.
I came to know most of the significant large companies of that time. The old GM was the most macho and woman-unfriendly of them all.
This situation was untenable. American manufacturing companies were falling behind because of hidebound, privilege-laden bureaucracies that squashed new ideas, failed to listen to voices from below, behaved arrogantly toward customers, and generally stifled innovation. GM was trying to change its culture (and I credited the company for that in my book The Change Masters). But it was too insular to make much progress. GM’s way of change was to leave the mainstream establishment untouched while setting up a separate unit to try to do it all differently – NUMMI, a joint venture with Toyota in California, or the now-defunct innovative Saturn subsidiary.
Meanwhile, GM was nurturing female talent in its classrooms. Little did any of us know then, but two of the world’s most powerful future CEOs – the future heads of Fortune 20 companies — were getting their engineering training at General Motors Institute — Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, and Mary Barra.
“What’s good for General Motors is good for America” has been derided endlessly as a joke of a slogan from the military-industrial complex – but this time I sincerely mean it.
Mary Barra is good for GM first and foremost because she’s an engineer who cares about cars. She is good for GM because she reflects the new culture of teamwork and collaboration. She knows the people side as the former head of HR. She is a clearly a team player with the support of her peers, such as CFO Dan Ammann, promoted to president working with Barra. In July, Barra and Amman came together to a high-level executive program at Harvard Business School, Leading the Global Company, which I taught with several colleagues. In both of them I saw the listening-learning embrace-differences style of leaders of the future, and no traces of the arrogant know-it-all attitude from GM’s Detroit-centric days.
It’s good for America for GM to have a CEO who is a car and truck person and who also happens to be a woman. It’s good for America to inspire more students to find opportunities in vehicle engineering rather than financial engineering. It’s good for America to encourage young women to study STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), and then to seek careers in manufacturing industries that lose their men’s club taint. The nation desperately needs more STEM graduates, and the pool must be enlarged to include women.
Barra has been named CEO because she earned it, by demonstrating technical and managerial competence over 33 years. I’ll bet she doesn’t want to be a symbol, that she just wants to do her job and grow the company to which she has dedicated her life. But like it or not, as the head of one of the world’s largest auto companies, her very presence sends messages that will reverberate around the world. (For Saudi Arabia, for example, the message is that women belong in the driver’s seat.)
The idea of a woman CEO of an auto company will reverberate at home too. It means one more barrier broken, one more sign that women can be and do anything. And for all the parents who are wondering what gifts to get their daughters for the holidays, I say the more toy cars, the better. Start early, and go far. It works. Barra is one more proof that girls, too, like cars.