Why I Think Mary Barra Is A Great Leader @GM



Even before Mary Barra became the CEO of General Motors, she was a clear and concise leader. It was just over three years ago when she uttered some simple but yet effective words during a Fortune interview: 

No More Crappy Cars

If you take two minutes to watch the following video, which was made three months before she became the CEO, you can easily see why she was chosen to be the next GM CEO. The lady is amazing as she easily answers questions, scans the audience, and connects with the interviewer. In all the videos I have seen of her while doing research for this article, I have come to realize that she is unflappable, likable and honest.

Just watch how she listens and answers the questions with insightful and specific responses. You can even gain a greater sense of her awareness of issues within and external to GM when you watch the full video. It is clear from a study of this interview that Mary has the right blend of experience, talent, and vision to be an effective leader for GM.

When the interviewer tells her that an analyst said “that she had the hardest job in the global auto industry”, she replied with “I think I have one of the best jobs in the industry”.

What a great response that was! Great leaders do not complain about the burdens and challenges they face. They think positive thoughts and work hard to make the proper decisions to get the jobs done. I think this is what Mary does all the time.

Why I Appreciated Mary’s Comment

I was born in the 1960’s and I was a kid through the 1970’s. This was a time when we had to hope that our car(s) would start on any given day. I can remember my Mom saying: “wouldn’t this frost you!” as she cranked the engine as she and I sat in that cold car during those dark winter nights in Chicago. Many times our cars wouldn’t start, which was a time when crappy cars were being built. This is why I can appreciate Mary’s words.

Mary Becomes CEO

Mary became CEO of GM on Jan 15, 2014, which was three months after that interview was conducted. One month before becoming CEO, however, in Dec 2014, Mary learned about the defective GM ignition switches. This problem would become a big issue for her to resolve during her first and second years of being the GM CEO. This issue put her directly in the hot seat, and I’m not talking about the heated seats we get in our GM cars nowadays.

Although this was a huge problem for GM, Mary was able to testify with honesty, integrity and authenticity about the multitude of issues at GM that lead to so many recalls. If you are so inclined, you could watch nearly 3 hours of intensity, as Mary had to respond to questions related to the faulty ignition switches and the Valukas report. You will see her attention to detail, patience and intelligence on display while she sat in the hot seat.

Under her leadership, new policies and procedures were installed to ensure that problems like this would never recur. I firmly believe that her leadership has been instrumental in improving the quality and reliability of GM cars.

I also know for sure, that the vision she created as a result of this problematic issue is still burning bright and is a primary focal point at GM. A huge amount of work is being done to produce the best and safest cars possible, and for this, I am thankful. For you data geeks, big data and ultra-big data is being used in predictive models to help make sure any emerging safety issues are uncovered before they emerge. This is awesome work and is an excellent application of technology.

The Past Two Years

As she said in the video, Mary just creates the culture that allows success to happen and she gives the employees what they need to do their job. She trusts her employees and gives them the freedom to do their best work. She encourages innovation and creativity, and for this reason, GM has been on a roll (no pun intended) for the past couple of years.

Fast-Forward Three Years After That Interview

Now that some time has elapsed since Mary’s pre-CEO interview, we can ask a strategic question that relates to her success as a leader. The question is this: How is GM doing with respect to building crappy cars?

Well, the Buick brand has now moved into third place in the 2017 Consumer Reports Ranking of Most Reliable Cars. Chevy and Cadillac have also made significant advances in the ranking since 2016. It is obvious that the GM cars have been improved during this time.

Additionally, new car sales continue to be very strong (Figures 1 – 3), with big gains as measured by the year over year comp method. In just about every financial measure that is tracked by GM, the company is doing the best it ever has. These results also indicate that Mary was the right choice to guide GM into the future.


Figure 1 – November 2016 sales show strong increases compared to 2015.


Figure 2 – Strong YOY growth for all four GM brands.


Figure 3 – There is an obvious question that could be asked: Does improved quality rankings lead to more sales? Certainly the biggest change belongs to Buick, which is the highest ranked GM brand in terms of reliability.  Experts will say that this has occurred because Buick has mature models. I say it is because the cars are expertly designed and constructed and that is why I bought one.

Personally, I believe that there is a very strong correlation between the sales increases, and the vehicle safety and quality improvements made during Mary’s tenure. She has been in charge for less than 36 months and GM has gained retail market share in 17 of the past 20 months. That is impressive and I believe that this is not a coincidence. Customers see the quality and safety of these vehicles and they are flocking to GM to get the best automotive value possible.

The quality of the cars I have been driving has delighted me. Whether it be a Buick Enclave, a GMC Sierra, or the Chevy Suburban, I have been very impressed by the quality, responsiveness, the on-board technologies, and the safety features of these cars. In fact, after finishing my testing of the 2015 Enclave (white), I bought a 2016 Enclave (black) because I believed it to be nearly a perfect car for a family of 5.


The Suburban I am now driving essentially controls itself under certain circumstances, like highway driving. The comfort, visibility and safety features on this vehicle are incredible.

When I switch over to drive my Infiniti QX56, I stop and wonder what is wrong with that vehicle. The vehicle is heavy, the acceleration is muted, the steering feels like I’m driving a tank. Even with new struts, the QX56 dives into bumps whereas the Suburban floats over them. In other words, the QX56 feels heavy and sluggish even though it weighs about 220 pounds less (5586 vs 5360 pounds) than the Suburban.

When I directly compare the two, the Suburban feels and handles like a responsive sports car and the QX56 feels like a plodding dinosaur. Quite frankly, I was shocked to experience the difference. The Suburban is such a better vehicle to drive that I have been wondering how the vehicle engineers could have improved the performance of large SUV’s so much in about 10 years. Maybe my comparison isn’t quite fair because the QX56 is 10 years old and the Suburban is new.

By driving these GM cars for the past 2 years, I have concluded that GM has closed many of the gaps on its primary competitors. I personally believe this to be true because my most recent personal cars have been from Lexus (2x), Audi, and Infiniti.

The cars currently being built by GM are no longer those crappy cars that I used to know. I believe that Mary has been a driving force (pun intended) behind this improvement. These cars are being built by a company that has been transformed, and the cars themselves are magnificent. I would not have believed that statement to be true before experiencing these cars first-hand.

Final Thoughts

Maybe I like Mary as much as I do because she said that the Pontiac Firebird is one of her favorite all-time cars. The 1970 Pontiac Firebird Esprit that I owned for a while was definitely one of my favorite cars of all-time, as were the Chevy Chevelle, Camaros and the Pontiac GTO that my good friends owned. I have promised myself to own another early 1970’s Firebird before too many more years go by.


June 18, 2014 Hearing – General Motors Ignition Switch Recall Mary Barra and Anton Valukas testified on General Motor’ internal report on why the automaker waited so long to issue a recall on a defective ignition switch found in certain vehicles.

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